From the spring holidays of Passover and the Feast of Weeks until the late summer or early fall High Holy Days of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, Jewish people settle into the routine cycle of weekly Sabbaths and monthly New Moons.
The exception is the Fast of Tisha B’Av, which this month is from sundown Saturday through sundown Sunday. This year, the Jewish fast comes just after our Muslim brothers and sisters conclude their monthlong fast of Ramadan.
“Tisha B’Av” simply means “the Ninth of the Jewish month of Av,” on which day Jews fast in mourning for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
This happened first in 586 B.C.E. at the hands of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, then again in 70 C.E. under the Roman emperor Titus.
The destruction was completed on the Tenth of Av, but the rabbis of the Talmud decided that commemoration should begin on the Ninth as the day of “the beginning of the calamity.”
They noted that this was also the date of other calamities in the history of Judaism, such as the declaration that the Jews should not immediately enter the land of Israel after the Exodus; the capture of Bethar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kohba Uprising of 135 C.E.; and the day one year later that the Roman emperor Hadrian established a heathen temple on the site of the destroyed Jewish temple. Jewish tradition also holds that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain occurred on the Ninth of Av.
In addition to fasting, many Jews also mark this day of mourning by various means. These may include eating a boiled egg sprinkled with ashes at the last meal before the fast as a symbol of mourning; saying the blessings after the last meal individually and in silence; sleeping on the floor or ground; sitting on the floor or low stools; refraining from wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries during morning prayers as these are considered ornaments; taking off shoes before entering a synagogue; dimming of candles and lights in synagogues; and many other actions associated with joy and pleasure. These traditions and others vary among Jewish communities and individuals worldwide.
Also during this day, study of the Jewish Bible — the Tanach or Torah, Prophets and Readings — is limited to those parts that evoke remembrance of disasters past and not-so-past. Reading the Book of Lamentations during communal prayers is common, as are portions of Jeremiah, Isaiah and the Book of Job.
Toward the end of Tisha B’Av, Jews begin to realize that there can be an end to mourning, and they may read some of the poems of the 12th-century Jewish poet of Spain, Judah ha-Levi.
On the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av, the portion of Prophets read at the synagogue service is “Nahamuh” from Isaiah chapter 40, which begins: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my People, Saith your G-d: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
Tisha B’Av tells us that mourning should be tempered with hope.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on the Middle East.