Beginning sundown on Monday, July 15th, Jews around the world will fast to mark one of the most solemn days in the Jewish year – Tisha B’Av.On Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av.
Numerous calamities have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. On this day in 135 C.E., the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed by Israel’s Roman conquerors. In 1492, the King and Queen of Spain issued an order expelling all Jews, thus eliminating one of the most vibrant and largest Jewish communities in Europe. In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews in Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps. And, in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., respectively, the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.
In commemoration of these tragedies, each year on Tisha B’Av Jews refrain from ordinary pleasures and indulgences, including eating and drinking. We avoid frivolity of any sort and follow customs associated with mourning: We do not bathe, wear cosmetics or leather shoes, and we sit on low chairs to minimize comfort. Even Bible study – an activity Jewish tradition considers joyous – is restricted to passages describing the laws of mourning, the destruction of the Temple, and other tragic events.
But, while Tisha B’Av is a day of great solemnity, it is also one of hope. We commemorate past tragedies not to wallow in our grief, but to strengthen our memory of history, and to ensure that such things do not happen again. And, perhaps, our remembering will help us realize that our survival through so many bitter trials is indeed a miracle, a gift from God.
The Talmud, however, poses many inaccurate answers. In the Talmud Shabbat 119b some Jewish leaders believe that Jerusalem was destroyed because the people desecrated the Shabbat; others believe the reason was because they neglected to educate the school children. Some Jewish scholars believe that Jerusalem was destroyed because the people had no shame before each other; that the people did not rebuke on another; and that there were no more trustworthy people
Since the rabbis of the Talmud were historically closer to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, most of their answers are an attempt to understand eicha, how; God could have allowed this terrible event to happen. Commentaries notice that the word eicha is spelled in Hebrew with the letters aleph, yod, kaf, heh. Take note that this is the same spelling of another word, though punctuated differently, that is the first question that God asked Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. God called to them: “Eyeka, Where are you?” Eyeka is spelled exactly like eicha, just with different vowels. The word eicha is repeated on Tisha B’Av, as mourners cry out for answers, for insight into how these many tragedies could have happened to the Jewish Nation.
Tisha B’Av, like all Jewish holidays, is not simply about its practices but its meaning. And this is the central question of the day:Eicha? How do they find meaning in this ancient destruction? It is the first word of the Book of Lamentations which is read on this day, and thus also its Hebrew name, and it occurs three more times in the text. We also hear the word eicha on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, as it appears in both the Torah and Haftarah readings. Eicha asks, how could the Temples in Jerusalem have been destroyed? How could all of these tragedies we commemorate on Tisha B’Av have happened? These questions ring out, but their biblical text gives no answers. Observing Tisha B’Av ought to focus on God’s question: “When are you going to recognize My Son, Jesus as your Messiah?
All of us go through periods of suffering. Tisha B’Av challenges us to remember our past difficulties, because only by doing so can we truly appreciate seasons of joy and blessing. Only then can we truly thank God when we emerge from the dark tunnel of despair. Psalm 30 teaches us, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” This Tisha B’Av, we thank God that mourning turns to hope, and that our faith teaches us that a day will come when the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of God.