Why Tisha B’Av? Should We Still Observe It?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 9, 2021 / 29 Tammuz 5781

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs explores the history and meaning of Tisha B’Av while questioning how the day should be observed in our time.

Reading Time: Six minutes

This Shabbat marks the start of the month of Av, within which sit two remarkably different observances. The first is Tisha B’Av, or the 9th of Av (starting Saturday night, July 17th), during which we mourn the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and a host of other calamities that occurred on the same day. The second is Tu B’Av (July 24th), which is often called the Jewish Valentine’s Day.

Tisha B’Av commemorates the loss of the ancient Temple, which was the place of national gathering, celebration, and sacrificial worship. I don’t know too many modern Jews who long for a return to animal sacrifice. Yet the destruction of the Second Temple also signaled a key transformation: it is responsible for the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.

One of the powerful blessings of Rabbinic Judaism was the way it moved us from a centralized rite (the Temple and the Land) to a decentralized and portable religion. The timing could not have been more serendipitous because the destruction of the Second Temple set into motion the start of our two-thousand-year-old exile. During our galut, as it is called in Hebrew, Diaspora communities formed and collapsed, moving across the globe. We are the first refugee nation, which despite being colonialized and evicted from our homeland (repeatedly), maintained and strengthened its identity despite millennia of powerlessness and displacement. Rabbinic Judaism fostered a much more horizontal form of leadership in which local communities could draw on the Torah and our rich legal heritage to adapt to regional needs. The way I view our history, this accident of oppression and exile actually inculcated within the Jewish psyche the most important survival skill—the capacity to change rapidly when the times warranted, all while preserving the essential aspects of our religion, culture, and connection to God.

The contemporary era has witnessed two massive and disruptive events that also fostered deep change in Jewish living. The first was the Shoah. It gave rise to new theologies as well as a recognition that Jews have no choice but to seek power, in distinction to the antisemitic trope that Jews have all the power. Two thousand years of history in a vast array of Christian and Muslim countries, culminating in the Holocaust, taught us that the non-Jewish world would not look out for us except for short stretches of time.

The second event was the return to our homeland and the establishment of the State of Israel. While the Zionist project of repatriating ourselves began long before the Shoah, Israel became the place where we began to practice the often messy and imperfect application of political power. The challenge of power is that it brings with it responsibilities that are impossible to fulfill in their idealized form. No country has proven otherwise. The rise of Israel also emboldened American Jews, giving us a new-found confidence that led to us exerting our voices in the public square. Many historians say the latter would have been impossible without the former.

In very real ways, Tisha B’Av reflects all the above history. It forces us to acknowledge that no government under which Jews were subject was above discriminating against us or oppressing us. As a day of national mourning, its meaning in an era when the State of Israel exists is also up for renegotiation. Once not so very long ago, Tisha B’Av was well-observed. Fewer Jews do so today. This is probably not only because it is a sad day. After all, Yom Kippur is arguably the day when the greatest number of Jews attend a synagogue. I suspect we don’t attend Tisha B’Av services precisely because the rise of Israel has meant that American Jews no longer feel like we are in exile. Some of us may not have much of a connection with the land of Israel, but the historical fruit of our return there has emboldened us to feel at home wherever we are. If that seems hard to understand, try to imagine how we might feel if Israel disappeared tomorrow. I suspect that over time, things would feel more tenuous, even in America.

Because of how Tisha B’Av intersects with all the above themes, many congregations and communities have wondered if the 9th of Av should still be observed, and if so, whether it be marked as a day of mourning. Nor is this a new idea. Our early midrashic writings speak of how Tisha B’Av (and many other Jewish holidays) will be cancelled in the messianic era. The simplest understanding of the messianic idea in Judaism is a time when Jews possess self-rule. Under this minimalist concept, there is no longer a need for Tisha B’Av.

Those who think that we should continue to observe the 9th of Av as a day of mourning have a few salient reasons. For some, this is not the messianic era. Jews still are attacked for who we are. Others don’t think it is proper to jettison our history. For them, Tisha B’Av connects us to the pain of our ancestors. Those who believe it is time for a change argue that to observe Tisha B’Av as it was historically practiced is to turn a blind eye to where we are today. It is to ignore the very real disruptions of both the Shoah and the re-establishment of Eretz Yisrael.

That brings us to the second holiday of the month of Av, known simply as Tu B’Av or the 15th day of Av. The historical basis of the 15th is ancient, even as its origins and observances are somewhat opaque. Before the Second Temple was destroyed, young couples would get engaged on this day. As such, it would not be unreasonable to repurpose all of Av as a time to reflect on love, home, and self-determination.

In the long run, it is unclear what the Jewish people will decide. Rather than just ignoring the 9th of Av, which seems the default position of most American Jews, it would be better to take a conscious stand on what the meaning and practice of Tisha B’Av should be. I would like to invite you to explore the above concepts at your Shabbat Table, and hope that the Shabbat Table Talk questions, below, will provide useful prompts for an interesting discussion.

In the meantime, we will observe the 9th of Av much as we traditionally have done at CNS. Please look for specific details and timing in Wednesday’s eblast.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you commemorate the 9th of Av or not? Why?
  2. Is it better to ignore a holiday that no longer possesses meaning, cancel it, or transform it? Why do you think this?
  3. Rabbinic Judaism built in Jewish openness to change. Sometimes we are open to change, but other times we resist it. How do you cope with change generally, and how do you deal with changes to Jewish life?

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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