Making Sense of Tisha B’Av

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 24, 2020 / 3 Av 5780

THROUGH A LENS OF FIRE: Hasidic Insights on the Torah will meet on Wednesday July 29th at 12:30 pm. Please check the CNS calendar for the most up to date Zoom link.

Summary: Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year. Over the last half century, it appears that fewer Jews observe it, perhaps because it isn’t immediately uplifting or fun. In this week’s Oasis Song, I have attempted to offer some explanations of the what, how and why of this observance. Ultimately, it is a very significant holiday. Zoom services will be Wednesday night at 8 pm, and Thursday at 7 am.

We have entered a period of time known as the Nine Days. This refers to the first days of the month of Av leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, the darkest day of the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples [586 BCE and 70 CE]– the one that Solomon built, and then later the one that Ezra and Herod had a hand in constructing. According to relatively early tradition, five calamities befell the Jewish people on the 9th of Av. To these were added other humiliations. For example, in 1941, Heinrich Himmler received permission from the Nazi party to begin implementing the Final Solution, which would result in the death of 6 million Jews and millions of other minority groups.

Because of this collection of darkness that gathers around Tisha B’Av, numerous mourning customs have been associated with the period. We try to consciously reduce our joy by abstaining from numerous pleasurable activities. We refrain from eating meat on weekdays (at least for Ashkenazic Jews) donning leather shoes, or even wearing freshly laundered clothes. Bathing for pleasure is not permitted, but it is for sanitary reasons. During the pandemic, this is doubly so and everyone should continue to wash hands frequently. Tisha B’Av is also a full-day fast.

Even Jewish study is limited to less pleasurable texts such as books about mourning. On Tisha B’Av itself, this is heightened when we chant the Book of Lamentations in a mournful mode and read kinot, or dirges. That will happen this coming Wednesday at 8 pm, and again on Thursday morning when we gather on Zoom.

It’s not really Jewish to focus excessively on suffering or loss or pain (despite the many jokes to the contrary). We never wore hair shirts like early Catholics regularly did to subdue the temptations of the body or engaged in tatbir, the self-flagellation rituals of certain Kurdish groups. Which begs the question of why we do so during these Nine Days.

One answer is that these mourning practices help us to feel part of Jewish history. The loss, destruction and death isn’t something that occurred to other people. It’s not a historical event, removed from our experience. It happened to us, and therefore we mourn. Similarly, the Passover seder is meant to give us a taste of slavery followed by freedom and Shavuot is designed so that we can encounter God’s revelation and the giving of the Torah. These rituals are meant to change history into personal memory.

There’s another answer as well. When our Talmudic authors reflected on the loss of our great religious and cultural centers, they declared that the Temples were destroyed because of our senseless hatred toward one another. They sought a lesson and a new direction from tragedy and trauma; I have great respect for the frame they put around upheaval and the loss of self-rule that ensued. Historically, that’s a very Jewish motif—to place responsibility for the evil of the world on ourselves and our choices. The temper of our times is quite different, and it is now common to displace responsibility for the condition of our lives onto the actions of others.

Isn’t that interesting? Different eras can have such radically divergent approaches to explain suffering and to seek either relief from it or meaning through it. There is truth in both approaches. Rabbi Neil Gilman, who died nearly three years ago, might have explained this difference through his study of myth. For him, a myth wasn’t a fairy tale. Rather, a myth is how we explain what it means to be human when facts can only provide a partial answer. For example, humans are mortal. To this day, scientists are still trying to unravel the aging process, in part with the hope of reversing it or extending our life span. Yet we still don’t definitively know why we age and die.

The Torah provides us a myth—a way to explain our mortality, by recounting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We can accept that myth as literally true (God given) or as a moral explanation for how we brought death upon ourselves by our choices. In either case, we don’t have sufficient facts to fully justify what we believe. But we have to choose what we believe, or it will be chosen for us.

The Talmudic Sages were supplying our ancestors with a powerful myth when they decided to teach us that the destruction of God’s home (the Temples) and the loss of Jewish autonomy came out of our inability to get along. Even without political power, we are responsible for our fate and the choices we make. For a people that was about to embark on nearly two thousand years of powerlessness, they ensured that we would remain spiritually and psychologically empowered. They sensed that by voluntary reliving the loss caused by senseless hatred, we would be better prepared to avoid repeating the mistakes of history.

May we also have the wisdom to do so.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. If you were a Talmudic sage and wanted to ensure that future generations would remain connected to the loss of our homeland and political self-rule, what approach would you take?
  2. In the decades after WWII, a debate raged. Should memory of the Holocaust be rolled into Tisha B’Av (limiting the number of “down days” on the calendar), or did it require its own special day? Most of the Jewish world now observes two days. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each side of this debate?
  3. Who and what do you mourn for in your life? What does such mourning teach or provide you?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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