Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

The Fast of the Ninth of Av

Posted on: July 31, 2019

Tisha b’Av always appears to me as a bit of a blot of the landscape, the fast I don’t like, the black fast, commemorating something remote, a cause relinquished by many. Why mourn for a Temple, the restoration of which would land us in as much trouble as the destruction of the first, in 587 BCE and the second in 70 CE?

As a fast, it is very different from the Day of Atonement.

On Yom Kippur, the community gathers. The scrolls and many of the congregants are dressed in white, we pray together, fast together and together we hear the tekiah gedolah, the long note of the ram’s horn, which signifies the day’s end. By contrast, on the fast of 9th Av, a few diehards come together to sit on the floor and read the Book of Lamentations, then continue the fast in solitary through a dog day morning and afternoon until sunset at around 9pm.

There is an atmosphere before Tisha b’Av, and the name for it is Bein ha Metzarim, between the straits. Some people fast on 17 Tammuz, usually in July, commemorating the day when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, the Temple fell, hence the fast of 9th Av.  During the three week period, the orthodox will abstain from shaving, haircuts,  celebrations and listening to music. Marriages are not solemnized at this time, a rule which, generally speaking,  is not confined to orthodoxy.

During the three weeks of mourning, culminating in the twenty-five hour fast on Tisha b’Av, there are many sorrows to be remembered, besides the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in July 1290 and the expulsion of Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in August 1492 are said to have occurred on 9 Av, although a Hebrew calendar converter estimates these events as falling a few days short of or following the ninth.

During the more recent catastrophe of the Shoah, destruction and death were present on every day of the year, but certain events occurred on Tisha b’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto being one, while the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in 1944 began a few days after the 9th.

There is no baleful magic in the day, to make it a time of foreboding more than any other, but anniversaries are meaningful to us, not just the birthdays and silver weddings, but the anniversaries of the death of a loved one, the date of a battle, a book, a coronation, a discovery. Those who are bereaved often find that the birthday of the departed has particular poignancy in the first year after their death, or perhaps the first few years, or sometimes forever.

The randomness of time and chance are overlaid with meanings which come from personal and communal experience. This day for mourning the destruction of the Temple gathers to itself the threnody of our lives, a stockpiling of grief. Now we have Yom Hashoah and Holocaust Memorial Day to bear some of the weight of remembering the holocaust. Yom Hashoah was established on its present date of 27 Nisan by David Ben Gurion’s government in 1959. Holocaust Memorial Day, launched in 2001, remembers the Shoah and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.  The chosen date is the anniversary of the liberation of  Auschwitz by the Soviet Union in January 1945.

Tisha B’Av is our ancient day of mourning. It is mentioned in the Mishnah, tractate Taanit  (days of fasting).

When Av comes in, gladness must be diminished.

Taanit 4:6.

It is by no means singular to Judaism to put aside days in the calendar and special places for remembering sorrows ancient and modern. It is not even specific to religion. The epitaph on Oscar Wilde’s tomb quotes his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And alien tears will fill for him,

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Why was this, of all Wilde’s words, chosen as his epitaph? Perhaps it is the most universal of human experiences to be alien and outcast, to weep and to mourn.

Tisha B’Av has its silver linings. The day ends and the fast ends;  we eat, drink and do what we want. On the following shabbat, a passage from the book of Isaiah is read in the synagogue:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended.

It is called Shabbat Nachamu, the sabbath of comfort, from the first word of Isaiah 40, the set prophetic reading.

Every winter, I find out where Handel’s Messiah is being performed in London and buy a ticket. The beautiful opening aria after the overture is ‘Comfort ye,’ from the King James Version of Isaiah 40. I always think of Shabbat Nachamu and how the hope of comfort can be present in sorrow, or so I hope.

 

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