How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! . . . She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.
Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.
Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) begins at sundown Wednesday (July 29). According to a Talmudic passage (Taanit 26a), five things happened in history on this date:
(1) The Exodus generation was told they would die in the desert.
(2) The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (586 B.C.E.).
(3) The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans (70 C.E.).
(4) Bar Kochba’s fortress was destroyed by the Romans, ending the second Jewish revolt (136 C.E.).
(5) The city of Jerusalem was plowed under.
Tradition has it that practically every tragedy in Jewish history is connected to this day. According to George Robinson (Essential Judaism) there is literal historical truth to that fact. The ninth of Av is the date when the Romans began destroying the Temple in 70 C.E. (they finished on the tenth). He says that it was truly on Tisha B’Av in 1190 when the Jewish population of York, England was massacred and in 1290 when Edward banished all Jews from England and Tisha B’Av was the deadline for Jews to leave Spain the expulsion of 1492. The Nazis deliberately chose this date in 1942 to send Jews from the ghetto at Warsaw into Treblinka for extermination.
A Disturbing Day, a Mournful Day
Walking into synagogue on the eve of Tisha B’Av, you find the chairs either removed or turned upside down. People sit on low stools or on the floor, as did Job in his distress. Curtains and coverings are removed, making the synagogue look bare.
The last meal before sundown is traditionally lentils and eggs. Their round shape is said to speak of mourning, since life is a circle of mourning.
The texts for reading are sad ones: Lamentations, Jeremiah (but not the consolation passages), Job, Deuteronomy 4:25-40, Jeremiah 8:13 – 9:23, and also Kinot, sad poems of mourning composed through the ages for reading on Tisha B’Av.
Lamentations is read in whole at the evening service. The cant gets louder through the first three chapters, silent on the fourth, and then loud again on the next to last verse:
Hashivenu, Adonai, eleikha v’nashuvah! Chadesh, chadesh yameinu, chadesh yameinu k’kedem!
Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old!
Tisha B’Av as Spiritual Discipline
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.
-Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) 7:2
As long as we live in the age of death and futility, we ought to set times to meditate and reflect on these things. Our prayer and worship is heavily populated with verses of hope and consolation. May Messiah come speedily. Rebuild the Temple. May our own eyes see your return to Zion.
Such hope is vital and rightly emphasized. But in this age we will deal with death and we ought to deal with it purposefully and thoughtfully.
Tisha B’Av is a spiritual discipline. We eat our lentils alone and not in the joy of a communal table. Fasting on Tisha B’Av is a way of experiencing the pangs of suffering to remind ourselves, even in good times, that this is the lot of humankind. We pray silently and alone, even in synagogue, because death separates loved ones and harms community.
We need Tisha B’Av to remember how great the hope and consolation of Messiah truly is.