6 Nisan 5776
"...its star is 'kochav Yaakov', and this is the one about which Bilaam said 'a star shoots forth from Yaakov', and this star will be luminous for 40 days and 40 nights." (Terumah 172b)
Why "forty"? I'll let Rabbi Kahane of blessed memory explain...
Excerpt from the book FORTY YEARS by Rabbi Meir Kahane
The idea first entered my head as I sat, one day, in Ramle Prison. It was the eve of Tisha B”AV, the tragic commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the beginning of both terrible exiles. I sat, reviewing the book of Jonah, with its message of repentance, on the day of national tragedy. Jonah enters the city of Nineveh, to which he has been sent by the Almighty, to warn them of impending destruction unless they repent. And as I read, the words of Jonah to the people suddenly leaped out at me: “In forty days, Nineveh shall be overturned!”
Forty. The thought suddenly struck me: How many times, again and again, does that number arise in connection with sin and punishment? “And the rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights.” (Genesis 7:12), the punishment of a world flooded for its sin. Forty. And centuries later, as the Jews of the desert “despised the pleasant land” and wept over their “home” in Egypt, the Almighty angrily decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Holy Land saying: “And your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and bear your faithlessness.” (Numbers 14:33). Again, forty. And the punishment of stripes, whipping, is one of “forty shall he strike him, he shall not increase”, and the atonement for sin and the purification process begin with a study of Torah given forty days at Sinai, continuing in a mikva, ritualarium, whose water must be a minimum of forty seah.
Forty. Again and again, the number forty connected to sin and punishment. Why forty? I do not know except to quote the rabbis in Bamidbar Rabah 5:5: “And why does the Torah obligate forty stripes? For he (the sinner) violated a Torah given in forty days and brought death unto himself (man) who was created in forty days. Let him therefore, be whipped forty times and be relieved of his punishment, as was done to Adam who sinned, was deserving of death, and was punished with forty. For the world was cursed, due to his sin, forty curses: ten for Adam, ten for Eve, ten for the serpent and ten for the land.”
And in that tiny cell in prison the thought expanded. Not only was the concept “forty” tied to sin and punishment, it was specifically connected to the warning of G-d to the sinner, a warning designed to avert that punishment. Jonah warns Nineveh of impending punishment and this gives them a grace period of forty days during which they might search their souls and change their ways.
In the case of both Holy Temples, the Almighty gave the Jewish people a period of forty years of grace; time to think and rethink their ways. Time to return to Him and save themselves from that punishment. In the awful final days of the first Jewish State, the L-rd tells the prophet Ezekiel: “And thou shall lie again on your right side and bear the iniquity of the House of Judah, forty days; each day for a year, each day for a year.”(Ezekiel 4:6)
And the Biblical commentator Rashi declares: “We learn that the time of the exiling of the ten tribes until the destruction of Jerusalem there was a period of forty years.” Forty years: The Almighty, having brought down His wrath on the ten tribes of Israel, begins the countdown to the terrible day of punishment that is decreed for a House of Judah that has turned its back on its G-d. But one final opportunity is given them, a grace period. A grace period of forty years. And so a prophet is chosen, a prophet of grace, of final warning – Jeremiah. And in the words of the rabbis: “The book of Lamentations was more effective for Israel than the forty years that Jeremiah prophesied unto them” (Eichah Rabah 4:27)
And the Second Temple “Forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the lot (for the Yom Kippur sacrifice) never was chosen by the High Priest’s right hand; and the red slip outside the Holy of Holies never turned white (as a sign of divine forgiveness) and the western candle would not light and the doors of the Sanctuary opened by themselves until Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai admonished them, saying: “Sanctuary, sanctuary…I know that you are destined to be destroyed…(Yuma 39b).
And again: “For forty years did Rabbi Zadok sit and fast in the hope that Jerusalem not be destroyed.” (Gittin56a)
And again: “For forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin exiled itself (from the Temple) and sat in the market place.” (Avoda Zara 8b)
Once again, the period of grace. Forty years. The final hope of the Almighty that, perhaps, His final warning would be heeded. The countdown of forty years, the last chance.