Tisha B’Av, often called Israel’s saddest day of the year, is a day of mourning in the Jewish calendar that commemorates some of the tragic events that have occurred in Jewish history.
Primarily, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in the 7th century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. The catastrophic loss of Temple and land is reflected annually in the observances of Tisha B’Av. In addition to the destruction of the Temples, the 9th of Av, 1492, marked the last day according to the edict of expulsion that Jews were allowed to live as Jews in Spain. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain brought an end to more than 700 years of residence in the area and the most populous Jewish community of the Medieval period. This was also a community that was one of the most accomplished and successful in all of Jewish history, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain was considered to be a tragic event of great magnitude in its time.
The observance of Tisha B’Av includes a full sunset to sunset period of fasting, prohibitions on washing, shaving, sexual activity, etc. The Book of Lamentations (Eichah) which describes the post destruction conditions of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. is traditionally read in a unique and dirge-like melody while sitting on the floor with the light only of candles. Tisha B’Av concludes a three week period of mourning which begins on the Hebrew date of the 17th of Tammuz, the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached in the first century by the Romans prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. During this time period of low mourning, it is customary to refrain from public celebrations and ceremonies like weddings and concerts. Tisha B’Av concludes the three weeks with a day of much more intense mourning rituals.
The observance of Tisha B’Av today varies considerably and is not consistently practiced outside of the more traditional Jewish communities. In Jerusalem, however, a diverse crowd of thousands gathers at the Kotel (the Western Wall) both for reasons of Jewish religious observance and for other reasons including national solidarity, support of the Jewish state, and the preservation of Jewish memory; all of which are uniquely represented by the Kotel itself.
In the last couple of decades, some have questioned the need for the continued observance of Tisha B’Av and its intense mourning rituals in light of the establishment of the State of Israel and the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Additionally, many Jews today are detached from Jewish observance and Jewish historical events and in these circles, the loss of the Temples does not resonate in significant ways. While these are very large and complex issues, many in the Jewish community today feel that Tisha B’Av is an opportunity to explore and find meaning in the communal connections that exist in the Jewish experience both past and present.
Debbie Goodman, Director of Jewish Life & Learning