Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which have occurred coincidentally (maybe, maybe not!) on the ninth of Av. Any way you look at it, the ninth of Av has not been a good day for the Jewish people. So much tragedy has occurred on this day that it has traditionally become a fast day, a remembrance day and a day of mourning.
Tisha B’Av primarily commemorates:
- The destruction of the first Temple, which was destroyed on the ninth of Av by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezar in 586 BCE. About 100,000 Jews were killed during the invasion. The remaining tribes in the northern kingdom were exiled to Babylon and Persia.
- The destruction of the second Temple, which was destroyed on the ninth of Av by the Romans under Titus in 70 CE. Over 2,500,000 Jews died as a result of war, famine and disease. Over 1,000,000 Jews were exiled to all parts of the Roman Empire. Over 100,000 Jews were sold as slaves by Romans. Jews were killed and tortured in gladiatorial “games” and pagan celebrations.
But other tragedies have also occurred on the ninth of Av, including:
- The sin of the spies caused Hashem to decree that the Children of Israel who left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel.
- Betar, the last fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in the year 135 CE, fell, killing over 100,000 and sealing the fate of the Jewish people.
- One year after the fall of Betar, Turnus Rufus ploughed the site of the Second Temple. Romans subsequently built the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem.
- First Crusade declared by Pope Urban II in 1095 CE. 10,000 Jews were killed in first month of Crusade. The Crusades brought death and destruction to thousands of Jews, totally obliterating many communities in Rhineland and France.
- In 1492, King Ferdinand of Spain issued the expulsion decree, setting Tisha B’Av as the final date by which not a single Jew would be allowed to walk on Spanish soil. Inquisition in Spain and Portugal culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Families were separated, many dying by drowning. Massive loss of property occurred.
- In 1914, Britain and Russia declared war on Germany. World War I began. 75% of all Jews were in war zones. Jews were in the armies of all sides, with 120,000 Jewish casualties in those armies. Over 400 pogroms immediately followed the war in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.
- In 1942, deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp began. During the ensuing Holocaust, over 6,000,000 Jews were killed.
- And in modern times, in 1994, the deadly bombing the building of the AMIA (the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina) occurred, which killed 86 people and wounded some 300 others.
Although Tisha B’Av is a traditional holiday, it is not a feast or festive day. Tisha B’Av is a full fast day, meaning that no food or drink can be consumed from one evening to the next. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are severely ill are not allowed to participate in the fast because doing so would endanger their health. The observance of Tisha B’Av begins with the Seudah HaMafseket, the last meal before the fast commences. Unlike the elaborate feast we have before Yom Kippur, this meal is typically one course, usually consisting of a hard-boiled egg and some bread. Also, this meal is generally not eaten with others to avoid having a Zimmun (quorum for public blessing) at Birchat HaMazon. Zimmun indicates permanence, habit and durability. We avoid the Zimmun because we’d prefer not to make this mournful meal a recurring experience. It is customary to eat this meal seated on the floor or a low stool.
Observant Jews also refrain from bathing, wearing make-up or leather shoes (both symbols of luxury) or having sexual relations. Work is permitted on Tisha B’Av. Many of the traditional mourning practices are observed: people refrain from smiles, laughter and idle conversation, and sit on low stools. Because study of Torah is always joyful, one is enjoined to only learn material that is connected to the tragic events of the day or other somber material.
Synagogue services on Tisha B’Av are an emotional experience. During the evening service the book of Lamentations – a somber text about the destruction of the First Temple and the siege of Jerusalem – is read aloud, punctuated by sobs and wails from the congregation. The ark (cabinet where the Torah is kept) is draped in black. Because people are in mourning, they don’t greet each other at the synagogue and they sometimes sit on the floor instead of in seats. The following day, during the morning service, men continue to express their sorrow by refraining from wearing tefillin.
Tisha B’Av is the culmination of a three week period of increasing mourning, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, before the First Temple was destroyed. During this three week period, weddings and other parties are not permitted, and people refrain from cutting their hair. From the first to the ninth of Av, it is customary to refrain from eating meat or drinking wine (except on the Shabbat) and from wearing new clothing.
The Book of Lamentations
Over the course of the Jewish year, there are five books that are associated with specific holidays. These megillot (scrolls) relate the event that took place on the particular holiday or reflect the message of the occasion. The most of familiar is the scroll of Esther, which is read on Purim. The book of Eicha (Lamentations) is reading on the Ninth of Av. The book begins with the word “eicha,” meaning “how,” the first word of the opening verse, “How lonely sits the city once full of people.” This refers to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Lamentations is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the first Temple.
The Book of Lamentations is an intricate set of dirges and descriptions of Jerusalem under siege and of the destruction of the First Temple. The elegy bewails Jerusalem, once teeming with life and now sitting abandoned and alone like a solitary widow. It captures the horror of the siege: children pleading for water and bread in vain; cannibalism on the part of hunger-maddened mothers (“those who died by the sword were better off than those who perished by hunger”); nobles hanged; women raped; priests defiled.
The prophet basically blames Jewish immorality and idolatry for the tragedy. Yet there is a fascinating outburst in Chapter 3 in which the believer, as it were, accuses God of being the enemy–like a lion lying in ambush to destroy his victim. The prophet comes close to losing his faith (“I thought my strength and hope in the Lord had perished”) before the memory of God’s past kindnesses restores it–barely.
The Book of Lamentations is read softly at first. The volume of the reader’s voice builds to the climax, which is sung aloud by the entire congregation: “Turn us to you, O Lord, and we will return. Renew our days as of old.”
In 2015, Tisha B’Av fell on the Shabbat, 25 July, but observance was postponed, as traditional, and observed from sundown Saturday, 25 July, to sundown Sunday, 26th, because of the tradition that Shabbat should be a joyful, glorious day.