Written by: Erin Parfet

Tisha B’av

Tisha B’av is a Jewish holiday marked by communal mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It occurs on the 9th day of the month of Av and is deemed the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Though the exact date of the destruction of the Temples, which were the center of Jewish religious life in ancient times, is unknown, tradition says that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av, in the years 587 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. Historians dispute that both Temples were actually destroyed on Tisha B’av, but regardless, Tisha B’av has become a tradition and a symbol of Jewish mourning and loss.

"We are to vicariously feel the depth of grief and sadness that has marked this date throughout history," a Jewish rabbi once wrote. "For we, too, are mourners on Tisha B’Av; we too, ‘let [our] tears flow like a river day and night" over the fall of Jerusalem" (Lamentations 2:18).

In a broader sense, other tragic events that have affected the Jewish people are believed to have occurred historically on Tisha B’av. Such events include the deaths of Jews in Israel who had rebelled against the Romans, the expulsion of the Jewish people from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jewish people from Spain in 1492, and the Holocaust, which is associated with the commencement of World War I—all significant events in Jewish history believed to have happened on Tisha B’av.

Thus, the holiday has expanded beyond the mourning of the destruction of the Temples into a general mourning for the suffering of the Jewish people.

Some people have attempted to make connections between Tisha B’av and Kristallnacht or the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, though most Jewish people reject those associations as weak attempts to try to find parallels with numbers in secular dates (9/11 and 11/9, as Kristallnacht occurred on November 9). Av is the fifth month on the Jewish calendar, not the 11th month as some might derive if one starts counting the calendar beginning with Tishri rather than Nissan.

During the Talmudic era, some rabbis believed that Tisha B’av was a day of punishment bestowed upon the Jewish people by God for the Israelites’ lack of faith in the wilderness during the Exodus. Some to this day view it as a day when God cursed the Jewish people for Israel’s sins.

 From the Mishnah:

Five misfortunes befell our fathers on the ninth of Av. On the ninth of Av, it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the promised land; the Temple was destroyed the first and second times; Bethar was captured; and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6)

How, then, are these dates to be reconciled? On the seventh, the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth, they set fire to it, and it continued to burn the whole of that day. How will the Rabbis then explain the choice of the 9th as the date? The beginning of any misfortune [when the fire was set] is of greater moment. (Talmud Ta'anit 29a) 

The observance of Tisha B’av is not commanded in scripture. Similar to Purim and Chanukah, Tisha B’av is a holiday that the Jewish people have kept as a matter of tradition derived from non-canonical writings, oral traditions, and longstanding culture. The best reference one can find scripturally might be Zechariah 7:3, "Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?" as Av is indeed the fifth month. Yet that is still a stretch, and Tisha B’av is based more on tradition than on any scriptural foundation. According to oral tradition, God spoke on Tisha B’av, "Tonight they cried for nothing, so in the future I will give them a reason to cry!"

Tisha B’av marks the conclusion of the Three Weeks, beginning with the fast on the 17th of Tammuz, which marks the day of the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem prior to the ultimate Temple destruction. This is a period of semi-mourning preceding Tisha B’av that is observed in some but not all Jewish communities.

The Three Weeks is also called Bein HaMetzarim, which translates to "between the straits," and is based on the teaching of Lamentations 1:3, which reads, "Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction and because of great servitude; she dwelleth among the heathen; she findeth no rest; all her persecutors overtook her between the straits."

In the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’av, such festivities as weddings and parties are prohibited. Many Jewish people will abstain from cutting their hair, and men may abstain from shaving during this time. From the first through the ninth days of Av, the levels of austerity increase; many will avoid consuming meat or wine or wearing new clothing, with possible exceptions granted in some communities on Shabbat.

There are weekly Haftarah readings during the three weeks prior to Tisha B’av that are independent of the weekly Torah reading, as they are meant to be of consolation rather than supplementary to the topic of weekly Torah study. The holiday is more commonly observed among religious Jews, as more secular or liberal Jewish sects often do not grant the Temple in Jerusalem any significance, though they may still use the day to mourn the broader tragedies that have fallen upon the Jewish people over the centuries.

Similar to Yom Kippur, it is customary to partake in a special breakfast and mid-day meal prior to abstaining from food consumption for the duration of Tisha B’av, unless one is ill and unable to safely fast. The pre-Tisha B’av breakfast may consist of dairy foods, as meat and wine are already prohibited for the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av. The mid-day meal prior to the fast is known as seudah ha-mafaseket ("meal of separation" or "concluding meal") and often contains bread, a hard-boiled egg coated in ashes, and water, all of which are symbolic of the destruction of the Temple. One usually eats the meal alone, while sitting on a low stool or the ground, and does not partake in conversation with others. The meal may be anytime in the day but is to conclude before sundown on the 8th of Av.

On Tisha B’av itself, it is customary for many Jewish people to abstain from washing or swimming, consuming food or drink (even water), wearing perfume or applying other cosmetics or personal care products, wearing leather or other fine clothing, partaking in marital intimacy, studying Torah (as this is deemed to be a pleasurable activity, though certain passages may be permitted), sending gifts, merely greeting one another, sharing in laughter or unnecessary conversations, sitting on chairs of normal height until chatzot (the time when the sun has peaked in the sky) but rather sitting on low stools or the ground, etc. One may perform a charitable deed for another if the occasion arises, however.

One may work on this holiday, though the practice is discouraged. At a bare minimum, it is encouraged to work, if one must, after midday so as to focus on prayer, repentance, and mourning on this solemn day. Visits to cemeteries may occur on this day simply because of the overall gloomy sentiments.

"You sit on the floor and mourn as if a loved one just passed away," said Rabbi Hyim Shafner, the Rabbi of Kesher Israel, a synagogue in the Georgetown neighborhood near Washington, DC. "It’s a profound experience, the idea of exile. It reminds you that something is amiss; things are not really the way they’re supposed to be."

Upon sundown on the 9th of Av, fasting is no longer required; however, Jewish people will continue restricting pleasurable activities through the 10th of Av. This is because, according to tradition, the Temple was set on fire on the afternoon of the 9th of Av, burning through the 10th of Av; thus, the sentiments of the day of mourning are carried into the 10th of Av. Prior to breaking the Tisha B’av fast, it is customary to perform netilat yadayim (hand-washing), which includes immersing one’s entire hand with water but without saying any special blessings or prayers while one’s hand is covered in water. Some Jewish communities will then recite Kiddush Levanah at this time, which is a series of prayers recited to bless the new moon.

In the synagogues, the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eichah) and other dirges (kinot) are chanted on this day, and possibly other passages from the Old Testament may be read (e.g., from Jeremiah or Job). During synagogue services, the ark will often have its decorative curtain removed for this particular day or possibly draped in black instead, and the synagogue lights may be dimmed. The liturgy might even be performed by candlelight. Morning prayers may be conducted, but with one refraining from wearing a tallit or tefillin, which are considered unnecessary adornments. By afternoon, one may return to wearing a tallit or tefillin, and the proper curtains and lighting may be restored to the synagogues.

Tisha B’av observance is postponed by one day if the 9th of Av happens to fall on Shabbat. Some synagogues may traditionally use flimsy paperback kinto booklets in hopes that the books will survive the duration of this year but not be needed the following year. The traditional reading of the Megillat Eichah concludes with "Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old."

  

Following this holiday commences the Seven Weeks of Comfort, which spans the remainder of Av and goes through Elul and Rosh Hashanah. The Seven Weeks of Comfort includes Haftarah readings exclusively from the Book of Isaiah seeking restore hope to the Jewish people as the focus turns from mourning to God’s redemption for Israel and the coming Messianic age.

For the Jewish people, Tisha B’av is a time of calling out to God. For some, it might be a day of wrestling with God and His truths, trying to discern why God allows evil in the world despite His beautiful promises to His children. The Jews of historical times may have grappled with the emotional aspects of exile from their spiritual and ancestral homeland in Israel. Though the Jewish people are no longer in exile and have had the opportunity to rebuild Israel as a modern Jewish state, Tisha B’av remains a time of weeping for the historical obstacles faced, for repentance, and for God’s renewed mercies to be extended.

As Ecclesiastes puts it, there is a time and season for every activity under the Heavens. There is indeed a time to mourn and weep. It is not wrong to remember the events of history, seek to learn from history, further one’s own understanding of the history that has shaped where we are today, long for a better world though we know this world is not our home and nothing will be perfect on this side of eternity, or cry out to God. 

Tisha B’av is a time of communal longing for a restored relationship with God after sin marred the relationship between God and His children. And these longings need not be a bad thing, for when we turn to Our Father in Heaven and cry out to Him, sincerely in heartfelt prayer, turning from our wicked ways, and desiring His will be done and not our own, so often this opens up the opportunities for redemption and salvation.

As Rabbi Eckstein wrote, Tisha B’Av is a "reminder that despite the adversities and affliction marking Jewish history, God’s covenant with this people, Israel, remains in effect; His promise of redemption has yet to be fulfilled: ‘The Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and He will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you." (Deuteronomy 30:3).

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Yosef T.
10 months ago
Thank you very much for this article. It is very informative.
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