Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av. This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.
We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year. Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant. My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday. The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date. I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast. My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting. I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge. As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain. I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.
Tragedies, mourning and hope
Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D. Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492. The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World. Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.
As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning. The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day. Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth. According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law. The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”
Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand. The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations. Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions. Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near. The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord. Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.” Is. 55:6-7 We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.
Rituals and culture
On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one: Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry). Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it. From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions. For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.” And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.” Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny. At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.
The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.
The three weeks
The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness. We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily. Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season. Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.
This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month. The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe). Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months. It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored. As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement. Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed. We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda. We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.
Honoring our Father
While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season. As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.
The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning. At its most basic level, av simply means “father.” Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons. However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).
In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June. In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av! While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father. Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us. But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.
For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.