Dear Rabbi Fried,
I know the day of Tisha B’Av is coming up soon, but I have never really succeeded in observing it properly because I have a lot of trouble trying to mourn over a temple I never saw or experienced and don’t feel its loss. Is there anything you can give me to hold on to which would add some meaning to someone like me?
You are referring to the upcoming fast day known as Tisha B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. This year the fast will be observed from Saturday night, July 21, and Sunday, the 22nd, until nightfall.
This is the Hebrew date on which numerous calamities have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history, most notably the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Each of these destructions opened a period of harsh exile for the Jewish people. The first destruction kicked off the 70-year Babylonian exile; the second began the bitter Roman exile, which continues until today.
The difficulty you are experiencing is, unfortunately, even felt by most observant Jews who, although they may outwardly observe the laws and customs of the day, have much difficulty in truly feeling the sadness and mourning mandated by the spirit of the day. Although there are Jews who are on a very high caliber of piety and scholarship and can truly appreciate the tremendous loss of the Temple and all it stood for, and mourn deeply over its loss, it’s difficult for most of us.
The very laws themselves, when observed properly, actually help a lot in getting into the spirit of the day. Fasting all day (starting Saturday night), sitting on the floor or a low stool until midday, reading from the Book of Lamentations and other dirges, and refraining from joyous activities and music all contribute to the feeling of mourning. The three-week preparation period before the actual fast, especially the minor-mourning customs during that time, serves as an important preparation to set the mood of the day.
The most important thing I find for myself is the focus on the entirety of Diaspora history. It’s not only the Temple itself we mourn over, but all the tragedies that have befallen our people subsequent to and as a result of the Temple destruction and the pursuant Diaspora of our people. The inquisitions, pogroms, blood libels, anti-Semitism at many levels, the unspeakable Holocaust and lately suicide bombings and more, which are all part and parcel with the loss of our lofty state and closeness to God, which we had with the Temple in Jerusalem.
Many of the dirges recited on Tisha B’Av refer to calamities that transpired during these later periods of Jewish history. Most notably two heart-rending dirges were composed by two leading sages of the last generation, reflecting the horrors of the Holocaust.
I, personally, spend much of my time on Tisha B’Av reflecting on and reading about the events and suffering of the Holocaust. I find this brings the day home to the heart in a way we can relate to it.
I also think about, on that day, the terrible “spiritual holocaust” we are presently witnessing before our eyes in America. We’ve lost 2 million Jews from our census charts in the past 20 years. This reflects a loss of 100,000 Jews a year, around 300 a day, for the last 20-30 years. Although this holocaust is happening with beautiful homes and cars rather than concentration camps and crematoria, the net result in loss of Jews to the Jewish people is no less catastrophic.
The more we can expose our fellow Jews in America to the beauty of our heritage and the Torah, we can turn back the present Tisha B’Av. In that merit, may it become a day of rejoicing with our final redemption and return to our Homeland.
Dear Rabbi Fried,