Tisha B’Av is an annual fasting day established by Judaism, founded to mourn the destruction of the Temple. It takes place on the ninth day (Tisha) of the month of Av in the Hebrew Calendar which usually falls in late July or August in our western calendars. When the ninth of Av falls on Sabbath, the observance is delayed to Sunday the tenth of Av. Over the years there have been many brutal assaults against the Jewish Diaspora, because they have added numerous observances to other events. These have been memorialized in the Kinnot which are sad poems traditionally recited by Jews on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction of the First Temple, but in particular the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Tisha B’Av recalls general tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people over the ages, the day of fasting focuses on commemoration of some core events. All of these core events will be given with an asterisk (*) in the list of other key events:
*1. During the time of Moses, Jews in the desert accepted the slanderous report of the 10 Spies and the decree was issued forbidding them from entering the Land of Israel. (Numbers 13-14 / 1444 BCE)
*2. Destruction of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians.
*3. Destruction of the Second Temple, Herod’s Temple in 70 CE, by the Roman Legions. Although primarily meant to commemorate the destruction of the Temples, the day has been called the “saddest day in Jewish history”
*4. Failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman Empire in 132-135 CE.
5. The Crusades by the Roman Catholic Church where Christian mobs decimated many Jewish communities in Europe (1096-xxxx CE).
6. The expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 CE.
7. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The Alhambra Decree, issued on March 31, 1492, ordered Jews to leave Spain by the end of July 1492. The 31st of July of that year was Tisha B’Av.
8. The events of the Holocaust of Nazi German where six millions Jews were methodically killed in the years from 1933-1945.
Jewish Practices on and before Tisha B’Av
In the synagogue on the day of Tisha B’Av the book of Lamentations is read and mourning prayers are recited. The ark (cabinet where the Torah is kept) is draped in black. The Kinnot is recited after the reading of the book of Lamentations. During the Talmudic era these poems were called the Kinnot, but today it has assumed a more familiar name, Eichah.
Again Kinnot are sad poems traditionally recited by Jews on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction of the First Temple but in particular the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There is a division of opinion among rabbis that no new Kinnot are to be added to the Kinnot. Some rabbis disapprove of new Kinnot because the existing Kinnot were holy and were composed by the greatest individuals of their respective generation, and today there is nobody who can write like them. Despite this, a few Kinnot have been composed in the last several centuries, but none of them have entered the standard Kinnot service. But many important rabbis argued that in every generation Kinnot were composed to address the difficulties of that generation. Some added that it was essential to incorporate such Kinnot into the Jewish liturgy lest the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust be forgotten by future generations.
The Kinnot are arranged in modern printings approximately by the chronological order of their composition. Thus the reader experiences a developing feeling of deep sorrow building through the generations, combined with a yearning for the restoration of the Temple in the Messianic era. This is similar to the book of Lamentations, which waxes sorrowful with tales of woe, but ends on a note of optimism
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel claims that the Kinnot service, unlike the Siddur (book of Jewish prayers) and other Jewish rituals, was not created by authority of the rabbis but rather developed on the basis of acceptance of communities and the decisions of the printers who produced printed copies. Thus the new Kinnot could gradually enter the accepted roster of Kinnot. Consequently since many congreg-ations now recite Kinnot to commemorate the Holocaust, this may become an integral part of the service without a formal decision.
Tisha B’Av occurs in the Hebrew month of Av, but they many begin to practice it in preparation for Tisha B’Av during the month before Av on the 17th day of Tammuz. On the 17th of Tammuz in 70 CE the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, spent the next three weeks ransacking the city until the Second Temple was conquered and destroyed on the 9th of Av. In remembrance of this event Jews begin to fast on the 17th of Tammuz and observe a time of mourning during the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. For instance, no weddings are permitted during this period.
However, on the 1st of Av the Talmud records the following: “From the beginning of Av, we diminish happiness” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6) meaning that the last nine days of “the three weeks” becomes increasingly mournful as observant Jews refrain from a number of prohibited activities. An example of this would be that during these nine days Jews are not supposed to cut their hair or shave. During these “the nine days” many Jews refrain from drinking wine, eating meat or participating in activities meant to be entertaining. Other activities like going to the movies, dancing or dining out are examples of such pleasurable pastimes that are reframed from. According to the Talmud, Jews are not supposed to wash their clothes during this period either because wearing clean clothes is an enjoyable experience. The purpose of all these prohibitions is to help people feel like true mourners by the time Tisha B’Av comes around on the 9th of Av.
Tisha B’Av is a full day of fasting and lasts for 25 hours, meaning that no food or drink can be consumed from one evening to the next. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are severely ill do not participate in the fast because doing so would endanger their health. Observant Jews also refrain from washing, bathing, wearing cosmetics, wearing leather shoes (both symbols of luxury) or having sexual relations, and the study of Torah. Work is permitted on Tisha B’Av. Other expressions of mourning are observed such as refraining from smiles, laughter and idle conversation and sit on low stools. Still other express-ions of mourning are similar to those applicable to the shiva period immediately following the death of a close relative. They are traditionally followed for at least part of the day, including sitting on low stools, refraining from work and not greeting others.
Synagogue services on Tisha B’Av are an emotional experience. During the evening service the book of Lamentations, which is a somber description about the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple, is read aloud and is punctuated by sobs and wails from the congregation. Another expression of mourning is that they don’t greet each other at the synagogue and they sometimes sit on the floor instead of in seats. On the following day, during the morning service, men continue to express their sorrow by refraining from wearing tefillin.