What does Tisha B’Av commemorate?
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (which falls in July or August), commemorates two catastrophic events: the destruction of the first and second temples. Both events occurred on or near 9 Av. The first temple was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians in 586 BCE (see 2Kgs 25; Jer 52; 2Chr 36:11-21), and the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. These events were perceived, in ancient times and still today, as historically and theologically earth-shattering. Both involved heavy loss of life in siege and war, followed by the deportation of parts of the Jewish population. More important, both brought to an end the central religious institution, the temple—the seat of the Divine Presence and the locus of worship. Without the temple, sacrificial worship could not be conducted. After 70 CE, prayer and the study of sacred texts, already widely engaged in, became and remain the main components of Jewish worship. But the loss of the temple, and the hope for its eventual restoration, echo through biblical and later Jewish thought.
Other communal disasters are also remembered on Tisha B’Av, incorporated into the quintessential disaster of the loss of the temple. These include the devastation of the Jewish communities of France and the Rhineland during the first crusade (1096), the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), and the Holocaust (1933–1945).
How is Tisha B’Av observed?
Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting and public mourning; its tone is somber and subdued. In traditional communities the lights in the synagogue are dimmed, the decorative curtain covering the ark (where the Torah is kept) is removed, and normal greetings and chit-chat are avoided. One does not engage in pleasurable activities, like bathing, sexual relations, music, and entertainment. Since the study of sacred texts is deemed enjoyable, only mournful texts like Lamentations, Job, passages from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, and certain Talmudic sections may be studied. In accord with the Jewish rituals of mourning, leather shoes are not worn, and in synagogue people sit on the floor or on low chairs.
During the evening service that begins Tisha B’Av (the “day” in the Jewish calendar begins on the preceding evening), the biblical book of Lamentations is recited. This book is comprised of five moving poems about the destruction of the first temple. Special poetic laments, called qinot, are added in the evening and morning services. The prayers are not sung to their usual melodies but are intoned in a speaking voice. The tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) worn by men (and in some liberal congregations by women, too) during the weekday morning service are not put on until the afternoon service.
When did Tisha B’Av originate?
Tisha B’Av as it is currently observed took shape in talmudic times (the early centuries of the Common Era), but the commemoration of the first temple’s destruction originated in biblical times, during the Persian period. The book of Lamentations may have been composed for such an observance. Zech 8:19 mentions “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth.” These fasts memorialize events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The fifth month is Av, and while the date of this fast is not specified, it may have been on the 9th of Av.