The Rituals of Tisha B’Av: How Jews Remember

Tuesday, July 16  corresponds to the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av on the Jewish Calendar.  This day, known as Tisha B’Av (which means the 9th of Av), is one of the darkest days of the Jewish year.  It is on this day that we are taught that the Temple that stood in Jerusalem – the very heart of ancient Jewish life – was destroyed not once, but twice.  The first destruction took place at the hands of the Babylonians on the 9th of Av 587BCE.  After being rebuilt by our ancestors, the Temple was destroyed again on the 9th of Av 70CE by the Romans.  We are also taught that many other calamities befell our people on this terrible day, including: in 1280, the King of England signed an edict expelling Jews from the country; in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain; in 1942 the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to concentration camps; in 1994, the Jewish Community Center in Argentina was blown up.

As a result of all of these tragedies, Tisha B’Av is a day of intense mourning and grief.  It is a fast day.  There are to be no celebrations.  Personal comfort is put aside.  Many sit and even sleep on the floor.  Idle chatter, leisure activities like listening to music, even work in many cases, are to be avoided.  The synagogue service includes a very solemn service where the lights are dimmed as the Book of Eicha, a lamentation over the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, is chanted.

For many contemporary Jews, Tisha B’Av is overlooked or ignored.  It falls in the middle of the summer when many people are busy with summer activities. It is certainly not a “fun” holiday that excites us to get involved in the observance.  For some Jews, the idea of mourning the loss of the Temple, where animal sacrifice was the way we connected with G-d, is not something they are willing to do. I appreciate those who embrace this argument; they are not simply ignoring Tisha B’Av.  They have given the holiday and its rituals some thought.  However, not only are they ignoring the many other tragedies that befell the Jewish people on the 9th of Av, they are also missing the bigger picture: Tisha B’Av and the rituals of loss that we engage in during the holidays capture how we Jews “do history”.

As Jews, we are frequently reminded to zachor/to remember our history.  Remembering Jewishly does not simply involve opening up a book and reading about our past.  If this was the case, the dramatic seders, matzah and spicy horseradish of Passover would not be necessary. Neither would be the building of sukkot or the antics of Purim.  As Jews, we are taught that remembering is not simply done by thinking about something.  Remembering entails using our mind, heart and soul.  We need to feel history, taste it, live it.

And so, on Tisha B’Av, while some of us might not want to return to the sacrifices of the Temple, this is no excuse not to remember the tragedies associated with the 9th of Av.  The destruction of the Temples were huge events in our past.  They redefined who we were as a people. The sense of loss that our ancestors felt as a result of the destruction was overwhelming and, if we embrace some or all of the rituals of Tisha B’Av, that loss is still palpable to us today. As a result, remembering Jewishly makes history come to life in a powerful, often challenging, way.  Granted, fasting on Tisha B’Av and bringing the pain of the past into our lives today is not a pleasant experience – but it reminds us of the struggles of our past and sweetens the blessing of our modern Jewish lives.

On Tuesday, I encourage you to mark Tisha B’Av by remembering Jewishly.  Whether it be by going all out and fasting or doing something as simple as not listening to music for the day, embracing a Tisha B’Av ritual will deepen our appreciation of the incredible journey of our people.  While this journey has been more than painful at times, commemorating Tisha B’Av allows us to stand back in awe and realize just how incredible it is that we Jews have not only survived the journey, but we are thriving as the journey continues.  Am Yisrael Chai/The Jewish people live!

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