By Herschel Allerhand
Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, will be observed on Sunday, August 7th, 2022. Actually, Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, falls on Saturday, August 6th, this year, but as the Sabbath is made for joy, our sorrowful observance is postponed one day.
The first Tisha B’Av and its aftermath
The Jews of the Exodus had witnessed the ten plagues, seen the Egyptian army drown in the Sea of Reeds and received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai; they were poised to enter the land of Israel as promised by God.
Before entering they sent twelve prominent men to scout the land. Ten came back with a negative report to the waiting people. “The land indeed is a land of milk and honey but we cannot ascend … for it is too strong for us (and by inference for God). It is a land that devours its people. We were like grasshoppers in our eyes and so were we in their eyes.”
The people discounted the two dissenting scouts, Joshua and Caleb, who said: “We can surely conquer it … the land is very good … if God desires he will bring us to the land and give it to us. God is with us; do not fear them.
“All that night the people wept … if only we had died in Egypt… why is God bringing us to the land to die by the sword … our wives and children will be taken captive … it is better for us to return to Egypt.” (Numbers 13-14). Going forward on this day Jerusalem and both Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians in 588 B.C. and six centuries later by the Romans in 70 C.E.
Also thereafter on Tisha B’Av in 1290, King Edward the First signed the edict expelling the Jews from England; on August 2nd, 1492, the Ninth of Av, the last Jews left Spain and World War I (the prelude to the horrors of World War II) broke out on the day Tisha B’Av was observed in 1914.
Rules and Customs
A ritual fast was instituted to observe Tisha B’Av. This fast lasts from sundown to sundown as does the fast of Yom Kippur. (Yom Kippur by contrast is serious and solemn but not sad as we hope to receive God’s compassion and love.)
The synagogue is considered a house of mourning and after the evening service before Tisha B’Av eve – the parochet – the attractive curtain covering the Ark of the Torah is removed. Most of the congregation sit on the floor or on benches low to the ground; they remove any leather shoes and the Book of Lamentations is then chanted with a sorrowful cantillation. Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah at the time of the destruction of the First Temple (approx. 587 B.C.). Tallit (prayer shawls) and phylacteries are not worn at the following morning service as they are considered ornamentations. The abstention from food and drink extends to sex and bathing. The study of Torah, which is considered a great joy, is also forbidden. (For more details, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein is a good source.)
The emotional motif of Tisha B’Av is expressed in the first and penultimate sentences of Lamentations: “Oh, how she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow.” (verse one, line one) “Bring us back to you Hashem and we shall renew our days as of old.” (verse 5, line 21) This sentence is repeated aloud by the congregation.
Our Sages taught that the Temples were destroyed and Jerusalem lost because the societies they formerly protected had disintegrated due to idol worship, bloodshed, sexual immorality and senseless hatred. In subtle or gross forms these evils are still with us. Even after two thousand years, the memory of our Temples and the reasons for their loss can serve as a wake-up call.