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Tisha B’Av — The Ninth of Av

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Tisha B’Av Fast Day
| Synagogue services on Tisha B’Av | Rebirth and Messianic Hope | Tisha B’Av in the Liturgical Cycle | Some Contemporary Views on Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Avthe Ninth day of the month of Av— is one of four Jewish fast days mentioned by Zechariah (8:19) which mourn the catastrophic destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av is a major fast day with the restrictions matching the fast of Yom Kippur.

According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) Tisha B’Av has traditionally been associated with the destruction of both Temples—by the Babylonians (586 BCE) and again by the Romans (70 CE). Midrash also associates other catastrophic events in Jewish history with the date, the Ninth of Av. The incident related to the unfavorable report of the spies sent by Moses to Canaan, the people’s subsequent complaint to God, and God’s condemnation of the generation that came out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, never to enter the land, is said to have occurred on the Ninth of Av (Numbers. Chs. 13–14). The razing of the city of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the failure of the Bar Kockhba revolt (135 CE) have also been accounted to the Ninth of Av.Ta'anit 30b

Over time Tisha B’Av has come a day to commemorate many more calamities in Jewish history. These include: the expulsion of Jews from England (by edict of Edward I, 1290), the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492), the beginning of World War I (on the eve of Tisha B’Av, 1914) and the European unrest and accompanied rise in anti-semitic sentiment over the following decades which resulted in the holocaust, and the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka on the eve of Tisha B’Av, 1942.

Tisha B’Av is a major Fast Day
Observance of Tisha B’Av includes a full (25 hour) fast which, like the fast of Yom Kippur, is extended to encompass, not only food and drinks, but to include self denial in the pleasurable aspects of life (bathing, sexual relations, adornment etc.) The importance of the Tisha B’Av fast is noted in the Talmud, “He who eats or drinks on the Ninth of Av must be considered as guilty as one who has eaten on Yom Kippur” (Ta’an. 30b). If Tisha B’Av falls on a Sabbath Day the observance is moved to the following day (Sunday) so that the Sabbath is not compromised by mourning and the full fast of Tisha B’Av is observed.

Synagogue services on Tisha B’Av
In the synagogue, the cover (parokhet) of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept is removed. The Sephardic custom, where the ark normally has no curtain, is to cover the scrolls with a black cloth. During the ma’ariv service (at sundown at the beginning of Tisha B’Av) the synagogue is very dimly lit to increase the sense of “darkness” experienced by Israel that is recalled at Tisha B’Av. The synagogue services include: the melodious chanting of the Book of Lamentations; the reciting of kinot—poetic elegies, piyyutim that recall and recount the destruction of the Temple and the sins of the people; the Kaddish (omitting the line which calls on God to “accept our pleas” [titkabeil]) and the haftarah (Jer. 8:13–9:23). Some Sephardic communities also read the Book of Job at Tisha B’Av.

Neither tefillin nor tallit are worn on the morning of Tisha B’Av and the congregation will sit on low stools. Both practices symbolize a status of mourning. The Talmud teaches that, at Tisha B’Av, Israel should observe mourning rites as for the death of next-of-kin (Ta’an. 30a). Even the study of Torah is prohibited since Torah equates with Joy. However, the Study of the haftarah from Jeremiah and of the Talmudic tractates relating to destruction is permitted.

The haftarah for Tisha B’Av (from Jeremiah) is eloquent in its expressions of desolation and destruction that will result from sin. Deceit and dishonesty destroys social harmony and, at a religious and spiritual level, denies the Torah and its precepts, and worship and religious observance.

Tisha B'Av—a Focus on Rebirth and Messianic Hope
Many Jews feel that Tisha B’Av is important because its thrust enables a focus on rebirth and renewal of religious and ethical life which links the experiences of the past with the universal aspects of messianic hope. This messianic hope is hinted at during the Tisha B’Av services when the penultimate verse of Lamentations is repeated aloud by the congregation, “Take us back, Oh LORD, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days of old” (Lam. 5:21).

There is a tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av—in this way the notion that redemption will rise up out of the ashes of desolation and destruction becomes a source of hope for the future. The donning of tefillin and tallit during the afternoon service, the recitation of the full Kaddish without omissions, the restoration of the parokhet to the Ark, and the custom of sweeping out the house (in case the Messiah should come) and, in some communities, the practice that women dress up, are indications of the hopeful mood on which Tisha B’Av ends.

There have been ongoing discussions regarding the traditional associations of Tisha B’Av with the calamitous events in evolving Jewish history which have been the result of innocent circumstance. Traditionally the connection between desolation and loss, and the historical losses of Zion and the Temple were interpreted (e.g., Jeremiah) as Divine punishment for Israel’s apostasy and moral, ethical and social failures. Does this aspect of Tisha B’Av compromise the innocence of suffering which has been experienced in other Jewish tragedies remembered at Tisha B’Av? Is it possible to say that victims of Pogroms and the Shoah (Holocaust) were responsible for their own suffering? Many communities recall these recent catastrophic events at Tisha B’Av because they are occasions of unprecedented community sadness and mourning. However, it is felt by some that the mourning of the Shoah at Tisha B’Av tends to distort the theological foundations of Tisha B’Av and that the tragedy of the Shoah is better remembered and mourned on other days (e.g., Yom HaShoah, 27 Nisan.)

Tisha B’Av in the Liturgical Cycle
In the liturgical cycle Tisha B’Av is the culmination of the Three Weeks, a period of mourning which begins with the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. These three weeks of mourning are marked by days of avoidance of pleasurable activities or joyful celebrations which intensify on the First of Av and during the ensuing days. The “Nine Days” [i.e., the 1st to 9th Av] are characterized by abstinence from wine and meat (except for the Sabbath.) Special haftarot are read on the three Shabbatot (Sabbaths) of the Three Weeks which are associated with themes of destruction and desolation. The Sabbath immediately before Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon (Sabbath of Vision) after the first words of the haftarah, The Vision [of Isaiah…] (Isa. 1:1). Following Tisha B’Av there begins a series of seven weeks which have a theme of comfort. The special haftarot for this period express this theme of consolation beginning with the Sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av which is called Shabbat Nachamu from the opening words of the haftarah from Isaiah (40:1), “Comfort, Oh comfort My people….” Thus the liturgical cycle moves gently into the month of Elul and preparations for t’shuvah (repentance) as Rosh HaShanah and The Days of Awe approach.

The haftarot of Admonition give way after Tisha B'Av to the haftarot of Consolation, "Comfort, Oh comfort My people...". (Isa. 40:1)

Some Contemporary Views on Tisha B’Av
There are some Jews today who feel that the messianic hope expressed by Zechariah in the return of the LORD to Zion was fulfilled with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

“I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called a City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain … Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a cane in hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there … I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God” (Zech. 8:3-7).

In this context the mourning and yearning of Tisha B’Av has, for them, lost some meaning and, indeed, Zechariah’s prophecy that the “fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah” (Zech. 8:18) has been fulfilled.

At the same time, the observance and remembrance which is integral to Tisha B'Av continues to be a witness to hope and to sustain the optimism that God continues to be present in the world. No matter how dark life might be there is a promise that joy and gladness will again enter into our lives and into the world.


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