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What is Tisha B’Av?

It is one of the saddest days in the Jewish calendar, but why - and how - do we mark it?

    Detail from Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1867)
    Detail from Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1867)

    Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, is a fast day, commonly known as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.

    It commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians, circa 587 BCE, and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. However, the fast has also become associated with other tragedies which have taken place over the course of Jewish history.

    Origins

    According to the Mishnah (the original work on which the Talmud is based), during the Biblical period when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, spies were sent to look at the land of Canaan, but came back with a negative report about the difficulties which would be involved in conquering it.

    The Children of Israel cried out in response to the news, saying that God had led them into the wilderness only to bring them to annihilation. God is said to have responded by saying “you cry over nothing? I will give you something over which to cry”.

    Throughout Jewish history, a number of calamities have taken place on or around the 9th of Av. The Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, 65 years after the destruction of the Temple, was crushed on the 9th of Av.

    The Jews were expelled from several countries on or around the 9th Av, including England (July 18, 1290), France (July 22, 1306), and Spain (July 31, 1492).

    In more recent times, Heinrich Himmler received approval for the Final Solution on the 9th of Av (August 2, 1941), and on the 9th of Av the next year (July 23, 1942), the mass deportation of the Jews of Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp began.

    Prayer Services

    On the night of Tisha B’Av, it is customary to read Megillat Eichah – the Book of Lamentations, which is comprised of five poetic chapters mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. A few Kinnot (elegies) are also read on the night of Tisha B’Av, but the main reading of Kinnot usually takes place on Tisha B’Av morning.

    The Kinnot are mainly focussed on the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but Kinnot also exist mourning the savage deaths of 10 of Judaism’s greatest sages at the hands of the Romans, the brutal killing of Jews during the Crusades

    While the Tallit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries) are usually put on for morning prayers, the custom on Tisha B’Av is not to put them on until the afternoon. A special prayer called Nachem – “consolation” - is added to the Amidah prayer which references building Jerusalem. In many Sephardi congregations, the book of Job is read on Tisha B’Av mornings.

    Laws of the Day

    Tisha B’Av is one of two fasts to begin in the evening and end the following evening (the other is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). The other four fasts of the Jewish year begin at dawn and end at sundown.

    Prior to the beginning of the fast, it is customary to eat what is known as the Seudat Hamafseket, the "separating meal”. It is a simple meal, usually consisting of a hard-boiled egg, and some bread dipped into ashes.

    The ninth of Av comes at the end of a three week period, which begins with the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. During that period religious Jews observe increasingly stringent restrictions.

    In the three weeks as a whole, one is not supposed to have a haircut or shave (unless absolutely necessary due to business), listen to music, or get married.

    During the nine days, starting on the first day of the month of Av, meat is not eaten and wine is not drunk (unless at a celebration), clothes are generally not washed, and bathing is kept to an absolute minimum.

    On Tisha B’Av itself, there are five main restrictions:

    • Food and drink are prohibited
    • Washing and bathing are not allowed
    • One should not wear leather shoes (often some sort of trainer or plimsoll is worn instead. In recent years, Crocs have become popular)
    • Sex is not permitted
    • The application of creams, lotions or oils are also forbidden

    However, there are a number of other restrictions:

    • On the night of Tisha B’av, and during Tisha B’av day up until Mid-day, one is meant to sit on a low chair rather than a regular chair, in the same way as close relatives mourn for the dead. One is supposed to be mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the suffering the Jewish people have endured as a result.
    • Jewellery is traditionally not worn, as part of the prohibition against beautifying oneself on the fast
    • The study of Torah is also prohibited – because it is considered an enjoyable act. The only exceptions to this rule are the book of Lamentations, the book of Job, elements of the book of Jeremiah concerning the destruction of the Temple, and parts of the Talmud which focus on the laws of the mourning period.

    However, while Tisha B’Av is a time of great sadness, it is also seen as a period of potential joy in times to come. Tradition has it that the Messiah will be born on the 9th of Av, and when the final redemption comes, Tisha B’av will be transformed from a day of mourning into a day of celebration.

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