Why a bleak fast can still be called a festival
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The fast of Tishah b'Av this weekend is one of the most mournful days in the calendar. But the rabbis still found seeds of hope within it
Much of Tishah b'Av is designed to break our morale. On this bleak day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, along with many other tragedies that have befallen us in the centuries that have passed.
The litany of Tishah b'Av prohibitions is lifted straight from the laws of shivah, mourning for a deceased relative. We may not wear leather shoes. We avoid greeting people. We may not listen to music. We may not wash for pleasure. We may not engage in any activity or conversation that distracts us from mourning. We may not learn Torah for fear that doing so might make us happy. We sit on low chairs or on the ground.
But further investigation of the spirit of the day indicates apparent confusion. There are hints of God's great love for us within the mood of retribution and lament.
Tachanun, the doleful prayer from the morning and afternoon services that is omitted on happy
occasions, is omitted on Tishah b'Av because this day is referred to in the Book of Lamentations as a mo'ed, which can be translated as a festival.
The Talmud (Yoma 54b) adds to this bewildering mix of moods with an account of the carvings of cherubim on the walls of the Holy of Holies (the room at the back of the Temple) becoming miraculously transformed during the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. When the invaders entered the Holy of Holies, they discovered that the cherubim were intertwined like a man who cleaves to his wife and embraces her in his arms (Rashi).
This miracle, noticed on Yom Kippur in the First Temple era, indicated God's love for His people. But does this not contradict the dire theme of total estrangement of God from His people?
Bnai Yisaschar (Rabbi Zvi Eliezer Shapiro, 1784-1840) offers an explanation which is both cogent and touching. He says that our departure into exile gave God no pleasure at all. Rather, He felt like a lover whose beloved is parting for a long journey. At such a time, feelings of love are compounded and strengthened by a sense of yearning and imminent loss.
Even Jewish law bows to this sentiment. The Talmud (Yevamot 54b) stipulates a certain degree of
leniency in hilchot niddah, the laws governing conduct between man and wife, when one of them is due to go on a long voyage the next day, since it is a time when extra affection is appropriate.
Bearing this in mind, we can understand the curious mix of themes on Tishah b'Av. The Hebrew mo'ed (festival) comes from the root ya'ad, meaning meeting. A festival is a time when we meet up with God.
Tishah b'Av is called a mo'ed because the very act of separation from God inspires us to meet Him for one last time before we part company, and to look forward to when we can be reunited.
This idea was expressed visually with the miracle of the changing carvings of the cherubim. At this climactic moment of loss, God expressed to us His sense of love for us and the hope that we would one day return to our homeland.
We can use this idea to express another baffling idea associated with Tishah b'Av, the anniversary of our banishment from Israel. This day, according to the Midrash (Aggadat Bereshit 68), is also the day of the creation of the Messiah, the righteous man who will re-establish world peace and the Jewish claim to the land of Israel as a source of spiritual enlightenment for the whole world.
Bnai Yisaschar explains that the Messiah is a profound expression of God's love for the world. For the birth of this highest soul, there is a need for the most profound bond of love between God and the world, and this love is felt most strongly on Tishah b'Av, when we long to be with God and He longs to be with us.
So Tishah b'Av is a sad day, but not a depressing day. By reflecting on our relationship with God as it could be and as it is, we can experience a greater love for Him which reflects His love for us. And, as we have seen, it is precisely this love which hastens the Messiah and the rebuilding of our holy Temple.
Tishah B'Av: custom and practice
After Yom Kippur, Tishah b'Av is the second most important fast in the calendar, commemorating the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Like Yom Kippur, the fast begins at sunset. But Tishah b'Av is unique in being the only fast to commence on a Saturday evening.
Other fast-day restrictions also apply such as not bathing or wearing leather shoes.
In the synagogue, the curtain is removed from the Ark, people sit on low seats or on the floor as a sign of mourning and Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, is chanted in the evening and the following morning.
Unusually, men do not put on tallit or tefillin when they pray in the morning but do so in the afternoon service .
It is also forbidden to study Torah - because that is regarded as a joyous activity - excepting sombre books like Job or the Talmudic laws of mourning.
The destruction of the Temples was not the only historical cataclysm associated with the day. Tishah B'Av 1492 was the date set for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
In the Kinnot, laments traditionally recited after the service, other medieval disasters are commemorated, including the burning of sacred books, pogroms carried out in the Crusades and the York Massacre of 1190.