Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple

Until its destruction, the Jerusalem Temple was the religious center of Jewish life. It was there that hereditary priests and levites offered the daily elaborate, covenant-maintaining sacrificial worship commanded by God in the Torah (Pentateuch). Individual Jews, even from afar, participated vicariously through their annual half-shekel tax (Ex 31:13-16) and by local gatherings when “their priests” took their turn (m. Taan. 3). Crowds gathered for the three annual pilgrimage festivals; others offered personal sacrifices when possible– in thanksgiving, or for purification, including from sins.[1]

In the summer of 70 CE,  the Romans utterly destroyed the entire edifice as they quashed the Judean revolt. After the failure  of a second revolt in 135 CE, the Romans banished Jews from the city and built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Because Deuteronomy 12 limited sacrificial worship to “the place which God will choose,” understood as Jerusalem, legitimate worship of God could not simply be transferred to another location. The depths of the existential crisis created cannot be overstated. It is the ḥurban, destruction, worse than the Holocaust. A well-known rabbinic teaching imagines the world as a three-legged stool, with the legs being Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness (m. Avot 1:2). The loss of the Temple’s worship thus had a broad destabilizing impact. Jews probably shared with their Greco-Roman neighbors an understanding that civilization’s stability depended on cultic worship. Christian memory is that the Romans persecuted early Christians precisely for threatening the state’s stability by refusing to participate in the Roman civic cults.[2]

The Romans did destroy the Judean state, but not the Jews and their relationship to their God. We know little about immediate Jewish responses to the tragedy except from rabbinic teachings dating from the third century onwards.[3] They record that Judaism retooled as an interim measure, expecting a divine salvific intervention to restore the nation and its worship system. These teachings formed the Jewish memory of this disaster and ongoing Jewish responses to it. Memories of the Temple and hopes for its restoration became central themes of the rabbinic system, especially its rituals. Only as nineteenth-century Jews became citizens in Christian lands did theological reforms and secularism recast this disaster as progress.

The rabbinic system encoded ritual responses in three main modes: salvage, ritualized mourning, and eschatological hope.

Salvage

The third-century rabbinic texts record that one of the first acts of the surviving rabbis after Temple sacrifices ceased was to determine possible points of continuity. Which non-sacrificial Temple rituals could persist, at least with some modification?

Thus, while Tabernacles celebrations with the palm branch (lulav) had taken place all seven days of the festival in the Temple but only one day outside it, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ruled that the seven day celebration should now be universal. The rabbis debated where the ram’s horn (shofar) may be blown now when the New Year falls on the Sabbath: anywhere, at any rabbinic court, or only at the central court in Yavneh (m. RH 4:1-3)? Similarly, they ruled that priests should continue to bless the people (Nu 6:22-27) but in diminished form, as three separate blessings, substituting for God’s real name, and only raising their hands to shoulder height (m. Sotah 7:6).

Mosaics from 4th-6th century synagogue floors show that Temple symbols like these remained symbolically important. Indeed, the Temple’s seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), whether functional or depicted, was the primary symbol of Jews until the nineteenth century.[4]

Mosaic from the Hammat Tiberias synagogue floor. Tamar Mekom, Pikiwiki Israel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

The rabbis taught a liturgical system that fulfilled the most important functions of Temple rituals but in new, purely verbal forms. They expected universal Jewish participation in daily verbal prayer, corresponding to the times of the lost Temple’s sacrifices (m. Ber. 4:1, 3) and fulfilling their covenantal function. However, references to sacrificial worship and requests to restore it appear only scattered throughout the larger system of prayer. Every service pleads that God be satisfied with verbal worship as a substitute for sacrifices; the preliminary morning liturgy includes study passages about sacrifices.

On holidays, this becomes a more dominant theme. Biblical passages commanding the day’s sacrifice are read from the Torah as well as focusing the day’s additional service. This includes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Atonement for sins was a Temple function that transferred easily to this rabbinic, non-sacrificial context. While still evoking memories of the day’s elaborate Temple rituals, the day came to focus on confession and penitential prayer.[5] Atonement for many sins, though, could be sought every weekday, through the regular liturgy. Thus, the most significant Temple functions were modified or transferred, providing Jews with ritual continuity.

Ritualized Mourning

However, the discontinuities were also stark; mourning for lost rituals factored significantly in coping with the disaster. Zechariah (7:3, 8:18), in the wake of the restoration from Babylonia, knew fast days mourning the loss of the First Temple. After the Roman destruction, Jews merged these events into a single fast on a shared fifth-month anniversary, the Ninth of Av (mid-summer), preceded by a three-week penitential season. The liturgy for the day includes chanting the biblical book of Lamentations and a wealth of poetic laments (qinot) elaborating on the biblical book and reflecting on this and later disasters. Today, these include the Holocaust.

This sense of mourning traditionally also pervades daily life. Rabbinic texts recall that after the destruction, pietists sought to implement an all-pervasive mourning, banning consumption of meat and wine and even marriage and procreation. The rabbis argued this was unsustainable: not only would people openly rebel, resulting in outright disobedience to God’s Torah, but this path’s full logic would complete the Roman’s goal of wiping out Israel. Total, paralyzing mourning was logical, but it was not feasible. Instead, they advocated, a constant low-level of mourning should pervade Jewish life. One should leave an obvious patch unplastered in one’s house, something should remain uneaten at a meal, and a piece of jewelry should remain unworn (t. Sot. 15 end; b. BB 60b.).

The better-known custom of breaking something at a Jewish wedding communicates a similar message. The Talmud teaches that, “in this world,” i.e., after the destruction of the Temple, it is forbidden to be completely joyous. They tell of two different jubilant wedding celebrations where leading rabbis tempered the festivities by smashing expensive glassware (b. Ber. 30b-31a).[6] This precedent was integrated into subsequent ritual. Orthodox Jews today verbalize the meaning of this moment by first chanting, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour” (Ps 137:5-6). Some place ashes on the couples’ foreheads first. Then, after “breaking the glass,” the party begins.[7]

Eschatological Hope

This talmudic passage explicitly contrasts “this world”’s limited joy with that of the eschatological “world to come,” when, exile over, “our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous singing” (Ps 126:1-2). Such messianic hope pervades Jewish ritual life, a hope that embeds within it an expectation that God will end the current exile and restore an ideal human earthly existence. Thus, the seven blessings, recited for the bride and groom at the wedding ceremony and repeated at festive meals for the following week, ask God to cause the barren Jerusalem to know joy (implicitly, like that of this wedding) when her children are regathered to her. They praise God effusively for creating all possible dynamics of joy and ask that these sounds of joy soon fill Jerusalem (b. Ket. 8a).

Liturgical expressions of this hope for restoration appear constantly. The rabbinic weekday prayer petitions God to provide all the necessary elements of the messianically restored state, including its place of worship. The additional services of festive days not only recall the day’s sacrifices, but also pray for their restoration. For the last half-millennium, “Next year in Jerusalem!” has concluded the Passover Seder. In some synagogues, it concludes the Yom Kippur fast as well. More ancient is the Aramaic beginning of the Seder that moves from identification with enslaved, suffering ancestors to a hope that next year, we will gather as free people in the Land of Israel. Indeed, a restoration of the biblical worship system is only a part of Jewish messianic hopes which emerge from prophetic visions of a perfected world combined with expectations that God will, once again, end Israel’s exile and restore her national existence in her homeland.

Meshing this dream with modern realities is extremely complex – resulting in a range of conflicting understandings. Traditional, Orthodox Jews preserve the received rituals and pray for rebuilding the Temple, but differ among themselves both in their eagerness to reimplement sacrificial worship and also about the theological significance of today’s State of Israel and its ingathering of exiles. Only a tiny minority actively prepare to resume sacrificial worship on the Temple Mount, the current locus of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Islamic world.[8]

For the liberal and even secular end of the Jewish spectrum, the State of Israel may or may not hold national and cultural significance, but they do not pray for restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices. These belong to history, and messianic times will manifest themselves primarily in the fulfillment of prophetic visions of universal peace and wellbeing.[9]

Liberal liturgies were adapted to reflect these evolving understandings. For instance, the Conservative movement’s prayer books shifted all discussions of Temple worship to the past tense, eliminating any prayers for its restoration. The Reform movement’s liturgies went further originally, eliminating all prayers about a return to Zion and any mention of sacrifices. From the nineteenth century, synagogues frequently were called “Temple” to indicate that they, with their verbal prayer, were now the only place of legitimate, God-desired, Jewish worship. Only in the 1970s did the first movement-wide American Reform prayer book, The Gates of Prayer, include recognition of a relationship to modern Israel.

Conclusion

Many of these same dynamics of salvage, mourning, and hope shape responses to other times of disaster. Is the Covid-19 pandemic one of them? Modern medicine has greatly reduced the plague’s lethality; modern communications technology has enabled much to be salvaged, to persist in diminished form. Certainly, most grieve for most aspects of their pre-pandemic world, and hope for its return, albeit marked by the lives lost. But perhaps because this hope is still very present, it does not look like this pandemic will create a radical ritual response, a major rethinking of the way the Jewish community stands before God, akin to the emergence of rabbinic liturgy in the aftermath of the ḥurban. Born out of disaster, that liturgy contains the seeds for surviving bad times and good.


Ruth Langer is Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Boston College and Interim Director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she received her advanced degrees from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati). She has published widely on the development of Jewish liturgy and ritual and on Christian-Jewish relations. For more information, see her website at https://sites.google.com/bc.edu/ruth-langer.

[1] For a description of the operation of the Temple and its role in the “common Judaism” of the time, see E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London/Philadelphia: SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1992), chs. 5-7.

[2] See Candida R. Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 8-16, who points to the limited sources that serve as reliable historical sources for this dynamic.

[3] Jonathan Klawans, “Josephus, the Rabbis, and Responses to Catastrophes Ancient and Modern,” Jewish Quarterly Review 100:2 (Spring 2010): 287-89.

[4] Steven Fine, The Menorah from the Bible to Modern Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Ch. 2, “Flavian Rome to the Nineteenth Century.”

[5] Klawans, 304-306, argues that there is no evidence that Jews were particularly concerned over the loss of the various Temple rituals connected to repair of sin.

[6] In actual practice today, the choice of what to break is based on its fragility. Lightbulbs are a common choice, especially as their vacuum enhances the sound produced.

[7] For example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvOtcWEFWo8.

[8] See, for instance, the website of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem, https://templeinstitute.org/.

[9] For a fuller discussion of these dynamics, see my “Israel in Jewish Theologies,” in Enabling Dialogue About the Land: A Resource Book for Jews and Christians, Philip A. Cunningham, Ruth Langer, and Jesper Svartvik, eds. (New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2020), 49-57.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Langer, Ruth. (2021): “Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 3. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Notes on Grief

Laying Grief Bare

On April 22, 2020, I did something that I had never done before—I made my deeply personal, profoundly private grief public. Laid bare in an op-ed for the New York Times, I shared “My Mother Is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”[1] A month later I created the companion, now award-winning documentary short, death. everything. nothing.[2] By sharing these acute laments about my mother’s death, I opened the floodgates to a community that I did not expect, grabbed hold of traditions that I had forgotten to remember, and forged new ways of dealing with all of the grief contours death holds.

Grief, death, and loss are full of ironies. Within twenty minutes of the New York Times essay going live, I was on the phone with my mother’s physician, who delivered devastating yet unsurprising news: “I’m so sorry, but Gwen is not going to survive—she must be transferred to hospice.” Within two hours I began getting a flurry of responses, ranging from personal texts and phone calls to tweets and emails. Then there were the site-specific comments to the Times op-ed (mostly generous). Within two days, my family and I had packed up and made our way home to the South Carolina Lowcountry.

It was one of the longest short drives I had ever made. During that drive, much like in the weeks leading up to that day—April 24, 2020—I accepted that my mother was going to die, and tried as best I could to ready myself and my loved ones. That was my immediate task. I did okay…barely.

Getting to Gwen

In accepting my mother’s death, I came to understand that I had to prepare her living body for a metaphysical passing. I did not know this initially when I reached my mother’s hospice bedside five days before she died. But I began to sense that need when my mother shifted from a calm rest in the first day, to mildly labored breathing by the second day, to active groaning and struggle by the third day. On that especially difficult third day, my mother, who was by then nonverbal, let it be known that there was nothing peaceful or good about the state she was in. Her moans and shuddered breaths rendered all of the family visitors uncomfortable, including our seven-year-old son, who visited briefly that day. It felt, just as the entire process had up to then, entirely too excruciating.

Getting to Gwen had been nothing short of a herculean physical effort. Given the logistics of  interstate travel and the statewide visitation restrictions in place during the Coronavirus pandemic, making the  trip to South Carolina from our temporary home in Durham, North Carolina, was far from simple. There were the multiple calls to and from her physician. Then the planning efforts with a hospital administrator. Then, her confirmed move to hospice. These all spurred our hasty packing. Four hours away felt too long and too far. And yet by some serendipitous odds, I arrived at hospice within an hour of her transport.

Upon my arrival and after being screened for virus symptoms and filling out a brief exposure questionnaire, I made a short walk down the hallway and entered Gwen’s room, where I immediately went to her bedside. She was lying on her right side with her back to the door. I reached out, touched her arm, and said, “Mommy, I’m here.” In turn, I received my mom’s last self-initiated eye contact, her last self-motivated bodily movement, and the last words she ever spoke on this earth, when she turned, looked over her shoulder at me and said with a smile, “Hi, Sweetie.”

In those death vigil days, I came to understand that it was not people that my mother needed in her near-final hours, though that was important; she needed ritual. As someone steeped in the study of Black religions of the global South, I followed the well-known tradition of creating an altar, shortly after my arrival. I included an item for libation (water), food (crackers), and a personal item (a small lock of my mother’s hair) to honor the dead while making a path for Mommy. I was mindful to carve out a minimalist space that wasn’t disruptive to the energy of the room—an ancestral altar is, after all, an active space. I set it atop a small corner shelf. I also followed an internal inclination to include something sweet alongside that water and those crackers, as Gwen often craved the sweet-salty combination. I placed a few mandarin orange slices alongside the cheddar crackers, the tuft of hair, and the nondescript plastic cup of water. The altar was accented by a note:

please do not remove these ancestral offerings for Gwen Manigault. I will be sure to properly dispose of them when it is time. Thank you! LeRhonda (Gwen’s daughter).

On the third day, my mother’s unsettled state got to me, too. I was vexed by my inability to help her remain comfortable. I knew enough in that moment to realize that her restless state had little to do with me. And, since she had not yet been deemed “imminent”—that stage in hospice care when the person could literally die at any moment—I sought to clear my head. So, I returned to my husband and son at a not-so-close Airbnb (it was all we could find given the timing and restrictions), took a long, hot shower, and lay down for a nap that felt like a full night’s sleep. 

My sleep was profoundly restorative, and not just because it gave my exhausted body, my grieving heart, and my racing mind respite. It was during that nap that I came to be reminded of the rituals I forgot I knew.

The dream took me to the childhood home I shared with my mother, brother, and maternal grandparents. I saw my grandmother, Annie Mae, as she and I sat with other women folk in the community around the bed of someone who was dying. I could not see the person’s face. Even in the dream I knew the “who” did not matter. It was the “what” that did. What we sang, how we sat, how we actively yet selectively laid hands over the person’s body. How we used the lavender that I could smell in the dream to treat the body, and a petroleum salve to soften the skin. It was how we prayed and spoke and cried and laughed and communed. It was how we went to the town’s crossroads—together.

I awoke with a profound sense of clarity about what must be done, and I prepared to do my mother’s crossings rituals. Those preparations included the assembly of a ritual soundtrack—the sacred and secular songs integral to my mother’s life, and to my life with her, that accompanied me as I accompanied her for as long and as far as I could as she transitioned into death. Rather than being merely imagined, my dream was akin to being reminded of all the things I already knew.

Getting to Gwen, and preparing her body, then, meant that I also had to prepare myself. I had to be reminded of that which I already knew. And from that experience, I came to understand that when it comes to death and mourning and grief, there is profound power in allowing oneself the opportunity to remember what one has thought was lost. These practices, these rituals, are not necessarily closed to us, even as they may seem to be. Rather, they live deep within us, waiting to be unlocked.

Grieving Changes as it Remains

Near the onset of the pandemic, Eddie Glaude remarked, “the pandemic will pass, our grief will endure.”[3] He was right then, and he continues to be right well into 2021. I read his essay and it immediately prompted me to put some descriptive meat on grief’s bones. The result was the piece published by The New York Times:

Like so many countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No lowcountry songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with COVID-19.[4] 

We did not know how to really deal with my mother’s death then, even as I tried as best I could to prepare myself. I felt as if I should have known better. I write about death. “Talking to the dead”[5] is my thing. And yet death that way—rituals performed within my community but with limited access to the people who would readily take part—was not my thing. I have the feeling that grieving this way is not many people’s “thing.” Months later, the various waves of grief I continue to ride affirm Amitha Kalaichandran’s poignant offering: “We’re not ready for this kind of grief.”[6]

It is hard to imagine that I have had to simultaneously hold the terrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing violence that Black folks frequently confront in America, and grieving in the midst of disaster. For the longest time I have felt too close to the lack of closure that ill-managed grief incites. Death is and has always been the great equalizer.

And yet, I was able to begin the grieving process and to continue it through the ritual work. Yes, I used ritual to prepare Gwen, but it was also a means of preparing myself.  That shift from mother to daughter was as much about my mother’s needs then as it was about the ways I had to enter ritual practice myself. As her daughter, ritual thus steadied me for a new role: one of the remaining women elders in my immediate family.

For me, laying grief bare by any means necessary was requisite. For me, the creative processes of writing and filmmaking served as their own mourning salves. For me, taking a key element of the ritual processes of grieving our dead in the South Carolina Lowcountry—song-singing—and revamping it into a curated playlist, an epic ritual soundtrack if you will, made the difference. For me, making an altar that readied the ancestral space mattered. For me, opening myself to the power of ancestral communication via dreams was transformational. And for me, mourning before it was even really time to mourn helped me to better prepare myself for immeasurable loss.

I believe that grieving in the time of disaster, pandemic, incomparable loss, and unprecedented sorrow requires us to make our rituals anew. One key way is to grieve in digital publics what would have been done in person, with our families and friends. Rituals, as Evan Imber-Black suggests, require “imagination, responsiveness, and the human spirit” and that we use those generative mechanisms to create new rituals and traditions.[7] We can only do our ongoing work of grieving when we open ourselves to reimagining old ways of grieving anew.


LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College and founder of ConjureGirlBlue Productions. A proud native of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Rhon navigates the academy as an artist-scholar, where she merges her life as a thinker, musician, and filmmaker. She is the author of multiple academic books, public-facing writing, and films including Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (2014) and the award-winning documentary short “death. everything. nothing” (2020).

[1] LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.” The New York Times. April 22, 2020. Link:  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-race-death.html.

[2]death. everything. nothing. A ConjureGirlBlue Productions film by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Director. 2020 Link: https://conjuregirlblue.com/portfolio/death-everything-nothing-trailer.

[3] Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. “The Pandemic Will Pass, Our Grief Will Endure.” The Washington Post. April 6, 2020. Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/06/pandemic-will-pass-our-grief-will-endure/?arc404=true.

[4] Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”

[5] LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women, Duke University Press, 2014. Link: https://www.dukeupress.edu/talking-to-the-dead.

[6] Amitha Kalaichandran, “We’re Not Ready for This Kind of Grief.” The Atlantic April 13, 2020. Link: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/were-not-ready-for-this-kind-of-grief/609856/.

[7] Evan Imber-Black. “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit.” Family Process 59: 912-921, 2020. Link:  https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12581.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Manigault Bryant, LeRhonda. (2021): “Notes on Grief,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 2. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.