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Tisha B'Av: A Tragic Day Throughout Jewish History

Jewish Ledger | July 27, 2012

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown on July 28. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is often considered the “saddest” day on the Jewish calendar. A fast day that commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, it is the culmination of a three week period of increasing mourning that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were first breached, leading
to the destruction of the First Temple.
While Tisha B’Av is primarily intended to recall the destruction of the Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av, it is also considered a day to mourn the many other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this day. Among them:

• Spies return with evil reports from the land of Israel, leading the Jewish people to cry in despair and God to decree that the children of Israel wandering in the desert would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel;
• The last fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt falls, sealing the fate of the Jewish people.
Over 100,000 Jews were killed;
• The First Crusade is declared by Pope Urban II, bringing death and destruction to thousands of Jews, and obliterating many communities in Rhineland and France.
• The Inquisition in Spain and Portugal culminates in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the year 1492. Tisha B’Av is set as the final date by which not a single Jew is allowed on Spanish soil.
• Jews are expelled from England in the year 1515, accompanied by pogroms;
• World War I breaks out in 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia. German resentment from the war set the stage for the Holocaust;
• Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp begin in 1942.
In addition to the prohibition on eating and drinking, and other restrictions similar to those on Yom Kippur, it is customary to read the Book of Eichah – Lamentations – on Tisha B’Av, both at night and during the day: a series of deeply impassioned and poetic dirges in which the prophet Jeremiah implores the Jewish people to repent and describes in detail Jerusalem under siege and the utter destruction of the First Temple.



Recently, the Ledger received an article from Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, in which he offered a look at the meaning and implications of Tisha B’Av from the perspective of Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Fuchs is the president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Israel, a Reform congregation in West Hartford, where he still maintains his home base.
Along with Rabbi Fuchs’ piece, we thought it would be interesting to ask several of our Connecticut rabbis for their view of Tisha B’Av from the perspective of their denominations.  Although he was away in Israel and therefore had to make his remarks brief, Rabbi Plavin was kind enough to send us his  brief thoughts.
We think these three perspectives add an interesting element to the upcoming solemn day.


Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
World Union for Progressive Judaism

The Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha B’Av, is a day when traditional Jews fast in memory of the magnificent Temples of Jerusalem which were each destroyed in their turn first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then again by the Romans in 70 CE. The day also is a solemn one in memory of other historical tragedies associated with that date. For example, it is said that the beginning of the first Crusade in 1095, a time of persecution and slaughter of the Jews of Europe and in 1290 the expulsion of Jews from England both took place on that date. Tisha B’Av also coincides with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World  War I in 1914.
The meaning of this day of tragedies does not rank high in the consciousness of most Jews and that raises the question of what might Progressive Jews make of Tisha B’Av today? Being in Jerusalem now makes me even more aware of these questions and I’ve developed some thoughts about this date on the Jewish calendar.
The destruction of the two Temples and the exile of Jews from our sacred land that followed, were occasions of death and suffering, and sorrow is appropriate. Certainly all the other historical tragedies associated with that date are important to remember too.
On the other hand, the centrality of the Temple in Jewish life ended abruptly with their destruction and there seems to be little merit in reviving many of their old traditions anew. Much of the Temple’s centrality revolved around its role as a place for animal sacrifice.  This act was a sign of repentance, thanksgiving or celebration, but after the destruction and dispersion, the Jewish people found other ways to worship built around their homes and synagogues.. Rabbis rose up from the community instead of priests and much of this has served us well as we wandered through the world. Judaism as we know it exists for us today and I know of no Progressive Jews who are enamored with the idea of a reconstructed Temple and a reinstitution of animal sacrifice.
While a tragedy of the time, the destruction of the Temple liberated Judaism to become what we treasure today, a religion based on the study of Torah, of prayer and of acts of kindness and compassion: a religion and a way of life that reaches deeply into everything we do. The very vibrancy and strength of the Jewish people over the centuries attests to the wisdom on what we have become and not what we once were. It may sound odd, but in that sense Tisha B’Av, in the age of a renewed Jewish Nation in Israel, can be seen as both an occasion of hope and happiness as well as one of remembrance.
It is left to us to reconcile the remembrance of genuine tragedy with the possibilities for the growth and development of the Judaism that has been passed down to us.  Within the context of the Judaism I was brought up with, I observe a fast on Tisha B’Av until mid-day. During that time I study the traditional text for the day, the biblical book of Lamentations, but then I partake of a mid-day meal grateful for the Judaism that has been bequeathed to us over the years, a Judaism that no longer slaughters animals and sprinkles their blood as a sign of gratitude or as a petition to God. I celebrate the fact that a Judaism without the Temple and its hereditary priestly class has been replaced by a Judaism we can all access and immerse ourselves in while we absorb the lessons our people gleaned over the centuries of wandering and before our return: that each of us should use our individual talents in our own way to make the world a better place.
Tisha B’Av for me is also the day when I begin preparing for the period of introspection culminating in the rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Impetus for beginning the process of repentance comes from the middle of the book of Lamentations.
“Let us search and examine our ways and return to he Eternal One!” (Lamentations 3:40)
For Progressive Jews, then Tisha B’Av can be both a day of mourning and a day of joy.  We mourn for the destruction of the temple, but we rejoice that we have developed a strong, resilient means of surviving as Jews. Mourning the tragedies of the past we begin to search and examine our way forward and face the future with hope and courage.

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Rabbi Richard Plavin
Beth Sholom B’nai Israel

I write this response from Jerusalem. I surely am happy to not deal with the issues a new Temple would bring, but I mourn the destruction because it meant the beginning of the exile and all the pain and suffering it brought. With Israel’s existence in peril, and her having to devote so much of her national budget to defense just to stay alive, I think fasting all day on Tisha B’Av is most appropriate.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adler

Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Beth David Synagogue
West Hartford
Framing Tisha B’Av within a contemporary context is a perennial challenge. On the one hand, an undeniable strength of our people is our ability to remember our past. Yet, we survive – no, we flourish – because of our capacity to adapt.
As has been said by many scholars in many ways, we are who we are because of the shoulders upon which we stand. Our perch on those shoulders keeps sharp our focus on the past, it is a vantage point that gives us peeks at what the future could be and might be.
The history of Tisha B’Av is ubiquitously accepted. The journey from then to now is a matter of record. Where opinions diverge is in contemplation of the nature and countenance of redemption. What awaits us in the future? There are some wise people of faith who base their beliefs upon ancient hopes that, in a messianic era, all ancient institutions will be renewed. There are other wise people who see manifold possibilities; these thinkers have chosen to keep all options open. Pitching one opinion against others is a somewhat futile argument to debate since Heaven’s plans are most usually well kept secrets.
There are a precious few iotas of information that can be used to fashion a vision of what a messianic Jerusalem might look like and how it might function. Yet, selectively choosing those tidbits of insight that complement our preferred perspectives can help sketch outlines for various possibilities. For example, the breezes of change were already blowing long before Rome plundered the Holy City and torched the Holy Temple in 70 AD. The prophet Hosea, living during the era of the First Temple centuries earlier, proclaimed “uneshalmah parim sefateinu – [eventually] our lips will replace the oxen” (14:3).  Clearly, spiritual leaders were already contemplating future templates of service that were based more on prayer and deed and less on sacrifice. Indeed, our modern day prayer books include the following statement: “May it be Your will … that the prayers of our lips be considered, accepted and favored before You as if we had offered daily sacrifice …” The institution of liturgy does not preclude sacrifice or any other Temple-based options from the future, what it does is validate prayer as a virtuous method of service.
Many centuries later, in the waning days of the Second Temple era, about four decades before the fall of Jerusalem, Sanhedrin ceased executions for criminals convicted of capital offenses. Due to a variety of reasons, it was determined that capital punishment was not serving its perceived or intended purpose. Torah still granted that authority and power to the rabbinic courts, but forward thinking rabbinic leaders determined that different consequences would be more prudent, judicious, and effective.
These two examples, in a limited way, demonstrate the resilience of rabbinic leadership and the capacity of Judaism to be perpetually relevant and progressive, all while maintaining the spirit of original intent. I would never go so far as to propose that Tisha B’Av might ever be observed as an occasion for “hope and happiness.” What I do see in Tisha B’Av is an opportunity to reaffirm connections with Judaism’s past while concurrently recognizing Judaism’s resolve to be everlastingly appropriate and eternally applicable.
It is worth our attention to note a Talmudic forecast (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 2:4) that the messiah is destined to be born on Tisha B’Av. If this prediction were to come true, its impact on the nature of the day would be profound. As our methods of service evolved centuries ago from sacrifice to prayer, so too would our observances associated with this day demand reassessment and re-visitation. Until then, however, Tisha B’Av remains a day of infamy haunted by the many tragedies suffered by Israel at this season.


Rabbi Fred Hyman

Rabbi Fred Hyman
Westville Synagogue
New Haven
I have always had trouble connecting with Tisha B’Av. As an observant Jew this was troubling. My practice requires me to find meaning even in ritual performances. I understood mourning for a loss of a loved one, but the loss of a building, no matter how holy, and which happened 2000 years ago, proved difficult.
As I matured, I studied, reflected, and worked hard to connect with Tisha B’Av. One summer, I went to Israel to study. I observed Tisha B’Av at the Kotel, the Wailing Wall. I did not sit in the plaza where thousands of young observant Jews were congregating (more for socializing than spiritual engagement I might add); rather, my friends and I scouted out a place on the side of the Old City in the midst of ruins from Roman times!  We were sitting on fallen marble columns and reciting lamentations for the destruction of Jerusalem.  For the first time,I began to connect in a physical sense with the destruction.
This physical connection then helped me understand Tisha B’Av more deeply. The Destruction of the Temples led to exile for the Jewish people and world domination by the Christians.  Skipping ahead many years, we see simply how the exile caused great suffering: the Jewish people endured the Crusades; expulsion from many countries in Europe; the Inquisition; pogroms; and of course, the exile’s harshness concluded with the unfathomable devastation of the Holocaust. Tisha B’Av is observed for ALL of the tragedies that emerged from the destruction of the Temple.
The Talmud, trying to identify Biblical verses which prove that the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash occurred on Tisha B’Av, actually shows that whereas the burning began on the ninth toward evening, most of the burning occurred on the tenth. However, the Sages state that “Ischalta d’geulah adifa”— the beginning of the destruction was preferable— meaning that ultimately it was acceptable to observe Tisha B’Av on the ninth.  I suggest a homiletical meaning of the phrase Ischalta d’geulah: Tisha B’Av not only was the beginning or the first cause that catapulted Jewish history into many tragedies. Although the Diaspora produced many positive and beneficial creations, Tisha B’Av is one day a year, ONE DAY, in which we mourn the suffering.
In addition, we not only mourn the Temple, but many associated losses. The kinnot, lamentations, include themes such as loss of Torah, loss of life, loss of children, loss of their future; loss of great scholars, leaders, and simple folk who were faithful martyrs.  Understanding Tisha B’Av from many perspectives helped me connect on a variety of levels with its wise observances.
A Jewish leader who rejoices over the destruction of the Temple only gives me something more to cry over.

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