Then he killed women as well as babes at the breast,
And the blood rose among them like a sea, like the river of Egypt,
Until Nebuzaradan raised his eyes to heaven
And said: Will this blood not be content with the blood of Jerusalem’s daughters?
Are you going to wipe out the remnant of Israel?
Only then did the innocent blood come to rest;
the sword of vengeance had drunk its fill.
(Yehudah HaLevi / T. Carmi, “The Murder of Zechariah”, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse)
One of the strangest tales told about the destruction of Jerusalem, its Temple and its inhabitants is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57b; Sanhedrin 96b) concerning an encounter between Nebuzaradan and Zechariah Ben Yehoyadah. Though these two Biblical personages lived two and a half centuries apart, according to the Talmud they “met” on the Temple Mount during its destruction in the year 586 BCE.
Zebuzaradan, the captain of the Babylonian guard mentioned by name in only two verses at the end of the Book of Kings (2 Kings 25:8,11), is credited with the burning down of both the Temple and Jerusalem and taking into exile all of the city’s survivors. Those are the only facts about him that the Bible shares with us. Zechariah Ben Yehoyadah, on the other hand isn’t even mentioned in the Book of Kings. His name only appears once in the Book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 24:20) some 250 years before the destruction of the Temple, but we’re told in Chronicles that he was a priest who was transformed into a prophet on the Temple mount. Unfortunately, his prophetic message against the idolatrous practices of the people was not very well received by the masses at that time and they stoned him to death in the Temple court for his efforts. His dying words in the Book of Chronicles were “May the Lord see and requite it (2 Chronicles 24:22).” These are the bare Biblical facts that are the basis for our macabre Talmudic tale when according to our sages the 9th of Av, 586 BCE became the time of “the Lord’s requiting.”
According to our sages when Nebuzaradan entered the Temple mount as Babylonian conqueror he saw a horrific sight – blood seething unceasingly from the floor of the Temple. After coercing the priests there to reveal the source of this ominous unnatural occurrence, they concede to Nebuzaradan: “This is the blood of a priest and prophet who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem to Israel and they killed him (Sanhedrin 96b).”
The story in Sanhedrin 96b in graphic, horrific detail then continues:
“I”, Nebuzaradan replied, “will appease him!” So he brought Torah scholars and slew them over the blood of Zechariah, but the blood did not cease [to boil]. He brought school children and slew them over Zechariah’s blood, but the blood did not cease [to boil]. He brought the young priests and slew them over Zechariah’s blood, but the blood did not cease [to boil] -even after he had slain 94,000 souls. He then approached Zechariah’s blood and cried out – “Zechariah, Zechariah, I have already destroyed their finest, do you want me to massacre them all?” Immediately the blood ceased.
Yehudah HaLevi writing in the 11th -12th centuries created a poetic re-telling of this
grisly Talmudic tale which is chanted to this day in synagogues world-wide on the fast of the 9th of Av. As seen in the final stanza of this poem quoted at the beginning of this piece, Yehudah Halevi’s re-telling, spiced with a bit of poetic license, is even more dramatic or perhaps melodramatic than the original story in Sanhedrin. Killing “women as well as babes at the breast, and the blood rose among them like a sea, like the river of Egypt… the blood of Jerusalem’s daughters” – these words do not appear at all in the original story in the Talmud. Chanted out loud in synagogues along with many other medieval liturgical poems bemoaning the destruction and suffering that occurred on the 9th of Av, HaLevi’s poem is unique. Unlike all the other medieval lamentations said on the fast day, HaLevi’s poem actually ends surprisingly on a somewhat upbeat note – ” “the sword of vengeance had drunk its fill” or in the words of the Talmud “immediately the blood ceased.”
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik when commenting on this relatively hopeful end of Yehudah HaLevi’s poem and the original Talmudic tale reminds us that the postscript at the end of the story in Sanhedrin tells us that
Thoughts of repentance began to enter his [Nebuzaradan’s]: if this is the price for murdering just one person, what will be my fate?! So he fled, went A.W.OL., sent his will and testament back home and then converted to Judaism (Sanhedrin 96b).
For Soloveichik, the meaning of this Sanhedrin passage and Yehudah Halevi’s poem for the fast day of Tish’a B’av is repentance:
that no matter how evil and corrupt a person is, he still has within him the potential to do good….Even Nebuzaradan, the chief executioner, who slaughtered men, women and children by the thousands and who personified cruelty was accepted by God when he did repentance sincerely. (The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot, page 545)
This may indeed be one message to draw from Nebuzaradan, one of the two protagonists found in the Talmudic tale and in its medieval liturgical rendition recited on Tish’a B’av. However, Yehudah HaLevi’s rendition actually suggests yet another approach. By purposely deleting any mention of Nebuzaradan’s revelation and emphasizing instead the other protagonist of the tale, Zechariah Ben Yehoyadah, the imagery of the blood continually seething, boiling from the floor, becomes central to our understanding of the events of the day.
There are only two 25-hour fast days on the Jewish calendar and each of them in its own way emphasizes a needed process of soul-searching: if Yom Kippur is clearly the day for individual soul searching, then Tish’a B’Av is definitely the day on our calendar for national soul-searching. On a fast day of national soul searching, Yehudah HaLevi ‘s poetic re-telling of the tale in Sanhedrin teaches us that we as a nation cannot afford to ignore our past mistakes and shame. The stain of blood on the Temple floor just won’t go away – even after 250 years. Unless we acknowledge the blood seething, boiling out of the ground of our national shrine, there will eventually be a terrible societal price to pay.
This I would like to suggest is the reasoning behind why some young Israeli Jews – both secular and religious – since Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, read the Book of Lamentations each year on Tish’a B’Av evening at Rabin’s graveside. Whatever one’s political leanings – whether to the right or to the left – Rabin’s death like Zechariah Ben Yehoyadah’s death, left a stain of blood on our national psyche that won’t go away and the blood is still seething out of the earth.
Thankfully, though, our tradition has more than one prophet by the name of Zechariah, with more than one message. May we soon merit to see the fulfillment of the words of that other Zechariah in the Bible, who led a much happier life than that of the son of Yehoyadah. The words of Zechariah Ben Berachiah Ben Iddo:
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast day of the fourth month, the fast day of the firth month, the fast day of the seventh month and the fast of the tenth month [all the fast days connected with the destruction of Jerusalem] shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah… (Zechariah 8:19).”