Unpacking the meaning of Tisha B’Av

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Could you please expand a little about Tisha B’Av? I heard that historically it has been a tragic day for the Jews, but what happened on that day besides the destruction of the Temple?

Jilian C.

Dear Jilian,

Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, falls on Saturday night, July 17, and Sunday, July 18. It is the day the Torah (based upon the book of Lamentations) established for national mourning for all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history. Not only is it a day of remembrance of those tragedies, but many of those calamities have actually befallen us on that date.

To name some of the key events: (1) During the time of Moses, Jews in the desert accepted the slanderous report of 10 of the 12 spies, and the decree was issued forbidding them from entering the Land of Israel (1312 BCE); (2) the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar. One hundred thousand Jews were slaughtered and millions more were exiled (586 BCE); (3) the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, led by Titus. Some two million Jews died, and another million were exiled (70 CE); (4) the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The city of Betar — the Jews’ last stand against the Romans — was captured and liquidated. Over 100,000 Jews were slaughtered (135 CE); (5) the Temple area and its surroundings were plowed under by the Roman general Turnus Rufus. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city, renamed Aelia Capitolina, and access was forbidden to Jews.

These are the five national calamities which are mentioned in the Talmud and other early literature, upon which the Sages enacted Tisha B’Av as a day of national mourning, fasting and recital of special prayers. 

Since then, many more tragic events have befallen us on the same Jewish date: (1) The Spanish Inquisition culminated with the expulsion of Jews from Spain, ending nearly a thousand years of glorious Spanish Jewish flourishing, on Tisha B’Av in 1492; (2) World War I broke out on the eve of Tisha B’Av in 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia. This totally disrupted the Jewish communities of Europe and set the stage for World War II and its Holocaust; (3) on the eve of Tisha B’Av 1942, the mass deportation began of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, en route to Treblinka and their destruction. The destruction of Warsaw, with its massive infrastructure of Jewish learning and huge Jewish population, has been likened to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

When the great Jewish leader R’ Don Abarbanel led the Jews into exile from Spain in 1492, although it was Tisha B’Av, he instructed the Jews to have a marching band accompany them with joyous music. He saw the clear Hand of G-d waving at them at their time of greatest tragedy, letting them know that He is still with them behind the canopy of darkness. 

This was made clear by this event, as the others, occurring on that same ominous day of Tisha B’Av.

Hence, during this one and only sad time on the Jewish calendar of old, the Code of Jewish Law makes the following statement: “When the month of Av enters, one should minimize one’s joy.” The commentaries point out that the Code does not say one should “not be joyous,” rather to “minimize” one’s joy, indicating that even during the darkest times, a Jew never totally loses their joy. This, as Don Abarbanel taught us, comes from our profound belief that G-d is always with us, ensuring the eternity of the Jewish nation.

I recommend you join a synagogue and those sitting on the floor and lamenting the events of Tisha B’Av. (Especially the current “holocaust” of the loss of some 100,000 Jews per year to assimilation and cults in the USA alone.) Why? Because the Talmud says that anyone who joins the congregation and mourns the destruction of the Temple will surely merit to witness its rebuilding.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.

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