There are few exceptions to the idea that most Jewish holidays are variations of the phrase: “We survived, let’s eat.” While Yom Kippur is perhaps the best known “exception” to this idea, it’s the holiday of Tisha B’Av that turns it completely upside down. In fact, if Tisha B’av had a motto, it would likely be: “Many did not survive, don’t eat. Let’s mourn.”
Tisha B’Av, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, July 29 this year, is not the holiday of joy (that’s Sukkot), of a great miracle (that’s Hanukkah), or of food-laden tables (basically every other holiday). On a literal level, Tisha B’Av is the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. The name of the holiday obscures what it commemorates: Jewish tragedy.
Tisha B’av marks the destruction of the (two) Temples in Jerusalem. As many Jewish communities don’t hold that the Temple needs to be rebuilt, Tisha B’Av as a Temple-focused holiday seems alienating. Luckily, whether or not you think the Temple should be rebuilt, there’s a lot more to Tisha B’Av that makes it relevant today. In fact, Tisha B’Av is the most appropriate Jewish holiday for this particular moment of widespread pain, fear, and anxiety due to racism, the pandemic, unemployment, anti-Semitism, and everything else keeping us awake at night.
The zeitgeist of Tisha B’Av is about the catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people over time, not just when we still worshiped in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. It’s a pretty long list that reads like a syllabus of an intro to Jewish history class. It includes (but is by no means limited to) the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the start of the First Crusade, and the expulsion of the Jews from England, Spain, and France (but not all three at the same time!). In addition, for many (though not only) Orthodox communities, Tisha B’Av commemorates a more recent disaster: the Holocaust.
A period known as The Three Weeks traditionally lead up to Tisha B’Av, starting on the 17th of Tammuz, the day the ancient walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached. During this period, it’s common to start limiting the pleasures and joys of the world that Judaism usually encourages. Right now, some five months into the pandemic, three weeks might not seem like a long time for behaving differently. The focus, however, is not on the duration, but on taking time to slow down and pause. The Three Weeks is a time to remember the events of the past so that in the present, we can work towards a better future.
Even the texts read on Tisha B’Av, being Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, give us cause to pause and reflect on the past. Though additionally attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, a more contemporary attribution might be to teenagers and young adults who cannot help but simultaneously be overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the state of the world.
Eicha begins with a cry, “Eicha!” which is often translated as “alas” or “how.” The rest of that first verse sets the tone of the book: “Lonely sits the city, once great with people.” This line is eerily familiar and could be a more poetic rendering of the many bylines describing the cities and towns that have quieted down in the past few months, reduced to shells of their usual selves.
The imminent relevancy of Eicha goes on, as the book alternates between describing the ruin of Jerusalem and philosophizing over how we, Israel, have gone wrong and if (and how) we can eventually rebuild. Three of the more salient verses include: “For your ruin is vast as the sea: Who can heal you?” (2:13); “Let us search and examine our ways” (3:40); and “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt” (5:7). Though the Tanakh is sometimes hard to bring into the modern world, these verses remain relevant. They remind us that the big questions — particularly those about society and healing —need to be asked in order to be answered.
What’s remarkable about Tisha B’Av, and what makes it particularly relatable this year, is that it requires us to recall and remember those dark times of despair and destruction. Part of doing that requires us to think about how we can work towards redemption, by restoring justice and life and joy to our world.
This is the year to embrace Tisha B’Av and acknowledge the immense pain and suffering that the Jewish people have encountered again and again (and still encounter today). Regardless of how (and if) you’ve observed Tisha B’Av in the past, this year’s observations will likely be different. While some might find meaning and comfort in the traditional custom of fasting from sundown to sundown, others might be more moved to take a fast from the news and/or social media. You can be conscious about what you wear; leather and jewelry are often avoided. You can go for a walk in new place — maybe in a Jewish cemetery if one is open near you. Eat vegetarian or vegan food for the day if you typically eat meat. Though the joy of Torah study is traditionally forbidden, the books of Job and Jeremiah are okay, as are books on social issues such as racism and immigration reform. Lastly, for those who are missing or curious about synagogue services for the holiday, look for online streams and study sessions.
As we remember and move forward, this is the year to allow our pain, and memories of it, to empathize with others who continue to suffer, regardless of if they are in our Jewish community or beyond.
Header image: Mint Images/Getty Images.