Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tisha B'Av

Today marks the Jewish holiday (and fast day) of Tisha B'Av, the darkest day of the year on the Jewish calendar. Today, the 9th of Av (current month and day in the Hebrew calendar), was the day that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed thousands of years ago, 656 years apart. It is a national day of mourning that commemorates all the horrors ever endured by the Jewish people throughout history. Surprisingly, throughout history, the 9th of Av has seen an abundance of tragic events, including not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but also, the start of the ancient Israelites' 40 year expulsion into the desert, the death of Bar Kochba, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the following expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and also the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. It is generally though by religious folk that G-d's grace is not with the Jewish people on this day.

The day of Tisha B'Av represents the pinnacle of the previous nine days, a mourning period in which many restrictions apply. As the actual day of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples befalls us, there are even more strict prohibitions placed on those observing the day. Whereas Yom Kippur is generally considered a day of judgment, today is rather a day of mourning.


The most pronounced restriction is of food since Tisha B'Av is considered a strict fast day, with only the very ill or children under the age of 12 being exempt. Even pregnant women are supposed to fast along with everyone else. The fast begins before sunset on the previous evening (last night) and families are to eat a large meal called "Seuda HaMafseket" just before beginning the fast.


Later in the evening, following the meal, devout Jews will go to synagogue (or, if you are in Jerusalem, you will go to the Western Wall where thousands of Jews will meet together) to hear the book of Eicha, the book that recounts every gruesome detail of the events of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. In the book, you will hear  gut-wrenching stories such as those of mothers being driven by their hunger to cook their own children. It is, without doubt, the most grim of the Biblical texts and thus, is it read with a sonorous and plaintive melody. Because elevated surfaces are prohibited on Tisha B'Av, chairs are banned, and instead, congregants are to sit directly on the ground, as seen in this video clip below at the Western Wall:

After reciting Eicha, people usually stay on to recite "kinnot", which are mourning poems written by individual Jewish communities around the world, the topics of which span everything from the destruction of the Temples up to the Holocaust. 

On Tisha B'Av, washing your face, brushing your teeth, applying creams and perfumes are all banned. No gold or silver should be worn. Additionally, no relations between a man and his wife should be had. At the end of the fast, which is actually the longest fast of the year (from sunset the previous day to complete darkness the second day, so a full 26-28 hours) there is a big meal, the mood of which is just as somber as the one that started it. So, this too is different from Yom Kippur, where we break the fast with a festive celebration with family and friends.

Tisha B'Av is felt with particular intensity in Jerusalem, where the destroyed Temples once stood and where the horrors of the sieges actually occurred. When the Jewish people go to pray at the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av, they are standing at the exact location where the First and Second Temples once stood (the Western Wall is the actual last remaining piece of the First and Second Temples which survived both destructions). From here, congregants can look up to the Temple Mount where they are now forbidden to pray. The sadness that overtakes them is an experience unique to Jerusalem, where history is not only the past but is also a living and enduring reality.

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