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Fast for the Body, Food for the Spirit

August 2008

Matzah ball soup. Brisket. Challah. Lox. Hamantashen. Apples and honey.

Practically every Jewish holiday celebration has its associated gastronomic delights. If you're part of a Jewish family — through birth, conversion, adoption, marriage or even just friendship — you know that you can always count on a really good meal, whatever the occasion. After all, this is the culture that spawned the "Jewish mother," with her classic exhortation: "Eat! Eat!"

Even God, in the early chapters of Genesis, is concerned with food — in this case, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Adam and Eve were absolutely not supposed to eat (what God didn't seem to realize is what every parent of a small child knows all too well: if you make a food off limits, you've practically guaranteed its eventual consumption).

No doubt about it, Judaism and food go together like latkes and applesauce. Unless it's Tisha b'Av, that is. On this day, the ninth (tesha in Hebrew) of the month of Av, we remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples and assorted other catastrophes in Jewish history, like the expulsion from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

Jerusalem today, 1,938 years after the Romans razed the Second Temple. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Shmuel Spiegelman.

Because it's considered a day of mourning, we deny our most basic and life-affirming appetites — no sexual relations, no bathing or pampering and of course, no eating. No food or water for 25 hours (from sundown to sundown), just like on Yom Kippur.

But that's where the similarity between the fasts ends. The Yom Kippur fast is the more familiar and widely observed of the two. Even casual practitioners of Judaism feel the pull of this very public fast. With so many people fasting together, it takes on the feeling of a competition. It's fun to sneak out of services, kvetch about how famished you are and compare whose hunger headache is the worst.

But the fast of Tisha b'Av is a strangely isolating, lonely experience. Fasting is a hard sell at any time of the year, but especially in the summer, with burgers on the grill, corn on the cob, lemonade in sweating glasses and ice cream dripping down soggy cones. It's hard to starve and feel mournful when everyone else is swimming, playing in the sunshine, lounging on their decks or watching a summer blockbuster in air conditioned comfort (with hefty tubs of fake-buttered popcorn on their laps).

To compound the feeling of disconnection, there is no marathon synagogue service that throws you in with a bunch of other hungry people with bad breath. Instead, there's one brief, bleak ritual as night descends and Tisha b'Av begins. A small handful of people (very small — many are on vacation or outside enjoying the summer night) gathers at the synagogue, sits in darkness on the floor and reads the Book of Lamentations ("Eicha" in Hebrew) by candle or flashlight.

"Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people…" begins the narrative, which is chanted in a haunting minor key. All the sadness in the world seems to concentrate in those moments and bears down with relentless pressure. As the dirge-like reading continues, grief fills the room until it reaches an almost unbearable pitch in the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer for the dead — in this case, for millions of dead across thousands of years. What a way to spend a summer night.

That's just the first hour or so of the fast. On a typical Tisha b'Av, my stomach is already starting to rumble. And there's still 24 hours to go.

The morning of Tisha b'Av is usually pretty tough going. No steaming cup of coffee or juicy peaches and strawberries for breakfast. On Tisha b'Av, unlike Yom Kippur, work is permitted, so most years that means I'm sitting at my desk trying to ignore my complaining stomach. This year, the ninth of Av is a Sunday, so I'll have to find other ways to take my mind off my hunger pangs.

By mid-morning I might absentmindedly pour myself a glass of iced tea with refreshing lemon, then catch myself as the first drop is about to pass my dry lips. Feeling headachey and miserable, I will pour the tea down the drain.

As the day drags on, I'll compare this Tisha b'Av to previous years. Is it my imagination, or is the fast harder this time? Am I more lightheaded than usual? Is my neighbor barbequing steak?

Long about 4 o'clock, if past experience is a reliable indicator, my thoughts will shift from food and take a more philosophical turn. A weakened physical state is oddly conducive to some serious spiritual pondering.

How ironic that Tisha b'Av comes in the summer, when the days are long and bright and filled with diversions. In the midst of this season of fun, Tisha b'Av raises the specter of desolation and loss. We're reminded that even when life seems easy as a summer breeze, there's a darker side to reality. A way of life can be destroyed, a sacred place reduced to ruin and a people driven into exile with ruthless, breath-taking efficiency.

If this were the ultimate message of Tisha b'Av, the holiday would be too grim to bear. But Tisha b'Av doesn't end in the depths of despair. Even the Book of Lamentations concludes with a comforting, reassuring promise of renewal. Light triumphs over darkness, life pushes back against death. Seasons of mourning and seasons of joy come hard on each other's heels, sometimes overlapping, in the cycle of Life.

I've often wondered why there aren't special, traditional foods to eat after the Tisha b'Av fast. Why no big "break-the-fast" party as is customary at the end of Yom Kippur? Perhaps because it's not necessary. When the Tisha b'Av fast is over, food seems beside the point. We've learned that what really sustains us is hope.

Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Marinell James

Marinell James is a regular contributor to InterfaithFamily.com. She blogs at yourjewishlifecoach.com.

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