Mourning the Temple’s Destruction: What Happens on Tisha B’Av

By Monday, July 31, 2017

I’ll tell you a secret. I love just most things about being Jewish and Jewish observant life. But fast days? Ugh. Particularly Tisha B’Av.

Yom Kippur is something else, entirely. That’s a happy-if-solemn, expectant, hopeful kind of fast. We approach it with seriousness and joy, eager to repent, confident in God’s forgiveness.

But the several commemorative-of-disaster fasts in the Jewish calendar are more difficult. These are all what we term “minor” fasts, requiring abstinence from food and drink from sunrise until nightfall.

And then there’s Tisha B’av (The Ninth day of the month of Av), a “major” fast that lasts from sundown the night before until nightfall. Beyond fasting, the ninth of Av carries with it additional prohibitions and traditions that include sitting on low stools, no bathing, no perfumes, no music. Before the fast begins we eat a meal of egg dipped in ashes. It’s undoubtedly the worst day on the Jewish calendar: a day so wretched that we do not even engage in the great joy of Torah study. It’s the hot, hungry, uncomfortable hard work of active lament. And it’s crucial. Because a people that loses its history is at great risk of losing its future.

This year, it begins on Monday night.

On this day we commemorate several major disasters that befell our people in history, most importantly the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. In addition to a list of ancient disasters, we also mark other historical tragedies including the beginning of the First Crusade (1096), the expulsions of Jews from England (1290), France (1306) and Spain (1492), the beginning of World War I (1914) and the start of mass liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto (1942).

One of the liveliest questions surrounding Tisha B’av emerges from the fact of our current situation: The state of Israel has been reborn. Why, when the Jewish people are joyful about our return to Zion, when we feel that the dawning of the redemption is at hand, when we live in a rebuilt Jerusalem, why should we still mourn on this date? In fact, doesn’t our continued mourning suggest a certain ingratitude? An inability to see the divine significance of our return and our rebuilding?

We are not the first to ask this question. In the 6th century BCE Zechariah lived and prophesied to the community who had returned from exile in Babylonia and had begun rebuilding the Temple when invited to do so by the Persian king Cyrus.

In a situation closely reminiscent of ours today, precisely the same question was asked: should we still mourn?

1 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechari′ah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. 2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Share′zer and Reg′em-mel′ech and their men, to entreat the favor of the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” Zechariah 7:1-3)

Or in other words, now that the exiles have returned to Zion, and now that the rebuilding is underway, ought we still fast and lament for what we have lost? Shouldn’t we now focus on the future, on the joy, on what we have re-gained?

Isn’t this – the return to our Land and rebuilding of our Temple – isn’t this all we ever wanted?

The prophet refuses to fall for this. Rather than answer the question as asked, Zechariah addresses the real question that underlies the question: when have we truly returned? What does real rebuilding look like? His answer is a challenging one, reminding us what God demands is for us to,

“…Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.” Zechariah 7:9-10

Zechariah reminds us that our failure to do so is why we were exiled, and that ultimately, at base, it is this that we mourn – and must continue to mourn – on Tisha B’Av. A return to the land and a rebuilt Jerusalem are necessary, but undoubtedly not enough. It is only with this true rebuilding and this deep return that we are called to, that we will merit the joyful fast promised in Zachariah 8:18-19.

This, our current return and our present rebuilding, is not as good as it gets.

We are called to more, and promised more. Perhaps this is why tradition has it that the Messiah himself, our greatest hope, will be born on Tisha B’av, out of the depths of our deepest suffering.

Faydra Shapiro

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the Executive Director at the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.