Tonight begins the 25 hour fast of Tisha B’Av (lit: the 9th day of the month of Av), the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The fast commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem as well as a whole slew of tragic events that befell the Jewish people on that day:
These include the capture of Bethar, which marked the final defeat of Bar Kokhba‘s rebellion against the Romans, and the razing of Jerusalem by the Romans. The edict of King Edward I compelling the Jews of England to leave the country was signed on the ninth of Av in 1290, the Jews were expelled from Spain on that day in 1492, and World War I broke out in 1914. The sadness and mourning that Jews feel on this day are reflected in the various practices of Tisha B’Av, including abstaining from joyous activities like study of Torah, from eating and drinking, from sexual activity, and from wearing leather.
The ancient rabbinic sages held that the ninth of Av was preordained to be a day of tragedy. The Talmud states that God marked this day for tragedy because of the incident in Numbers 13-14 that took place in the wilderness on this day. Moses had sent spies to scout the Promised Land, and based on their frightened report, the people wept at the prospect of entering such a formidable land full of giants. God declared to them, “You wept without cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you.” The Talmudic tractate Taanit states that God then decreed that on the ninth of Av the Temple would be destroyed and Israel would go into exile.
וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא” (במדבר יד א). אמר רבי יוחנן: תשעה באב היה. אמר להם הקב”ה לישראל: “אתם בכיתם בכייה של חינם ואני אקבע לכם בכייה לדורות” (תענית ל ב ).
Here you can read a chronology of the major events leading up to the Churban (the destruction of the Temples and Jerusalem).
Tisha B’Av is also the anniversary of the traumatic “Hitnatkut”, or “Disengagement” from Gush Katif in Gaza, when 25 Jewish towns were destroyed and 10,000 Jewish residents of Gaza (aka “eevil Jewish settlers”) were expelled from their homes, many of them remaining homeless and jobless to this day, 6 years later, despite having been well-educated and productive members of society beforehand.
A short history of Tisha B’Av and more details about the laws and customs associated with the fast, including the laws concerning prayer, can be found here on Aish.com.
Lights in the synagogue are dimmed, candles are lit, and the curtain is removed from the Ark. The cantor leads the prayers in a low, mournful voice. This reminds us of the Divine Presence which departed from the Holy Temple.
• The Book of Eicha (Lamentations), Jeremiah’s poetic lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple, is read both at night and during the day.
• Following both the night and day service, special “Kinot” (elegies) are recited.
• In the morning, the Torah portion of Deuteronomy 4:25-40 is read, containing the prophecy regarding Israel’s future iniquity and exile. This is followed by the Haftorah from Jeremiah (8:13, 9:1-23) describing the desolation of Zion.
• In the afternoon, Exodus 32:11-14 is read. This is followed by the Haftorah from Isaiah 55-56.
• Since Tallis and Tefillin represent glory and decoration, they are not worn at Shacharit. Rather, they are worn at Mincha, as certain mourning restrictions are lifted.
• Birkat Kohanim is said only at Mincha, not at Shacharit.
• Prayers for comforting Zion and “Aneinu” are inserted into the Amidah prayer at Mincha.
• Before the fast is broken, it is customary to say Kiddush Lavana.
In Israel restaurants and places of entertainment are closed by law on Tisha B’Av. Many thousands of people gather at the Kotel (the Western Wall), sitting in circles on the floor, reading Megillat Eichah (the Book of Lamentations) by candlelight. After the Megillah reading, a fairly new tradition has begun with dialogue and discussion meetings around the country between secular and religious, left and right, trying to bridge the gaps. הלוואי (if only) this will bring about the fulfillment of our Rabbis’ wise words that just as it was baseless hatred that caused the destruction of Jerusalem, so baseless love will bring about its reconstruction.
The story is told of Napoleon, Emperor of France, who once walked past a synagogue and saw everyone sitting on the floor and crying. “What happened?” he asked. He was told: “It is Tisha B’Av today and we are weeping over the destruction of the Temple”. He stood in wonder and said “I swear that this people have a great future in their country. Where else can be found a nation that maintains its grief and its hope, and never lets them go?”.
מספרים על נפוליאון קיסר צרפת שפעם אחת עבר על ידי פתח בית כנסת וראה את כולם על הרצפה בוכים. שאל: “מה קרה?” אמרו לו: “עכשיו תשעה באב ובוכים על חורבן הבית”. עמד משתומם ואמר: “אני נשבע שיש אחרית טובה לעם זה בארץ שלהם! היכן מצינו עם שישמור אבלו ותקוותו ולא יסוג מאלה?!“
In a similar vein, if we wonder how is it possible to mourn an event that took place 2,000 years ago, how do we maintain the same level of grief and despair that was felt at the time of the Destruction, I would recommend reading this heart-rending yet heart-warming story: The Heart-Rending Cry. The author writes of her experience tutoring Ethiopian olim in Israel. The Ethiopians had been cut off from the major streams of Judaism since First Temple times, and had never heard of Purim and Channukah, let alone that the Temple had been destroyed.
“Teacher, what’s it like being in the Temple?” “What does the Temple look like?”
“Quiet!” I tried calming everyone down. “Listen everyone — there is no Temple! There used to be a Temple many years ago but today we don’t have a Temple. It was destroyed, burned down. I have never been to it, my father’s never been to it, and my grandfather has never been to it! We haven’t had a Temple for 2000 years!”
I said these words over and over, having a very hard time believing that this was so strange for them to hear. What’s the big deal? This is the reality with which we’ve all grown up. Why are they so bothered by it?
The next morning I was hardly bothered by the previous day’s events. In fact, I had nearly forgotten all about the incident. That day I had planed to just teach math, geometry and other secular subjects.
I got off the bus and leisurely made my way toward the school. As I neared the gate the guard approached me, seeming a bit alarmed. “Tell me,” he said, “do you have any idea what’s going on here today?”
I tried recalling a special activity that was supposed to be going on, or some ceremony that I had forgotten about, but nothing exceptional came to mind.
“Why do you ask?” I asked him. “What happened?”
He didn’t answer. He only pointed towards the entrance to the school.
I raised my head and saw a sizeable gathering of Ethiopian adult immigrants — apparently, my students’ parents. What are they doing here? And what are they yelling about?
I went over to them, attempting to understand what was the matter from the little Amaric that I knew.
As I came closer, everyone quieted down. One of the adults who’s Hebrew was on a higher level, asked me, “Are you our children’s teacher?”
“Yes,” I answered. “What is the matter, sir?”
“Our children came home yesterday and told us that their teacher taught them that the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists. Who would tell them such a thing?” He looked at me in anger.
“I told them that. We were discussing the Temple and I felt that they were a bit confused. So I explained to them that the Temple had been burned down thousands of years ago and that today, we no longer have a Temple. That’s all. What’s all the fuss about?”
He was incredulous. “What? What are you talking about?”
I was more confused than ever. “I don’t understand. What are you all so angry about? I simply reminded them of the fact that the Temple was destroyed and that it no longer exists today.”
Another uproar — this one even louder than before.
The representative quieted the others down, and again turned to me. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure that the Temple was destroyed? Of course I’m sure!” I couldn’t hide my smile. What a strange scene.
The man turned to his friends and in a dramatic tone translated what I had told him. At this point, things seemed to be finally sinking in.
Now, however, a different scene commenced: one woman fell to the ground, a second broke down in tears. A man standing by them just stared at me in disbelief. A group of men began quietly talking amongst themselves, very fast, in confusion and disbelief. The children stood on the side, looking on in great puzzlement. Another woman suddenly broke into a heart-rending cry. Her husband came over to her to hug her.
I stood there in utter shock.
I felt as if I had just brought them the worst news possible. It was as if I had just told them about the death of a loved one. I stood there across from a group of Jews who were genuinely mourning the destruction of the Temple.
Read the rest.
For more inspiration and comfort read “Coming together“, also on the Aish website.
כל המתאבל על ירושלים זוכה ורואה בשמחתה
Those who mourn Jerusalem will merit to see her in her joy
May Hashem grant us to witness the rebuilding of Jerusalem speedily in our days, Amen.