Today is Tisha B’Av, a fast day which falls on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar. It started last night after our final evening meal, which was relatively quiet and somber, reflecting the mood of the 25 hour period we were about to enter. Our Shabbat and holiday meals are usually filled with laughter and lively conversation, but this one was unnaturally tame. The meal ended with the traditional dish of mourning– a hard boil egg dipped in ashes, the ashes commemorating destruction and the egg a small sign of optimism, that life is cyclical and never-ending, even in the worst of times. Tisha B’Av has been called the saddest day in Jewish history and is a day of fasting and mourning for Jewish people everywhere.
Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both the first and the second Temple in Jerusalem, which took place about 656 years apart, but on the same fateful date! The First Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, when the Judeans were sent into the Babylonian
exile. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, scattering the people of Judea and initiating the longest Jewish exile from the land. It is said that another difficult event in our history took place on this ninth day of Av.
The twelve spies sent by Moses to explore the land of Canaan returned from their mission, ten of them speaking disparagingly about the land. The report caused the Children of Israel to panic and despair of ever entering the Promised Land. Tradition states that because of the Israelites’ lack of faith in G-d and in His promises to bring us to a good land, G-d designated that for all generations this date would become a day of crying and misfortune for the Jewish people.
I shudder when I realize that on the day after Tisha B’Av in the year 2005, Israel began the expulsion of Gush Katif residents in the Gaza Strip. The expulsion was set for the ninth of Av and was pushed back by a day, so as not to coincide with Tisha B’Av. Another calamitous day in our too recent past.
Along with the prohibitions against eating and drinking on Tisha B’Av, there are additional customs that Jews associate with mourning. It is customary to sit on low stools or even on the floor, like Jewish mourners do during the week following the death of a family member. Even in our synagogue, chairs are pushed aside and people sit on the floor, propping themselves up against door frames or a corner of the wall. Some people bring low beach chairs or small cushions to raise themselves a bit off the floor. And then the haunting melody of the Book of Lamentations is heard, and we lean over our prayer books, the flickering of candle light illuminating the devastating words of old.
The prophet, Jeremiah, wrote the Book of Lamentations as an addendum of sorts to the Book of Jeremiah, lamenting the fall of the Jews and Jerusalem after the destruction of the first Temple. The words of the chant cut through me. “Babes… say to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they swoon like a dying man in the streets of the town; as their soul ebbs away in their mother’s laps… The tongue of the suckling cleaves to its palate for thirst… their skin has shriveled on their bones.” The synagogue service is over and people walk home through the streets, subdued. In the morning, after returning home from the Morning Prayer service, the long day stretches ahead.
Even Torah study is forbidden on Tisha B’Av as it is considered a joyous activity, except for the sad texts of the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, portions of Jeremiah and chapters of the Talmud which discuss laws of mourning. My kids drag out some mattresses and pillows to pad the floor, and we sit down with our booklets of Kinnot, a series of tens upon tens of liturgical lamentations… elegiac poems. We sometimes sit there reading them all morning, taking breaks to doze, reading some aloud to each other and trying to allow the poignancy of the poetry to move us.
Kinnot is plural for the word Kinnah, which means to wail or cry. It was first used in the Bible when David mourns the death of Saul and Jonathan (II Samuel 1:19). In Jeremiah (9:16), we find the root of the same Hebrew word when we read about the mekonnenot, meaning professional mourners, whose job it was to keen and wail at funerals to create the proper atmosphere. Most of the kinnot read on Tisha B’Av discuss the destruction of the Temples, but many were composed by different poets and philosophers in response to tragedies in Jewish history, during the difficult times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, expulsions, pogroms and the Holocaust. In fact, Tisha B’Av has become a day of mourning for anti-Semitism, for persecution through the ages.
Jeremiah may have written the Book of Lamentations as a response to the horrific destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish people’s exile. But throughout our Jewish history, subsequent tragedies have followed the same pattern and kinnot did not remain focused exclusively on the loss of Jerusalem, but were added to, to express the prayers of a persecuted people. Two poignant kinnot were composed to remember the more recent calamity in Jewish history– the Holocaust. I want to quote the opening paragraphs of both of them: “Remember, please, and lament, O all of Israel, let your voices be heard on high, For Germany has destroyed our people, during stormy days of the World War; with killings, horrible and cruel, with starvation and thirst. For all generations, do not forget, until you will merit witnessing the ultimate consolation. Remember their screams and their weeping as they were tightly packed and locked into the train’s cars. ..May the sound of their pleading cries be eternally remembered, by the One Who dwells in the Heavens. When they proclaimed ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the lord is one’ they offered up their lives to the Lord of lords.”
“He who remembers those who remember Him, Each generation and its holy ones—since the time You have chosen us—May He remember the gruesome fate of the last generation. Woe! What has happened to us! All who were submerged in valleys of tears, May G-d think of them in the lands of eternal life. May their memory be a blessing for all eternity… Remember the moans and tumultuous screams, when they were herded for slaughter.” Interesting how both of the kinnot about the Holocaust begin with the word “Remember” and focus on our keeping the memory of the event strong. For that is the message that our proud people must walk away with from that dark time in the life of the Jewish people. We must always remember and never forget, for only then will we be able to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
Chillingly, other words which feature prominently in both these kinnot, is the word “blood” and different images of “fire” and burning. “Like sheep to the slaughter they were led to be incinerated in the crematorium ovens… The blood of tender babes cries out to You from the earth… For the burning of thousands of study halls and synagogues… They set G-d’s sanctuaries aflame, they ignited them…. Let those who lit the fire suffer retribution…” “Those who were swept away by the flood of blood—who sacrificed their lives… For the thousands time thousands of corpses consumed in the fire of destruction and horror… Seek out the blood when You take the count … of every life perished… six thousand times a thousand… O Avenger of blood! May the rivers of their blood and the tears on their faces not be forgotten forever… The pillars of smoke, the fumes from furnace… Only blood libations are their memorials boiling, unforgettable—and the mounds of ashes…” Yet, both kinnot ends with a prayer for the return to Zion, when G-d’s light will shine over us all: “Exalt us, and bring us back to Zion and Jerusalem.” “Comfort Your congregation that yearns for You so mightily. Let new light shine, let rays of glory grow, And may G-d’s spirit hover.”
The reading of the kinnot and the mourning of Tisha B’Av is not meant to sink us into depression, to encourage us to wallow in grief… but rather to remember… to awaken our yearning for the Temple. My husband Kuti says that he has a hard time mourning the destruction of a Temple he never knew; he cannot fully picture the glory of what once was and is now lost to us. But he finds Tisha B’Av almost a comforting time of sorts, a time to pray for something better… for that final Redemption when we will see the building of the third and eternal Temple. He likes to see the day as a day not of grief but of longing… not of despair but of hope.
Kuti likes to focus specifically on the Kinnot which talk of the return of the glory of Zion… where he can say the words “My soul yearns intensely to behold the splendor of your radiance; may peace be yours and abundant peace to those who help you… When I pray for your welfare, I shall cry out from the mountaintops… Peace onto Zion… Peace unto you O desirable land.”
Our sages say that in the future, Tisha B’av will become a holiday, that through the force of us coming together, confronting our worst moments in history, there’s the hope that never again will we be in danger of being obliterated and there will again be something to celebrate. Many people say that time has already arrived. That to look at Jerusalem today, building and bustling and thriving with institutions of Bible study; we cannot say that Jerusalem is not restored. But we are still yearning for the Temple to be rebuilt and to see peace in Jerusalem. The Talmud says that one who shares in the grief of Jerusalem will be privileged to see its comforting. May that day come soon.
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities