Tisha B’Av: Judaism’s Saddest Day
© 2009, Charles S. Weinblatt
The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av has come to be known as Tisha B’Av. It begins at sunset on the eighth of Av and ends at sunset on the ninth. It has come to be known as the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar.
Throughout Jewish history, the ninth of Av has been recognized as a day of tragedy. Many dreadful events occurred or began on this day in history, including the destruction of the First (586 BC) and Second Temples (516 BC), the razing of Jerusalem by Romans (70 CE), the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition (1492) and the beginning of World War I (1914), which presaged events leading to the Holocaust. During the First Crusade, 10,000 Jews were murdered on Tisha B’Av (1095). In 1290, Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av. It is also said to be the day that Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and discovered his people worshipping idols. During the Holocaust, deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Nazi Treblinka death camp began on Tisha B’Av (1942). More recently, the deadly bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires occurred on Tisha B’Av (1994).
In addition to fasting during Tisha B’Av, observant Jews refrain from washing, working, drinking, using electricity, shopping and having sexual relations. Jews mark the day as they would during a shiva, the Jewish period of mourning. Torah study is forbidden and Jews often bury old and damaged prayer books on this day. Many Jews sit on low stools or sleep on the floor. They refrain from greeting visitors and read the scroll of Eicha (Lamentations). During the three weeks before this holiday, Jews are forbidden to marry. This period of mourning begins with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz, when the Second Temple walls of Jerusalem were breached in 70 CE.
Orthodox Jews believe that Tisha B’Av will remain a day of mourning until the messiah arrives and the temple is rebuilt. At that time, it will turn into a day of celebration forever. Although Reformed Judaism has never assigned this type of significance to the destruction of the temple, Tisha B’Av is still observed as a day to recall Jewish tragedies.
While Jews observe Tisha B’Av by looking backwards on the calendar, the holiday can have significant contemporary meaning. When fasting, Jews can comprehend the pain and suffering of destitute people around the world. This realization can be turned into compassion and charity. Having been victims of genocide many times in the past, Jews can use this holiday as a time to aid contemporary victims of ethnic, religious, racial and gender persecution. Jews can also realize how fortunate they are compared with their ancestors. Although anti-Semitism is increasing today, Jews are not persecuted to the same extent as they were throughout history.
Coming to terms with disaster is never easy. No race or religion has had more historical experience with disaster than the Hebrew people have. Repeatedly, Jews have been conquered, enslaved, massacred, tortured and expelled. Somehow, despite all efforts to destroy this tiny religion, Jews found a way to survive and even prosper. The Jewish people found a way to turn disaster into survival and survival into a new nation, rebuilt over the crumbling rocks of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of David and Saul.
It has been more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the temples in ancient Israel. During that time millions of Jews have been slaughtered by Greeks, Romans, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. Despite the indignity of historical perspective, Jews continue to exist. They worship the same God, recite the same prayers, observe the same holidays and perform the same rites and rituals as their courageous ancient ancestors did. This astonishing chronicle of survival may be one of the greatest legends of human history.
Although Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, it can also be considered, through careful reflection, as a day to be grateful for the survival of the Jewish people. Despite civilization’s persistent attempts to destroy Jews, this tiny, persistent religion has found a way to survive, prosper and contribute to the cultures of countless societies. In this regard, Tisha B’Av can also be observed as a day to be thankful for the resilient endurance of the “chosen people.” Always persecuted, never destroyed; the Jewish people march on through history, unabated, undeterred and ever grateful for the influence of their ancestors.
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, Jacob’s Courage