Tisha B’Av: A Day of Catastrophe
Tisha B’Av is the darkest day of the Jewish calendar, the day when both the first and second Temples were destroyed, and the day when all the horrors ever endured by the Jewish people throughout history are commemorated. To mourn the destruction of the Temple is to mourn a time when Judaism could be practiced freely under Jewish leadership, without the tyranny of foreign rulers and without the looming threat of pogroms, blood libels, and mass extermination.
Prohibitions and Practices of Tisha B’Av
Tisha B’Av is a strict fast day, with only the very ill or youths under the age of 12 begin exempt. The fast begins before sunset on the previous evening. Families eat a large meal called the “Seuda HaMafseket” just before the fast begins, conducted with solemnity and often accompanied with boiled eggs topped with ashes as a sign of mourning.
Later that same evening, devout Jews go to synagogue to hear the Book of Eicha, the book that recounts in grisly detail the events of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, where mothers were reportedly driven by their hunger to cook their own children. It is without a doubt the most grim of the Biblical texts, even more so than Job, and it is read in synagogue in a sonorous and plaintive melody.
Another prohibition is from sitting on an elevated surface, so synagogues will clear away their chairs on the eve of Tisha B’Av so that congregants can sit on the floor. Washing, applying creams, and wearing leather or gold are also prohibited.
The fast ends at nightfall on Tisha B’Av, making it one of the longest fast days of the year. The fast is broken with a meal that is as somber as the one that began it.
It is believed that the Nine Days in general are a time when God’s fury can be easily tested against the Jewish people, and Tisha B’Av in particular is considered a time of great peril. On this day, God’s protection and grace might have been temporarily withdrawn—or is less easily granted—as punishment for the sins that destroyed the Temple.
Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem
Tisha B’Av is felt with particular intensity in Jerusalem, where the destroyed Temples once stood and where the horrors of the sieges actually occurred. Therefore it is a widespread tradition in Jerusalem for Jews to hear Eicha on the eve of Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall, and to pray there afterward.
From here, congregants can look up at the Temple Mount, where they are now forbidden to pray. The sadness that overtakes them is an experience that is unique to Jerusalem, where history is not only of the past but is also a living and enduring reality.