It’s difficult to explain Tisha B’Av, a fast day that starts this evening and goes until tomorrow evening. In our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet, I described it,
This fast day commemorates the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the medieval period, Jews began attaching other calamities to the day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492, making it an all-purpose day of mourning.
I think it’s hard for people in our generation to appreciate the level of trauma that the Jewish people experienced when the Romans destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. I’ve been able to enhance my historical understanding as I read Yonah Lavery’s Talmud Comics. Even texts I’ve actually read before come alive because of the art work. Lavery does a great job presenting the psychological impact of the loss of the Temple, and helped me to see, through her art, how this sense of loss was made real through study to Jews throughout our history.
In the 20th century, Tisha B’Av lost a lot of its punch. First, because of the Holocaust, and second, because of the creation of the State of Israel. When Israel was created, the majority of the Jewish people there and in the diaspora chose to commemorate the destruction of European Jewish communities with Yom Ha-Shoah, rather than following the older tradition of tacking all catastrophes onto the destruction of the Temple. After Israel retook Jerusalem in 1967, my husband’s grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, began to follow a minhag (custom) of fasting for half the day. After all, Jews had access to the Holy of Holies. A recent op-ed piece in Haaretz makes a persuasive case for the half-day fast–though not on Jewish textual grounds.
In my Reform congregation growing up, we didn’t mark the 9 of Av. I learned about it in the wider Jewish community–at JCC overnight camp, and elsewhere. It’s always felt awkward to me. Mark Washofsky, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cinncinati, a Reform rabbinical seminary, wrote ”Why We Mourn on the Ninth of Av” for the Forward. He says,
We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair.
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