Every year on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, the Jewish people engage in a day of fasting and mourning in commemoration of the devastation of both of the holy Temples that stood in Jerusalem centuries apart from each other.
The first Temple, built lovingly by King Solomon using hundreds of billions of dollars worth of gold and silver (in modern day value), was torched by the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, and resulted in exile in that land. When the Persians took over, the exile continued, until a King of that nation, King Cyrus, offered his Jewish subjects the opportunity to leave exile, return to the Land, and rebuild their communities and holy places. : “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: ‘God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem’” (Ezra 1:2-3).
This seemed like an answer to the prayers of the Jewish people. At least prayers that were later instituted as liturgical text, and frequently recall that Jerusalem is the base of the Jewish people, the fervor to return to Jerusalem, the desire to rebuild the Temple, and other similar themes. And, of course, when considering the horror of the tragedies that are discussed on Tish’a B’Av, and even the most basic Psalm written about it, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, we also wept, as we thought of Zion” (Psalms 137:1).
However, the Jewish people did not return en masse to Israel in accordance with Cyrus’ decrees, or the opening given to them by God. About 50,000 came, a small percentage of the nation, who ultimately grew used to the exile and desired to stay put. However, those who returned under the leadership of Zerubabel set down the foundations of the Temple, and rebuilt the altar. After intervention by some troublemakers, King Darius confirmed that the people had the right to rebuild the Temple, which they did. In the times of Ezra and Nehemia, additional groups returned as well.
The return and rebuilding was not without any hitches. The resilience of the people was tested, as they fell into the traps of intermarriage, insecurity, and difficulty in religious observance. The people did not have nearly as many resources as King Solomon did, and so the Temple was more modest. But guided by the aforementioned leaders, the small group of returnees worked hard to create and improve their society, commit themselves to God, and create systems of defense against infiltrators.
During this period, Torah scholars and contemporary prophets of the Jewish community convened in what we refer to today as “The Men of the Great Assembly,” to formalize Jewish liturgy and canonize religious texts, in anticipation of the end of the period of prophecy.