After the spring holidays of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), the Jewish people settle back into the routine cycle of weekly Sabbaths and monthly New Moons. This lasts through the summer until the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the late summer and early fall.
The exception is a period of remembrance of the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem, highlighted by a fast on Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av).
This year, Tisha B’Av is Saturday and Sunday. (Jewish days begin at sundown and last until the next sundown. This hearkens back to the creation story in Genesis, which recounts that "there was evening and then morning," a first, second, third day and so forth.)
The first temple destroyed was that built by King Solomon. In the year 586 BCE, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and destroyed the temple. It was rebuilt after the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE, ending the Babylonian Exile.
The Roman Emperor Titus destroyed this temple in 70 CE, also on the ninth day of the month of Av. (The actual destruction was on the 10th of Av, but the Talmudic rabbis decided that the fast should be on the day that the calamity began, the ninth.)
Giving up luxuries
In addition to fasting, which includes not drinking as well as not eating, there are also other traditions to mark this day of mourning. These are found in Talmud, and include not washing or bathing, no use of creams and oils, going barefoot, refraining from marital relations, and eating a sparse meal with no wine just before beginning the fast. (These restrictions are waived if they endanger a person’s health.)
Rabbi Judah also mandated sleeping on the bare floor, but his contemporaries overruled him as this would be a hardship for pregnant or nursing mothers. This is a sign that the rabbis, although leaders of a paternalistic society, were sensitive to the needs of women.
There are other traditions associated with Tisha B’Av in various communities and among individuals. These include restrictions on things associated with comfort and pleasure, such as sitting on low stools, dimming candles in synagogues and eating boiled eggs sprinkled with ashes.
A litany of tragedy
In addition to the destruction of the two temples, Talmudic rabbis associated other events with Tisha B’Av.
• The first was the return of spies sent by Moses into Canaan. Ten of the 12 spies declared it impossible for the Hebrews to successfully invade Canaan, while Joshua and Caleb thought an invasion would succeed. The masses cried out in despair, causing the Lord to decree that their lack of faith would doom them to 40 years in the desert, so that a new generation would merit entering the Holy Land.
• Also, in 135 CE, the Romans defeated a Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kokhba and leveled the city of Betar on the Ninth of Av.
Tisha B’Av is also the time that Jews remember tragedies that occurred in past summers:
• It was on the 17th of Tammuz, the month before Av, that the Hebrews forged and worshipped the golden calf while Moses was at Mount Sinai receiving the Tablets of the Law.
• The First Crusade in 1096 began on the 20th of Av, killing thousands of Jews in France and Germany.
• Jews were ordered out of England in 1290, France in 1306, and Spain in 1492, all on the ninth or 10th of Av.
• Heinrich Himmler got formal approval for the "final solution" of the "Jewish problem" on the ninth of Av in 1941, and one year later the Germans began deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to their death in gas chambers.
Readings on suffering
Not surprisingly, private and congregational observances focus on recollection of past tribulations, and biblical study is limited to this. It is forbidden to continue routine study of the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — as that is a spiritually enjoyable activity.
Communal worship includes reading the Book of Lamentations and portions of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Job.
Psalm 137 is featured during Tisha B’Av. This begins with the words, "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept as we thought of Zion. … If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth … "
Readings on hope
Toward the end of Tisha B’Av, Jews begin to realize that there must be an end to mourning. They 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 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. This is a lesson for communities over the world today in the wake of tragedies. It is a lesson for individuals facing the loss of loved ones.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.