BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
Judaism is a religion of holidays, observances and rituals. A few of the holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover, for instance – are observed by many (and ignored by many more).
Nonetheless, they remain part of the fabric of the community, special days that continue to bring joy, comfort and meaning to the faithful, and a sense of identity to others.
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Meanwhile, lesser-known holidays – Lag B’Omer, Tu B’shevat, Shemini Atzeret – don’t even register on the spiritual radar of most Jews, even those who will fast on Yom Kippur, attend a seder on Passover and exchange gifts on Chanukah.
I mention all this to explain why the vast majority of Jews won’t be fasting on July 15 and 16 and instead ignoring the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, arguably the saddest day in Jewish history. Despite its historical significance, the day – which begins at sunset of the former date – has become just another tongue-twisting trivia question that offers little meaning in a modern world moving at the speed of light.
At least, that’s the view of many. The faithful, meanwhile, continue paying attention to the lessons offered by this memorable day, the name of which literally means “the ninth day (of the Hebrew month) of Av.”
Now, why is this occasion so bleak? It was on this very date in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were sent into Babylonian exile. Then, centuries later, on the ninth of Av in 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
This time, the remnants of the Jewish people were scattered in many directions – Europe and Asia, others spilling around the southern fringes of the Mediterranean and deep into Africa.
What’s more, there are other bits of disturbing darkness associated with Tisha B’Av: Simon bar Kokhba, thought by some to be the messiah and the commander of Jewish troops in revolt against Imperial Rome, was killed on this day in 135 CE; Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
And bringing matters into the modern era, on Aug. 1, 1914 (that’s right, Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar again), Germany declared war on Russia; and finally (at least, hopefully), 27 years later on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Nazis began deporting Jews to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Interestingly, the actual biblical link to the day can be found in the Book of Numbers. Turns out the 12 spies sent by Moses to check out the land of Canaan returned on – yep – Tisha B’Av, and 10 of them delivered really bad news about the “Promised Land,” which was supposed to be dripping with milk and honey.
The Children of Israel panicked, and G-d, we’re told, wasn’t amused by their lack of faith. He (forgive my falling into anthropomorphism) decreed that forever more this date would become one of crying and misfortune for their descendants.
For all these reasons (and many of a less cosmic and more subtle nature), today’s observant Jews fast on Tisha B’Av – a span of 25 consecutive hours. The really observant also don’t bathe, wear any sort of leather (such products are associated with living the good life) and abstain from sexual relations.
And the really, really observant practice a few rituals – sitting on low stools, refraining from work – linked to sitting shivah, the traditional period of mourning for Jews following the death of a close relative.
Services are held in synagogues, and they’re somber affairs that feature the reading of the Book of Lamentations, followed by the kinnot, a series of liturgical lamentations. And in Sephardic communities, it is also customary to read the book of Job.
Now, as to the reason for all this, rabbis and others can offer up appropriate texts from the Torah and Talmud to explain the ongoing importance of recalling all this bleakness. I myself can offer only one small thought, an artistic angle on this day of wailing:
To appreciate light, it’s often necessary to focus on darkness.
It’s an aesthetic device that artists have understood and used for centuries to highlight their works of art, but it’s an idea that also has merit, I think, when considering the nature of life.