Both our Holy Temples were set aflame, and we’re told that they burned for quite a while. The First Temple was set ablaze on the 9th of Av close to nightfall and continued burning through the 10th of Av, to the point that some sages felt that the fast commemorating the destruction should have been established on 10 Av, when most of the Temple was burned.1

But how could stone Temples burn? Were they made of wood as well?

Actually, it was generally prohibited to have exposed wood in the construction of the Temple.2 That being the case, only a minimal amount of wood was used as support beams and the (very high) ceiling.3 So, although there were wooden support beams in parts of the First Temple,4 the wood was specifically used higher up in the structure and covered with plaster, which would have prevented it from burning.5 Additionally, the stone walls themselves were six cubits (at least 9 feet) thick in most places!6

Now we are far from the first ones to think of how the Temple could be burned. In fact, Cyrus, when giving the initial go ahead to build the Second Temple, specified that he wanted it built with alternating rows of stone and wood (lower down) precisely in order that it be easily burnt should the desire arise.7

Nevertheless the fact remains that the Temples were constructed primarily of stone. This is especially true regarding the structure commissioned by Herod, which is what the Romans burned down.

Now, it is true that some of the Second Temple structure remained standing even after the initial destruction and was “plowed over” only many years later by the Romans.8 However, that still doesn’t quite answer our question of what actually burned for so long on Tisha B’Av.9

First Temple: Burned by Heavenly Coal

Expounding on the verses in Ezekiel and Daniel, the sages of the Talmud10 and Midrash give a description of what took place in heaven when it came time for the Holy Temple to be set on fire:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Michael, the ministering angel of the Jewish people: Michael, your nation has sinned.11

[Michael] replied: Master of the Universe, may it be enough for the good people among them to save them from destruction.

[G‑d] said to him: I will burn them and the good among them [because the good do not rebuke the wicked].

Immediately [G‑d spoke to Gabriel, as the verse12 states]: “He spoke to the man clothed in linen and said: Go in between the wheelwork and beneath the cherub, and fill your hands with coals of fire from between the cherubs, and scatter them over the city; and he came before my eyes.” Immediately: “And the cherub stretched out his hand from between the cherubs into the fire that was between the cherubs, and took and put it into the hands of him that was clothed in linen, who took it and went out.”13

The Talmud continues:

Rav Chana bar Bizna said that Rabbi Shimon Chasida said: If it were not for the fact that the embers cooled as they were passed from the hand of the cherub to the hand of Gabriel [instead of Gabriel taking the embers directly himself as he had been told], not a remnant or a refugee of the enemies of the Jewish people (a euphemism for the Jewish people themselves) would have survived.

Thus, although the Babylonians may have physically lit the First Temple on fire, there was an element of a “heavenly fire” that caused the Temple to burn.

But what about the Second Temple?

Between Wood and Stone

Some explain that the reason why the stones burned goes back to one of the essential differences between wood and stone.

Why does wood burn while stone generally does not?

On a spiritual level, this is because wood, which grows, has more vitality than stone, which is an inanimate object. Being more “spiritual,” it can be more easily converted to fire. However, the stones of the Holy Temple were imbued with a measure of holiness and spiritual vitality. When it came time for the Temple to be destroyed, this extra vitality enabled them to burn.14

Which Stones Burned? The Demons’ Trick

Some Kabbalists15 explain that when it came time for the burning of the Second Holy Temple, demons and “angels of destruction” brought burning stones and lime, switched them with the existing stones of the Temple, and carried the Temple stones away to heaven. So although it seemed that the actual Temple was lit on fire, it wasn’t burned by the enemies of the Jews.

This, the Kabbalists explain, is the meaning of the following passage in the Zohar:

The Holy Temple did not burn at all; nor did the hands of the nations damage it in any way. Rather, the angels lifted it to the heavens, with its interior completely intact. In its place, they constructed another [edifice] to fool the nations and deceive their eyes. This is the edifice that was destroyed down below, but the real Holy Temple was stored up above!16

G‑d Spilled His Wrath on Wood and Stones

Although we’ve explained how the stones burned, we still must understand why the stones needed to burn.

To understand this, let’s examine some perplexing laws of the 9th of Av. We don’t wear tefillin or say the prayer of Nachem (Consolation) during the morning prayers. Rather, we wait until the afternoon, when we lift some of the other mourning practices as well. You would think that the afternoon of the 9th of Av, when the Temple was actually lit on fire, would be a time of additional mourning—yet we counterintuitively relax our mourning a bit. Why?

To explain this conundrum, let’s turn to Psalm 79, a hymn dedicated by Asaph to the destruction of the Temple. The psalm opens with the words:

A song of Asaph. O G‑d! Nations have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your Holy Temple, they have made Jerusalem into heaps.17

The Midrash asks: “A song of Asaph!?” It should have been an elegy, a song of mourning! The Midrash explains that Asaph was singing because:

G‑d vented His anger on the wood and stones of His house, and because of this exonerated the survivors in Israel, for were it not for this (i.e., venting His anger on the structure), Israel [lit. the enemies of Israel] would not have had any survivors left. This is the meaning of the verse, “The L‑rd has spent His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger, and He has kindled a fire in Zion.”18

Thus, G‑d specifically burned the structure of the Temple in order to save the remnants of the Jewish people.19 Therefore, on the 9th of Av, we mourn the destruction, but celebrate that even at the height of G‑d’s wrath, He turned His anger toward the stones of the Temple.20

We pray for the day when the Temple will ultimately be rebuilt—may it be speedily in our days!