Tisha B'Av and a Temple of Text

Wednesday, July 7, 2021
With Tisha B’Av nearly upon us, thoughts will soon turn to the bitterness of the Jewish people’s historical tragedies, chief among them being the twice-over destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is on this day that the rabbis instituted remembrance for this calamity, as well as several others – the failure of the scouts in parashat Shlach l’cha, the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt, and more recent events including various expulsions of Jews from around Europe.

Yet this difficult day brings with it a complicated history. The relationship of the Jews to the Temple is never simple, and the historical observance of Tisha B’Av illustrates this point. As early as the late-Mishnaic period, the sage Rabbi Judah HaNasi considered annulling the day entirely as the community’s intimate connection to the Temple dwindled (Megillah 5b). In 1666, the messianic leader Sabbatai Zevi annulled that year’s mourning, calling for a day of rejoicing and feasting as he proclaimed himself the Redeemer and the exile over. In later eras, Jewish communities emphasized contemporary tragedies, such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, and reinvigorated the day’s meaning. In the Reform community, sacrificial Temple worship never held a central theological role, and so Tisha B’Av’s importance was downplayed, though its observance has seen a resurgence in recent years. In religious Zionist communities, the Six-Day War led to a reevaluation of Jerusalem’s status as “destroyed,” with Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren revising the liturgical references to Jerusalem’s destruction from the present tense to the past tense.

For all the varied conceptions of the Temple’s role and place in Jewish life today, one question looms – what did it look like? Artistic depictions of it have not always been consistent. In the medieval period, some illustrations even chose to mimic the form of the Dome of the Rock which now resides on the Temple Mount. As is so often the case, the best way to learn about the Temple, or anything in the Jewish tradition, may be to look to our texts, from which the layout of Temple can be studied and rendered. Or, as in the particular case of an 18th century Dutch broadside, the Temple can be constructed from text itself!

Here we see a labor of great care and focused intent – the manuscript broadside depicts the Temple in micrography, an art form in which forms and figures are composed from extremely small writing. The Temple is shown complete with its ritual objects, sacrificial altar, priests and attendants, and animals for offering, and the sky and cityscape of Jerusalem in the background. Shining down upon the entire scene is the ineffable name of God.

A key at the bottom identifies each of the elements and the sources for the very Biblical passages used to illustrate the element’s composition and associated practices of the Temple. The micrographic lettering is a careful and precise Dutch, each letter measuring only one millimeter in height! This is one Temple reconstruction that everyone can admire!


Contributed by Jason Schapera, Library Digitization Specialist

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