A man once told his rabbi that he was not interested in practicing Judaism because most of the rituals seemed so medieval. The rabbi replied, “I think you have it wrong…we’re not medieval. We’re much older than that!”
As you might expect, I see the relevance of Jewish practice for the times in which we live. But it’s not lost on me that many of our practices are quiet ancient, and it can be hard to demonstrate the relevance of some of our rituals and customs. It can be difficult to explain to some people that we do something today because of an event that transpired 2,000-3,000 years ago. This is especially true for the fast days we observe throughout the year (other than Yom Kippur). Tisha B’Av, or the 9th day of Av, is one such day. It is largely observed by those who have a strong Jewish background and knowledge of Jewish holidays. And since it comes in the middle of the summer, a time when many people are on vacation, it doesn’t draw a lot of attention.
First, a little background. Tisha B’Av is considered to be a solemn day on the Jewish calendar which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples that stood in Jerusalem (the Western Wall, or Kotel, a Jewish site recognized around the world, remains from what once was the Second Temple). In the year 63 BCE, the Romans occupied Judea (a sovereign Jewish state run by the Hasmoneans, descendants of the Maccabees), and the Jews rebelled against Rome about 120 years later, in 67 CE. A 3-year guerilla war ensued, which the Jews lost in a big way. The Romans breached the walls of the Temple on the 17th of Tammuz in the year 70 CE (also a fast day on the Jewish calendar) and burned the Temple to the ground on the 9th of Av (three weeks later). To this day, the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av are observed as a solemn time period on the Jewish calendar, during which traditional Jews do not hold weddings or other celebrations. During the first nine days of the month of Av, the solemnity increases, and traditional Jews do not eat meat (except on Shabbat), shave or cut their hair, or hold festive celebrations (this year, the month of Av and the “Nine Days” begin on Friday, July 17). A small group of Jews escaped to Masada, a winter fortress built in the Judean desert by Herod, the Jewish governor of Judea, and remained there for three years. The Romans encamped at the foot of the plateau (the remains of their encampments are visible today), and finally overran Masada in 73 CE, only to find that the Jews living there had committed suicide rather than be taken as prisoners by the Romans. Tradition holds that the First Temple was also destroyed on the 9th of Av, some 600 years earlier. Tisha B’Av is observed with a 24-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) at night and again in the morning.
The history may be fascinating, but the question of the relevance of Tisha B’Av remains for some. Should we really fast today because the Romans destroyed the Temple 2,000 years ago? Do we really feel this is a cause for solemn, mournful behavior? Those questions have been asked by quite a few people, and not only in our time. Even the Talmudic sages sought reasons and explanations for why Tisha B’Av should be observed (though the events it recalls were far more real for them than for us). They wrote Midrashim that suggest that gratuitous hatred and lack of national unity were reasons that the Temple was destroyed, and imploring us to value positive and supportive relationships between individuals and communities and to see the importance of unity among Jewish people everywhere despite cultural and religious differences between us.
To those reasons I would add that Tisha B’Av teaches us that gratuitous violence never results in anything positive and, to the contrary, brings out the worst in us. Yigal Amir, the lunatic who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin more than 20 years ago, thought that an act of violence would make Israel better and stronger, yet he was wrong. True, sometimes we must use violence to achieve a noble end, as in a war waged to bring an end to suffering and to stop further destruction. But Tisha B’Av serves, to this day, as a reminder that never in history did violence for its own sake, for the purpose of conquest and domination, bring about a virtuous end.
So I invite you to participate in commemorating Tisha B’Av this year on Saturday evening, July 25 and Sunday, July 26 (click here for details…and it’s worth knowing that this year the 9th of Av is observed on the 10th of Av because the 9th falls on Shabbat and the only fast day that overrides Shabbat is Yom Kippur). Come to hear the haunting melody of the Book of Eicha…come to study and learn with other members of our community…come to stress the importance of Jewish peoplehood…and come to affirm that violence should never, ever be glorified or exalted.