By Adina Rosenthal
“The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn assembly; all her gates are desolate… and she herself is in bitterness.” These words are found in the opening lines of Eichah, The Book of Lamentations, read each year on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Known as one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av commemorates the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, particularly the destructions of both the First and Second Temple and the subsequent creation of the Jewish Diaspora. Serving as the culmination of the three-week period of mourning, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av is customarily observed by fasting from sunset to sunset, refraining from bathing, and reciting Eichah, Jeremiah’s poetic lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. In addition, some other customs forbid celebration of weddings and other parties, cutting one’s hair, and, from the first to the ninth of Av, eating meat, drinking wine or wearing new clothes.
Beyond the biblical, Tisha B’Av also commemorates other tragedies of great consequence in Jewish history, many that actually fell on the already inauspicious day. After reciting Eicha, the Tisha B’Av service continues with Kinnot, elegies that recall the destruction of the Second Temple as well as disasters like the Crusades (Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, in which thousands of Jews were slaughtered, on Tisha B’Av in the year 1095) and the Holocaust (Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp began on Tisha B’Av, 1942). Other tragic events include the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the culmination of the Spanish Inquisition with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, and the declaration of war on Germany by Britain and Russia in 1914 to begin World War I.
Despite the significance of these historical, catastrophic events that have shaped Jewish history and are still mourned to some degree, they are just that—historical events. While some Jews feel these events like a fresh wound, most people memorialize such tragedies, rather than feel the weight of their impact on their lives. In The Jewish Week, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz evocatively states, “We tend to forget almost everything; the sharpness and the colors of things past become tarnished. And even when they are written down or memorialized another way, events become smaller with time. This happens even to strong personal memories, and surely to memories that are transmitted from one person to another, surely over many generations.”
Moreover, the question arises whether such a day need be commemorated in the 21st century at all. Eicha mourns the loss of Zion, the exile of the Jewish people, and the affliction and hardships that seem to follow the Jews wherever they go. Today, a Jewish state of Israel exists, most Jews either live in Israel or choose to live in a democratic state that recognizes their religious freedoms, and the word “Jew” and “affliction” are no longer necessarily synonymous. Not all Jews want to rebuild the Temple, nor do they want to end their status as Jews in exile. If Jews are comfortable with the 21st century status quo, does Tisha B’Av simply serve as a souvenir to an identity of old rather than a continuous reminder of Jewish suffering?
It doesn’t have to be. For those who find difficulty in commemorating a distant past, Tisha B’Av can serve as a reminder of the sadness that still befalls the Jewish people in the modern age. Anti-Semitism and bigotry still exist, Israelis don’t live in peace, and, as Rabbi Steinsaltz also poignantly points out in his piece, “The lack of unity, the lack of common purpose, the loss of the feeling that we are one people: all these began about 2,000 years ago…If there is something to mourn—these are the results of Tisha B’Av that should be mourned.”
Moreover, Tisha B’Av serves as a reminder “for the quest of justice, of hope and of light, and above everything an innermost will to stand up to evil, to defend those who are weak and who need a compassionate and strong human being to stand by them and say ‘no’ to injustice.”
As Eicha poetically laments, “The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning…Restore us to yourself, G-d, that we may return; renew our days as of old.” No matter the motivation, Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn, pray, and turn our hardships into hope for the future.