Tisha B’Av is a holiday which treads on the periphery of non-Orthodox Judaism. While congregations of all denominations will hold services, many of us will pass the evening of August 13 through to sunset the next day without giving it a second thought.
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in ancient Israel. The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed when the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The Second Temple was built on the site of the First Temple and completed in 516 B.C.E. It was destroyed in 70 C.E. during the Roman siege of Jerusalem led by Vespasian, a general of the Roman Empire. The destruction of the two Temples took place on the ninth of Av, six and a half centuries apart. According to tradition, the ninth of Av was also the day when Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella cast the Jews out of Spain in 1492. Tisha B’Av, then, is not about one or two events; it’s about remembrance of the adversity that has plagued Jewish history.
Observance of this time of national mourning proceeds in stages, beginning in the preceding Hebrew month of Tammuz. It was on the 17th of Tammuz in 70 C.E. that the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and continued to ransack the city for three weeks until the Second Temple was destroyed. Weddings are not permitted during the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. The prophetic readings from the Prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah for these three weeks are known as “the three affliction readings.” For the nine days leading up to the holiday, the sense of mourning increases. Some refrain from shaving, drinking wine, eating meat or participating in pleasurable events, such as going to the movies, dancing or dining out.
Tisha B’Av itself is a fast day, although work is permitted. It is traditional to refrain from bathing, wearing makeup or leather shoes, similar to the observance of Yom Kippur. At evening services some congregants will sit on the floor, also a sign of mourning.
A special prayer book for this holiday, Kinot (Elegies), contains the evening, morning, and afternoon prayer services, the text of Lamentations (Eicha), a selection of additional elegies and the scriptural readings for the day. Lamentations consists of five poems of grief for the tragedies, but ending with hope for repentance. The book was written by the Prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of the First Temple, although some scholars believe there were multiple authors. Most of the elegies chanted after Lamentations were composed during times of great suffering, such as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition
In modern times some have urged that the six million Jews lost in the Holocaust should also be mourned on this holiday, although Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) is now part of the Jewish calendar. Since the site of the Temple became accessible in 1967, some Israeli authorities believe that with restoration of the people to the holy land, Tisha B’Av has lost its meaning.
Conservative Rabbi Isaac Klein points out, “The events of Tisha B’Av cannot be undone, we need to maintain continuity with our past and a continuous striving for repentence and redemption.” Owning our history is crucial to maintaining a Jewish identity. After all, writes, Orthodox Rabbi Avi Geller, “If we don’t know what there is to cry about on Tisha B’Av, we should cry over the fact that we don’t know what to cry over.”
Recontructionist Rabbi Lewis Eron suggests a way of bringing a modern sensibility to the holiday. “Traditionally, Tisha B’Av was a dark day of mourning as we cried over our losses and bewailed our exile,” he writes. “On Tisha B’Av, we felt most keenly our sense of powerlessness and our feeling of separation from our spiritual center in our ancestral homeland. It was the day on which we acknowledged the emotional and spiritual pain of our people’s exile.” Today, he believes, “We no longer need to find ways to mourn our losses but need to discover new paths to cherish all that we have gained… Let us transform it to a day on which we can solemnly acknowledge all those of our people, who over the centuries accepted hardship, experienced sorrow and even suffered death so that we, the Jewish people, could survive. Let us make Tisha B’Av the day on which we give thanks to them…and the day on which we renew our commitment to the heritage they so lovingly and painfully bequeathed to us.”
After Tisha B’Av, we move into a period of hope and consolation, with the Seven Weeks of Comfort. On each Shabbat during that period the haftorah readings, all from Isaiah, offer consolation, while prophesying the redemption of Israel and coming days of peace. Ending on a hopeful note, tradition says that Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.