Memory and imagination: The two keys that unlock the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av.
In fact, Tisha B’Av, a holiday many Jews are unfamiliar with, is all about memory: the collective memory of the Jewish people, as much a family as it is a religion.
But to tap into the Jewish collective memory bank, we modern Jews need to use our imagination to envision what our people experienced generations ago.
And Tisha B’Av shows us how.
But first, we have to disabuse ourselves of what we think a holiday is: a celebratory time filled with family, friends, food and festivities. Tisha B’Av has been called the saddest day of the Jewish year, and with good reason.
The ninth of Av, which this year starts at sundown on Saturday, Aug. 10, and ends the next night, culminates a three-week period of mourning when there are traditionally no weddings, haircuts or glamorous parties. It is the day in the life of the Jewish people when numerous tragedies occurred:
425 BCE: The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed at the hands of the Babylonians in a bloody siege on Jerusalem. Some 100,000 Jews were killed, followed by a mass exile to Babylon and Persia.
70 C.E.: The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans under Titus. This time, more than 2 million Jews died from famine, war and disease; another million were exiled, many of them sold as slaves by the Romans.
133: The Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 133 C.E. ended with the mass murders of the Jewish community of Betar.
1095: The First Crusade, dispatched by Pope Urban II, killed 10,000 Jews in just the first month. The Crusades would wipe out many Jewish communities in Germany and France.
1290: The Jews of England were expelled amid countless pogroms, with untold quantities of sacred books and property confiscated.
1492: The Inquisition in Spain and Portugal ends with the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula with mass thefts of homes and businesses. Many Jews also killed in the process.
1914: World War I begins, unleashing a spate of violence against the Jews including 400 pogroms in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.
1942: Mass deportations of more than 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp begins, signaling the beginning of the end of the Jews of Poland.
1994: The bombing of the AMIA building (Jewish community center in Buenos Aires) kills 86 and injures more than 300 others.
Traditions of the day
Imagining how our forebearers must have felt during these painful times and how best to remember them? Jewish tradition provides a way.
It begins with a fast (eschewing food and drink) in magnitude second only to Yom Kippur, running from sundown on Saturday night until sundown the next day. During that time, people also refrain from greeting each other, wearing leather shoes, bathing (excepting dirty babies and kids), wearing fancy clothing and jewelry. People also refrain from marital relations. Torah study, too, is restricted to sad texts such as Lamentations (“Eicha”). Driving is permitted, as is work when necessary, but many take the day off. This year, the bulk of the holiday falls on Sunday, so it’s less of an issue (though Sunday is a workday in Israel).
On Saturday night, Jews the world over will read the powerful and disturbing book of Lamentations, sung to a mournful melody. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, it describes in horrifying detail the devastation that would be visited on Jerusalem, including starvation, violence and even cannibalism. As a gesture of mourning, many Jews sit on low chairs or on the floor from nightfall through midday. (Walk into a traditional synagogue during evening or morning services, and you’ll see the rabbi and most everyone else on or near the floor.)
If planning to be in Israel for the holiday, you may wish to join the thousands expected at Women in Green’s 25th annual Tisha B’Av Walk around the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Meeting in Independence Park on Agron Street at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night for a reading of “Eicha” and a film, the group will then circle the Old City en route to Lion’s Gate for speeches by the likes of former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
“As the bride who surrounds her groom under the chuppah, the people of Israel surround the Temple Mount,” says Nadia Matar, a walk organizer. “On this night, we express our longing for the place which was destroyed on Tisha B’Av—a place we are waiting to rebuild.”
‘Remember the destructions of the Jewish people’
How to convey this message to a new generation?
Out at Camp Ramah in the Rockies, they understand that Tisha B’Av is the only Jewish holiday that falls in the summer.
“We use it as a day to build our campers’ Jewish identity,” says director Rabbi Eliav Bock. “We remember all the destructions of the Jewish people, including the Holocaust and the Israeli soldiers who died defending the land of Israel.”
To bring that message home, after reading “Eicha” at night, the next day Israelis on staff read the names of soldiers among their families and friends who gave their lives in Israel’s wars over the years. In addition, many of the campers opt to fast and wear canvas shoes.
“The rest of the summer is all about celebrating the joys of being Jewish,” adds the rabbi. “This is one day we spend remembering our people’s tragedies.”
But for those not at a Jewish sleepaway camp or in Jerusalem for the holiday, learning the ins and outs of Tisha B’Av is as close as your laptop.
One destination is Rabbi Mark Melamut’s video for Bimbam. In only four minutes, he offers an overview and understanding of both the somberness of the holiday and its ultimate message of hope and redemption.
Another is a collection of videos on everything you could possibly want to know about the holiday, all in one place on the Chabad.org website.
Lastly, you can sample several Tisha B’Av videos offered by Alpha Beta.
It’s also important to remember that, when we grieve over the destruction of the two Temples, we realize that “we’re not mourning a piece of property that’s been destroyed, we’re mourning the Temples as the direct presence of G-d in the world and G-d’s attributes of wisdom, understanding, kindness, peace, justice and truth.” So says Rabbi David Aaron, dean of Isralight and author of such books as The God-Powered Life and The Secret Life of God.
“When the Temple was destroyed, the presence of Absolute Good left the world, and that’s really what we’re mourning,” he said.
This leaves the job up to us, says the rabbi. “In the absence of the Holy Temple, we need to recreate this connection ourselves. As Rav Kook said, ‘If we lost the Second Temple because of the senseless hate we had for each other, the only thing that can fix it is senseless love.’ Only then will the Temple will be rebuilt.”