Tisha b’Av in the Holy Land
Tisha b’Av or the 9th of the month of Av is the day of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is the culmination of a 3 week mourning period that began on 17 Timmuz.
Tisha b’Av is not a well known day in the Hebrew Calendar and not widely observed in a regular way. However, for those who do observe this very sad day there are strict restrictions to reinforce the sorrow of the occasion.
For those who observe Tisha b’Av it means an abstention from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather, studying the Torah, sitting or laying comfortably, donning the tallit or tefillin, marital relations and all forms of entertainment. The main activity of this day is the recitation of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations).
A recent poll of the religious habits of Israelis revealed that less than one-quarter of all Israelis observe the Tisha b’Av fast while just over half will abstain from entertainment and outright comforts. Soldiers engaged in combat who would normally observe Tisha b’Av have been absolved from fasting by the highest rabbinical authorities as well as the chief rabbi of the IDF. This ruling has its base in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where as fasting greatly increased the risk to combat soldiers’ lives.
Even though many Israelis do not participate in the traditional abstentions of Tisha b’Av, the law does decree that all restaurants and places of entertainment must be closed on erev and the day of this anniversary. The most established activity is to go to the Western Wall to pray and read or chant the Book of Lamentations. The Western Wall is the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple. It is the place where one can still touch the Holy Temple and feel humbled in its presence.
The Book of Lamentations is the only part of the Torah permitted on Tisha b’Av. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, it is as the title describes… a lament over the destruction of the First Temple. It is a painful account of the deplorable conditions inside Jerusalem’s walls during the siege. The custom is to read this account in low light while seated on the floor.
Those observing the fast lead up to it with a “seudah mafseket” or a small final meal. It consists of foods with little flavor including a hard-boiled egg and a piece of bread that has been slightly burned. Congruently, the meal breaking the fast omits meat and wine to acknowledge that the temple continued to burn and the suffering of the Jewish people continued past the modern one-day observance.
The Shabbat that following Tisha b’Av is called the Shabbat of Comfort as one of the prescribed readings in the synagogue that day is Isaiah 40 which begins “Comfort, comfort my people”. This commences a period of conciliation leading up to Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, where it all begins again.