Tisha B’Av – the “un” Jewish Holiday

The eve of the 9th of Av is the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av -- the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. This is a Jewish “holiday” the rabbis call "a day set for misfortune." The Midrash says that G-d, from the beginning, had marked the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av as a day of grief because of the Spies-in-the-Desert episode.

You may recall…

The Jews are in the wilderness. Moses sends spies to Canaan. They return on the 9th of Av and the majority reports that the land cannot be conquered because the people who live there are GIANTS!

So the Israelites rebel and cry, "We should have stayed in Egypt!"

This makes G-d really mad. "You weep without reason," He says. "But I will give you a good reason to weep on this day."

And then -- because of their cowardice, ingratitude and lack of trust – G-d condemns the people to die in the desert without seeing the Promised Land and ordains the destruction of the Temple in some future year on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av.

Fast forward...

It's the 9th of Av, 586 B.C.E., and (just as predicted) Solomon's Temple is taken by the Babylonians. The Jews are sent into exile and Tisha B'Av becomes a Jewish holiday for tears.

Years later, Cyrus lets the Jews return to Jerusalem and allows them to rebuild the Temple. They ask, "Do we still have to continue to fast and mourn the loss of the First Temple as we did while in Babylon?" To which the persuasive prophet Zechariah answers, "These fast days should now be turned into days of joy," whereupon the Fast of the 9th of Av is discontinued for centuries (or so it is generally believed...).

But then comes another catastrophic 9th of Av, this one in 70 C.E.

The Romans destroy the Second Temple, force Israel back into exile and Tisha B'Av becomes, once again, a Jewish holiday of mourning and fasting.

The gloom of the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av is further compounded by more tragedies that are said to have happened on the dreadful date of this Jewish holiday:

  • 135 C.E.: The fall of Bethar ends the Bar Kochba rebellion
  • 136 C.E.: Jerusalem is plowed under and a heathen city built on its site.
  • 1244: Torahs and sacred books are burned in France.
  • 1290: The Jews are run out of England.
  • 1492: The Jews are forced out of Spain.
And so, the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av becomes known as the Black Fast -- a symbol of all the persecutions endured by Israel, the day of tears predicted way back in the desert.

* Fasting and Mourning Customs

Like the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av is a major fast observed from sunset to sunset. The ancient rabbis said, "When Av comes in all merriment goes out." And they meant it. Starting with the first day of Av it's no meat, no wine (except on Shabbat), no clean clothes or celebrations. What a bummer! The meal on the eve of the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av is modest and not very appetizing -- hard-boiled eggs and noodles (some sprinkle ashes on the food), and the very pious sleep on the floor with a stone for a pillow. I don’t know about you, but after all those hard-boiled eggs, I’m going to at least need a mattress and a pillow with some feathers.

On the actual day of the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av, as on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, you can't eat, drink, bathe, wear perfume or leather shoes or engage in any kind of physical pleasure. It's also customary to abstain from work, since on this unlucky day your labors will probably turn to dross, anyway, so why bother? Although, what a waste of a day off work when you can’t have a drink or partake in physical pleasures.

Unique to the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av is the ban against Torah study (a joyous activity) except for the reading of the Book of Lamentations, Job and certain chapters from Jeremiah.

Another old Tisha B'Av custom is cemetery visits, which probably stems from Jeremiah's trip to the grave of the Patriarchs in hopes he could convince G-d to let the Israelites enter the Promised Land.

According to legend, all the great men of the past rise from their graves on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av to mourn the lost glory of Israel, and in Polish villages little boys left wooden swords on the graves so the dead, when they arose, could give Israel's enemies a good zetz. (Kids understand these things...)

* Synagogue Customs and Observance

On the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av, the synagogue changes from a joyous House of G-d to a house of mourning. Traditionally, the lights are dimmed, the ark and Torah scrolls are draped in black and the congregation sits on low benches or on the floor. Words of greeting are discouraged, but if someone says "hello" you may respond out of courtesy.

In the evening, the Book of Lamentations (Echah) is chanted. This powerfully written little book laments the loss of the Temple and describes the desolation of Jerusalem and the suffering of the Jewish people. Still, it is customary to end the reading on a positive note by repeating the next-to-last verse, "Turn us unto Thee, Oh Lord, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old!" (Who wrote Lamentations? Many scholars give the nod to Jeremiah and since his birthday is -- you guessed it -- on the 9th of Av, he seems an appropriate choice.)

Sad as the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av may be, the month of Av is not only mourning and fasting. Change into your clean clothes because after the 9th of Av comes the anticipation of comfort and consolation, reflected in the rabbinic name for the month itself -- Menachem Av -- He who comforts Av.

On the Saturday after the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av (Shabbat Nachamu -- the Sabbath of Comfort ), we read the Haftarah from Isaiah that begins, "Comfort ye, My people." Then, the mood changes from despair to hope. In the shtetl, Shabbat Nachamu was a festive time, and many a happy bride and groom tied the knot on that weekend.

The month of Av also brings us the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Av -- 15 Av -- an ancient festival for young single men and women which is unfortunately almost totally ignored today, except by the most fervent JDaters of course.

Now, if the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av is gloom and destruction, then the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Av is the antidote -- a time of joy and new beginnings.

So maybe there is some truth in the adage that out of sorrow can come joy after all!

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