Tisha B'Av shows a somber side of JerusalemOn the ninth day of the month of Av, catastrophe shows a particular talent for finding the Jews. On this same summer day, according to the Talmud, fell no fewer than five of the most ignoble moments in Jewish history.
Tisha B'Av: an unlucky day for a people known both for their great fortune and their persecution over the millennia. Enough calamities have befallen the Jewish nation over its 4000-odd years that each day of the calendar year could likely lay claim to one, but on the ninth day of the month of Av, catastrophe shows a particular talent for finding the Jews.
On this same late-summer day, according to the Talmud, fell no fewer than five of the most ignoble moments in Jewish history: the faithlessly pessimistic report by Moses' spies on the land of Canaan, which incurred God's wrath and forced the Israelites into 40 years of desert wandering; the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE; the razing of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE; the establishment of a pagan Roman temple atop the ruins of the destroyed Second Temple; and the death of Bar Kochba and the subsequent failure of his revolt in 135 CE.
And the misery hardly stopped in the second century CE: Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492 on or around Tisha B'Av, and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto also fell on that tragic day.
Naturally, so unpropitious a day is marked by a solemnity that rivals even Yom Kippur; atonement is one thing, the weight of mounting catastrophes echoing down the Jewish people's lengthy collective memory is quite another. Like Yom Kippur, Tisha B'Av is longer than most fast days in Judaism, lasting a full 25 hours (sunset to nightfall). And like Yom Kippur, its prohibitions also include bathing, the application of creams or oils, leather shoes, and sexual relations.
Most stores and restaurants in Jewish areas of Jerusalem shut down, and observance takes place largely in the synagogue and home, although a large crowd also gathers for evening services and readings at the Western Wall. As the sun sets and the fast begins, Jews gather in synagogues (and at the Wall) and read aloud from the Book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah's searing elegy to a shattered Jerusalem, written in captivity in Babylon.
Afterward, a special category of mourning poems called kinnot are recited; each Jewish community has its own unique kinnot, and their subject matter, while universally somber, spans the loss of the Temple all the way up to the Holocaust. Many Orthodox Jews also sit on low stools, as if participating in the traditional shiva mourning ritual that follows the death of a close family member, and some assume a vegetarian diet, stop drinking alcohol and cease all pleasurable activities during the nine days leading up the holiday (this is why many Jerusalem kosher meat restaurants alter their menus before Tisha B'Av).
Once night falls and Tisha B'Av ends, the city quickly returns to normal, although don't expect the post-fast partying that can follow Yom Kippur; strict tradition holds that the ban on meat and alcohol continues until the next day.
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