What’s in a Date? On the Meaning of Tisha B’Av

Many Jewish holidays are associated with a moment in the Jewish past. Passover reenacts the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt; Shavuot marks revelation at Sinai; Purim commemorates Esther’s triumph over Haman in Persia and Hanukkah celebrates the Hasmonean victory during the Seleucid period. What historical event does Tisha B’Av commemorate?

There is no simple answer to this seemingly straightforward question. The earliest discussion about the commemoration of Tisha B’Av is found in the Mishnah, a late second-century rabbinic text compiled in the Galilee. The Mishnah’s tractate devoted to fasts, titled Taanit, lists five different events that, it posits, all occurred on the ninth day of the month of Av, for which Jews mourn by fasting. According to the Mishna, it was on the ninth of Av that God decided not to permit the generation of Israelites that had fled Egypt to enter the land of Israel, prolonging the community’s journey to the land by forty years. Many centuries later, in 586 BCE, the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire, and in 70 CE the second temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire—both destructions, the Mishnah explains, occurred on this same calendar date. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius also notes that both temples were destroyed on the same date, though he places the destructions on the tenth rather than the ninth of Av.) Moreover, in the following century, also supposedly on the ninth of Av, Bar Kokhba’s attempted revolt against Rome definitively failed at Betar and, not long afterward, the Roman Empire transformed Jerusalem into a Roman colony named Aelia Capitolina, often depicted on coins with an ox plowing the city’s limits. From its very beginnings, that is, Tisha B’Av was associated not with a single misfortune but with several.

The passage in the Mishnah concludes by noting that “when one enters [the month of] Av, one ought to decrease one’s joy.” This final statement suggests that while the ninth of Av is a particularly sad day, the entire season is one of mourning and reflecting on past moments of communal hardship. Indeed, the preceding days of Av are likewise considered days of mourning, when certain festive activities, such as celebrations, are prohibited.

The destructions of the first and second temples, commemorated on Tisha B’Av, are often regarded as turning points in Jewish history that both entailed traumatic loss (of life, family, community, and cult) and provoked cultural creativity, including the composition and compilation of sacred texts and reconceptions of Jewish practices during the Babylonian exile as well as the rabbinic period. Not all scholars of ancient Judaism agree that the temple’s destruction was a watershed event for Jews. Regardless of whether Jews in the years and decades immediately following the destruction thought of the war and its aftermath as a true rupture, many later Jews regarded the destruction of Jerusalem not only as a tragedy but as the paradigmatic traumatic event. Its annual commemoration on the ninth of Av became a day devoted not only to mourning the loss of Jerusalem but also for mourning other Jewish catastrophes, events that were often conceived within the paradigm of these ancient destructions.

Some kinot (elegies) recited in synagogues on Tisha B’Av describe the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz during the First Crusade in the 11th century. Another well-known kinah mourns the burning of Jewish books, including the Talmud, in Paris in 1242, and others commemorate the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. Some communities associate the day with King Edwards I’s expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the date by which Jews were forced to leave Spain following King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s edict of expulsion in 1492, the start of World War I in 1914, and the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in 1943, each of which occurred either on or very near the ninth of Av. 

Continuing this tradition, this year some Jews will use Tisha B’Av as a day to reflect upon the trauma of the ongoing pandemic. When cities across the world shut down this spring, the reality of social distancing and quarantine, accompanied by images of abandoned roads, empty subways and desolate public spaces, evoked the opening lines of the book of Lamentations, traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av in many communities: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!…She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks…The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals, all her gates are desolate.” The deep sorrow and despair caused by death, illness, poverty and injustice likewise find expression in the sad and angry words of Lamentations, as the city confronts God about the limits of suffering. That many synagogues remain closed or only partially operational, unable to accommodate crowds of worshippers, has solidified the parallel of these times with the loss of the temple as a cultic site to which eager pilgrims used to flock to pray and celebrate together. 

Daniel Olson and Rabbi Ben Goldberg, for example, have composed a contemporary dirge inspired by the poetic structure of a medieval acrostic elegy that mourns the Temple’s destruction, often sung in synagogues on Tisha B’Av. Their kinah opens with the image of a Torah scroll sitting alone and lonely, unread, in the ark of a synagogue that has not been used for prayers because it is unsafe to gather within the sanctuary walls. In the original medieval composition, the pain of destruction is compared to the pain of a young widow; in this new kinah, the sadness of people during the pandemic is compared to this abandoned Torah scroll. Rather than detailing the suffering of Judea during and after Jerusalem’s destruction, this version comments, instead, on the suffering of all those affected by COVID-19. In the poem, Zion laments those who are ill, those who have lost loved ones, those who care for others, those who no longer have employment, those who cannot attend school, “stricken nursing homes,” “brides who canceled weddings,” “closed and empty summer camps,” the “sharp senseless hatred, that strikes her marginalized ones, and for the essential workers, who endanger themselves for her safety.” As the Mishnah remarked so many centuries ago, Tisha B’Av continues to be a day on which Jews do not mark a single tragedy, but rather acknowledge many accumulated tragedies, including those that are ongoing.

So what’s in a date? For Tisha B’Av, it is the many layers of the historical past and the contemporary present with which that date is bound and remembered.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is a professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, is being released by Princeton University Press in November. 

Top Photo: “The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez

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