Tisha B’Av: The Day of Lamentation and Hope


By Joe Bobker

"The Temple Mount still smoked. Piles of ash, mounds of cinders, smoldering brands lay in heaps; hissing embers tumbled together, glowed like stacks of carbuncle and jacinth in the silence of dawn. The angels trembled. Their song that morning was a hushed lament, the murmur of a still, small voice. Silently they turned away and wept, each angel alone, and all the world wept with them in the silence." ii

Prior to World War II Polish Jews would break their Tisha B’Av fast, light a fire, throw their kinos into the flames – and dance and sing the night away convinced it was their last Tisha B’Av before the Messiah came.

Instead, Adolf waltzed into their lives and a modern mass crucification of Jews began.iii The result? The worst destruction in Jewish history, the extermination of one out of every three Jews in the world, and the devastating loss of 1,000 years of traditional European Judaism, including leaders, institutions and their cumulative writings.

This was a generation where each Jew was a gosais, a Hebrew term that applies to Jews who know they have begun to die – a grim lesson in what Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote: "the day of death is better than the day of birth."v According to Jewish law if the dead have no one to bury them then a kohen and even a High Priest (who are usually forbidden to come close to the spiritual impurity of a dead body) are obligated to help bury the Jew; and they are also obligated to help bury any Jew who cried out for help, and died without hearing a response. After the liberation in the Spring of 1945, millions of Jews had the awesome distinction of qualifying under not one, but both of these halachik exemptions simultaneously.

If the devil is in the details, the details are in the Tisha B’Av liturgy. No rabbi, poet-writer, artist nor theologian can reconstruct the humiliation and dehumanization, the lunatic criminality, the terror of Death Marches to Nowhere, the bewilderment and confusion of millions of Jewish children.

Tisha B’Av brings us closer to our history in order not to assassinate memory. For if there is no one left to cry, there will be no one left to listen. After the Holocaust, a unique literature of Tisha B’Av style books appeared. These commemorative books, known as "Memorial Books of Doom," attempted to document the life and death of the 25,000 European shtetlach and Jewish communities that the Nazis destroyed. However no post-Holocaust publisher would print them. Why? Because there was no real audience, nor any commercial outlet for them. To fill this vacuum, surviving landsmen, "fellows," from different shtetlach would get together, create landsmanshaften groups, throw in a few dollars and self-print Mein Shtetl Yizker book, usually in Yiddish since this was their lingua franca. These chronicles, once dismissed as "tombstones, not books," were printed all over the world from Warsaw to Sydney, Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, Johannesburg to Mexico City.

I remember when I was about six years old how a total stranger once came to our house and silently laid out a sample chronicle from a destroyed Polish kehilla (from the term Kahal which originated in 16th century eastern Europe courtesy of Polish King Sigismund Augustus). My mother and father wept, and then scraped together a few dollars to help the stranger print a chronicle of their own destroyed hometowns, Ostralenka and Shmigroot. Every year on Tisha B’Av my parents would take down these two yizker bucher from a high shelf (away from the kinder, "children") and, together with other Holocaust survivors swap stories, and cry. As I was growing up I thought that this was one of the traditional halachas of Tisha B’Av. More than 600 of these "memorial books" have been printed since WW II and, when taken together, present a unique Tisha B’Av bibliography. Unfortunately these shtetl yizker books were meaningless to the third generation who were yiddish illiterates. This began to change in the 1980’s when several excellent English versions appeared.vii

Tisha B’Av forces us to confront the merciless reality of both past and present; and realize that between the dead and the rest of us exists an incomprehensible black hole. It acts as our emotional outlet, forcing us to walk through Gates such as Auschwitz and survive without ever experiencing the fire, hearing the screams, fearing the Einsatzgruppen, smelling the burning flesh, experiencing the hunger, nor ever witnessing the perpetrator’s sadistic enjoyment of using the small eyes of Jewish babies as target practice.

Tisha B’Av, the "Pearl Harbor" of Judaism, falls in the month described by the Torah as the "Fifth," with Nisan being the first; its entry into Jewish history being disfigured right from the start with the death of Aaron "in the fifth month, on the first day." This month falls in the eleventh (sometimes twelfth) month of the Jewish year, generally in the middle of summer, in a month that contains both the happiest (the 15th) and the saddest (the 9th) days of the Jewish calendar. It is one of three non-Biblical festivals in the Jewish calendar (the other two are Purim and Chanukah) and is traced back to the Biblical episode of the meraglim, twelve Israelite spies who, despite being prominent "princes of each tribe," delivered a devastating intelligence report describing Canaan as "a land that devours its inhabitants;" adding, with a stunning lack of confidence and pride," we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight."ix No wonder our rabbis have a saying: sh’minit shebesh’minit, that even the most humble person needs an "eighth of an eighth" of pride.

Their diba ra’ah, "bad-mouthed" finding came a mere fourteen months out of Egypt, to an exhausted folk who stood less than three days away from a land promised of milk and honey. The cowardly report depressed them into apathy, stupor, passiveness, and a massive identity crisis. And worse: it created a warped desire to turn back the clock, "Were it not better for us to return to Egypt?" Their response was in radical contrast with the later episode when Joshua also sent spies who came back with a highly positive report.xi The stunning difference between these two responses can be understood by way of this notable little story:

A Sage was sitting at a crossroads when a traveler approached him and asked, "Wise man, tell me,
what are the people like in the next town?"
The Sage replied: "What were the people like in the previous town?"
"They were fine and good people," the traveler answered.
"You will find that the people in the next town are fine and good people," the old man replied.
A few hours later another traveler approached him with a similar inquiry.
"Wise man, please tell me, what are the people like in the next town?"
The Sage replied: "What were the people like in the previous town?"
"They were selfish and evil people," the traveler answered.
"You will find that the people in the next town are selfish and evil people!" the old man replied.

The spies of Moses went with a preconceived bias: they were suspicious of God’s promises and distrustful of the future. Thus they saw what suited them; Joshua’s scouts went with self-assurance, determined to implement God’s will, and harbored no doubts as to their ultimate triumph. As the yiddishists would summarize: tracht gut, es vet zein gut, "think well and it will be well." When the Torah described their task it uses the Hebrew word for "tourist," La’tour et Ha’aretz, an eerie early warning to future diaspora Jews who refuse to visit Israel whenever it is "unsafe" to do so, thus undermining the solidarity of an entire people.xii

Ten of the 12 spies, never having shaken off their Egyptian-victim status of kivrot hata’avah, the "graves of lust," had single-handidly destroyed a nations morale, shattered lofty aspirations, and belittled the Jews’ capacity to cope with the immediate challenge of conquest. An angry God, aghast at this sudden debacle, reflects His fury in the sudden change of terminology: when the spies originally set out on their mission a proud Torah announces each by name and tribe; but upon return, the Torah ignores them totally, not even mentioning their names. The Heavens response is quick and brutal: "You cried without cause; I will, therefore, make this an eternal day of mourning for you." Thus the ignominy of Tisha B’Av was born, and God’s first national ordained death penalty is recorded as that generation is condemned to die before entry.xvi But hadn’t the spies simply told the truth? Yes – and no. "Truth and faith are locked arm in arm,"xvii explains Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, "A person who is not a liar is not automatically a person of truth. Truth gushes from the depths of the heart, from the sources of faith."

Our Jewish mystics saw an overt symbol in the Torah code of al-bash – "twinning" the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with tav, the last letter – to point out that the "beginning" aleph symbolizes the first day of Pesach whilst the "ending" tav equates with Tisha B’Av. The first represents the time of leaving Egypt (when the people were unified), the second is when they left Jerusalem (when each Jew "sits alone");xix completing a circle of Jewish history wherein the destruction of the Temple was a collapse of the entire fabric of post-Egyptian redemption.

The moment God decreed that "Trouble" was to be Tisha B’Av’s middle name, the Ninth of Av entered the Jewish calendar cycle as our Annual Bad Omen Day. Its zodiac sign is a lion, appropriately chosen by Eicha’s, "He is a lurking bear to me, a lion in hiding;" as if the Heavens have "stood aside" each year during this month and allowed the "lurking bears, lions," and wild animals to have their way with His flock; a gentile free-for-all that drives the Jews to yearn for the day when the beasts of prey are tamed, when

"The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a young lion and a young sheep will walk together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and a bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and the lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A nursing child will play by a viper’s hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder’s lair."xx

The rabbinic date-fixation with the "9th" was such that all disasters, whether they occurred on the Ninth of Av, or close by, were automatically allocated to this day; a day that our kabbalists claim proves the world’s incompleteness.xxi On this day Jerusalem was destroyed; once by the Chaldeans,xxiii twice by the Romans Titus and Hadrian, whose catastrophic rage sold so many Jews into slavery that the open market price of slaves collapsed. Mighty Rome’s commemoration of this major achievement would be the minting of special "Judeae Capta" coins, bearing the image of the broken exiled Jew, crying under a palm tree. So total were these twin psychic traumas that, at the sight of "Zion and her cities lamenting like a widow girded with sackcloth," that God Himself "ceased to laugh" and became an empathic companion of His folk’s history tragedy; an expression of participation known as Imo Anochi betzarah.xxvii

It was on Tisha B’Av 1242 that Torah scrolls and 20,000 hand-written Jewish manuscripts would burn in Paris, ordered by a Pope Innocent IV who wasn’t so innocentxxviii and who rewarded King Louis IX with a "Sainthood" for being such a good arsonist. As a result of those flames, all the yeshivas of Paris closed down and the spiritual decline of French Jewry began. This inspired the Maharam, Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rottenberg, to write the Tisha Ba’av kinos Sha’ali Serufah ba’Aish that we still say today. And it was on Tisha B’Av that Rufus, the Roman Governor of Judea, plowed up the site on which the Temple had stood, fulfilling the prediction that "Zion shall be plowed into a field."xxx Betar fell on that date,xxxii and the Crusaders started their bloodbaths on Tisha B’Av, the day that Jews were also unceremoniously kicked out of England,xxxiv Germany would start a World War; and when all the Jews were expelled from Russia’s border provinces, a move that marked the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Jewish mystics, by juxtaposing 1492 and 1942, linked the Tisha B’Av’s of those two years to the sight of Spanish Jews being expelled to the seas and Warsaw Ghetto Jews being shuffled of as cattle to a Treblinka crematoria.

But did the First and Second destructions fall exactly on the 9th day of Av?xxxvi No. The rabbis of the Talmud were perplexed by II Kings and Jeremiah’s two conflicting dates (7th and 10th) for the first destructionxxxvii but "solved" the discrepancy by dating the capture of the Temple on the 7th, its burning on the 9th, and its destruction on the 10th of Av.xxxix The Ninth of Av was chosen because that day coincided with other tragedies, a fatal calendar "coincidence" whose improbability of odds convinced the Jews that the Heavens were serving official notice on Jewish history; to expect a hovering visitor, Satan, who, as the Angel of Death, would appear suddenly and uninvited, ensuring that this day retained its unholy status as history’s shock wave of tragedies: distant only in space, time and number of casualties – but common in calendar date.xl

Tisha B’Av was carved into the Jewish calendar as Judaism’s eternal Day of National Mourning,xli as one of four prostrate days;xliii and given equal status with Yom Kippur as a "major" fast, defined as occurring from sundown to sundown. Some Jews fast for half-a-day erev Tisha B’Av, others sleep with rocks as pillows. On this day there is no music, no festivities, no dancing, no singing, no bathing, no leather shoes: in short, no joy of any kind – one is not even permitted to greet other Jews with the customary words, shalom aleichem, "Peace be with you" (this is why the Kohen’s priestly blessing is not said, because it contains the words, "and grant thee peace"); nor is one allowed to put on tefillin or tallis in the morning (worn in the afternoon instead).xlviii Why? Because both were considered ornaments, "theologic jewelry," inappropriate for a day of sadness, reminiscent of a mourner who does not put them on the day of a funeral as part of the nihugei gavrah, the active display of mourning. And more: one is even forbidden to study Torah. Why? Because Torah learning represents the highest state of happinessl so instead Jews study such "sad" Jewish texts as the Book of Job (a dramatic probe into the question of seemingly undeserved suffering), Megilat Eichah (the Book of Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah over the fate of Jerusalem), and certain moralistic "aggadic" parts of the Talmud, allowed because they are of a non-legal nature, and thus more historic or poetic (eg; Masechet Gittin, which deals with divorces, consoidered appropriate because the "Churban" represented a "temporary" separation between God and the Jewish People).

I can recall how Tisha B’Av joined Kol Nidrei as the only two times in the year that my mother would tuck kleenex tissues into the sleeves of her dress before going to shul – to join a community of Holocaust survivors and children of survivors who only had to glance at each other before they started sobbing and weeping at the reminder of Jewish mothers killing their children in the Warsaw Ghetto.

To the Greeks the faces of tears was a sign of pleasure; to the Jews it was the poet’s lamentation, "Shall the women eat their fruit, their cherished babe?" Our poets viewed Tisha B’Av through the precariousness lens of Jewish survival, as reflected in the following exchange between two Jews in the Holocaust.

"We can only be saved, either by a miracle or by a natural event. These are our only two logical possibilities."
"So what’s the natural event?"
"The coming of the Messiah, naturally."

Chassidim still follow a technique made popular by the 18th-century Rabbi Levi Yitzhack of Berdichev. Reb Levi would write on each wedding invitation and on each marriage contract that this marriage will take place in a restored Jerusalem – adding that in the event Jerusalem hadn’t been restored by the time of the wedding, then the ceremony would proceed in Berdichev instead. Jewish folklore talks about an underground tunnel that connects the Diaspora to the land of Israel, whose entrance is near impossible to find. Kabbalists believe that many of their scholars (Shalom Shabbazi of Yemen, Yosef Chaim of Baghdad) would disappear on Friday, spend the Sabbath in Jerusalem, returning home only on Saturday night. Yet even with his deep incredible faith Reb Levi Yitzhok never hesitated to challenge the Judge who judges…

"Lord of the universe! I saw an ordinary Jew pick up his tefillin from the floor, and kiss them; and You have let Your Tefillin, the Jewish people, lie on the ground for more than two thousand years, trampled by their enemies – why do You not pick them up? Why do You not act as a plain Jew acts? Why? Why?"

There are seven weeks from Tisha B’Av through the month of Elul, known as shiva d’nechemta, the "seven weeks of being comforted." The Shabbat Torah readings that fall just before and after Tisha B’Av have special significance, their names being derived from the haftorah portion of the Hebrew prophets read on those days.liii Our rabbis were acutely aware that a people’s belief system needed a bond between despair and hope. Thus Tisha B’Av is preceded by Shabbas Chazon and followed by Shabbas Nachamu; the first being named after the haftora’s opening word (chazon) which means "vision," or "prophecy" – and, since its content predicts terrible things for the Jewish people, Rashi claims that the word chazon, chanted to the same haunting and fearful melody as "Megilat Eichah" (Lamentations) is the most stringent of all prophetic words. And yet, for a "Haftarah of Puranut (Punishment)," it still ends on a positive note ("Zion will be redeemed in Justice/And those who repent/Will be redeemed in Righteousness"); a reaffirmation that the last note in the symphony of the history of Israel would end in the composition of triumph.

The later is called Shabbas Nachamu, "Nachamu" being the first word from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah,liv which begins Nachamu, Nachamu ammi, "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people."lvi Isaiah, the son of Amotz, was a brilliant and boundlessly gifted poet with a style both comforting and melodic tinged in grandiose themes of hope and optimism. Menachem, "comforter," implies the Judaic hope and longing for God to comfort His people, and transform the month of Av from mourning to consolation. Shabbas Nachamu, in sharp contrast to the morbid gloom ‘n doom of Shabbas Chazon, contains uplifting poems, soaring inspirational prophecies and such enriching lyrics that it was from here that the Zohar lifted its lofty battlecry, "Men fall only in order to rise."lix In order to buttress the fast day with both mourning and the hope of deliverance, this Shabbas became the Shabbas of joyful festivities and the start of Jewish wedding cycles. Our rabbis designated the month of Av as Menachem Av, the "comforting" Av, in order to soften a potentially damaging body-blow to the Judaic belief system, and based it on the belief that the ultimate redeemer of the Jews, the Messiah himself, was born on that terrible day of the destruction of the Temple.lx

The day before Tisha B’Av, we eat a meal called the seudah ha’mafseket, which means "the meal that interrupts," meant to emphasize the break between a regular day and a fast day. Jewish law forbids eating different foods from separate dishes at this meal. Why? Because eating a variety of foods was considered too "festive." Lentils, a "food of misfortune and mourning," and eggs were the favored foods, because "roundness," considered a symbol of mourning, also represented the belief that mourning eventually surrounds (rounded) everyone eventually at some point in life.lxiv

Jewish tradition, which forbids mourners to go to shul during their seven-day shiva period, makes an exception for Tisha B’Av, because everybody in shul is in a "low" position, just like the shiva mourners, who are even allowed to be called up to the Torah on this day. On Tisha B’Av all decorations are removed from the synagogue, lights are dimmed, and the whole community sits on the floor or on low wooden benches. Why? Because this is analogous to mourning. The custom of dimming lights comes from God asking the angels, "What does a king of flesh and blood do when he goes into mourning?" "He puts out all his lanterns," they replied; to which God answered, "I will do likewise."lxvii

Since our rabbis were aware of human nature they understood that to order a sudden cessation in our normal lives for the pure purpose of grief was risky, so they devised a "mourning ramp-up" that started with the Three Weeks, then moved on to the Nine Days, climaxing finally on Tisha B’Av with the removal of the curtain of the Ark and the stripping off the Torah scrolls of their velvet embroidered cloaks. After the evening maariv service Jews listen in hushed silence to the mournful melodic cadences of Lamentations which is then followed by liturgical "poems of sorrow," known as kinos un piyyutim, whose content drips in anguish and agony, despondency and depression.

Poetry was the most admired form of religious expression in both ancient Israel, medieval Europe and the golden age in Spain: from King David’s tehillim to Moses’s Song of Triumph at the Red Sea to Bilaam’s Ma Tovu to such Sephard giants as Samuel ha-Nagid, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Dunash Ibn Labrat, Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah ha-Levi. The French-German Hebrew poetry that came out of the Rhineland however was darker, usually anonymous, and cried out for Israel’s plight with such themes as sin and mercy, hope and forgiveness. The Jews were the only people in the world whose very existence inspired this new genre of literature. Unlike James Stuart or Elizabeth I who lent their names to works commissioned during their rule, the Jews, as the so-called arch-villains of history, "lent" their names to this genre only at the feel of cold blades of steel at their collective throats. Containing the Zionide songs of the medieval Spanish poet Judah HaLevi, these poems "of vulnerability" can be chanted individually or in groups. Tragically, these poignant poems have expanded over the centuries as Jews became the unlucky beneficiaries of gentile largesse, ranging from the tale of the Ten Martyrs to the devastation the Crusaders decided to visit upon the Jewish communities of France and Germany.

Lamentations opens with the word "Eichah!," an expression that kabbalists link via the same letters (alef, yud, kof, heh) to ayeka, the word that God uses when rebuking Adam, "Where [ayeka] are you?" in order to show that Adam, history’s first alienated exile, was the archetype symbol of God’s loss of harmonious relationships.

We begin lamenting gradually, haltingly, in gentle whispers and in hushed tones, swaying and murmuring in unison. Then our kinos rise, until we reach an anguished crescendo; and then they rise even further, until the crushing emotional awareness of the full weight of Jewish history erupts on Tisha B’Av. Sadness propels the words of kinos that are nothing more than a revisit of the savagery, one that unpleasantly throws the ghosts of our enemies amongst us. They are a summary of works written on behalf of the millions of Jews who were unable to bear witness to what they saw, heard, experienced. But remember: our kinos are only substitutes for the thousands of volumes of unwritten diaries and incomplete chronicles, whose blood-stained pages were penned by Jews being reduced to cinders either at the Temple or at Treblinka; as such they are a massive reportage that has rolled down the mountain of Jewish history from the old borders of Canaan to Europe 1939, when they crashed head-on into Alexander Donat’s "Holocaust Kingdom."

According to tradition God made the world with words and since then Jews have encompassed their own worlds with words. It was King James, and not the Jews, who first called Jeremiah’s book "Lamentations," in that it described the national degradation and destruction of Jerusalem. In Hebrew, it is megilas eicha, literally translated as "The Book of How" (as in, "how can it be?") thus making it a floating manuscript of "how" to remember the outrages of Jewish history. But even the tearful eye-witness Yirmiyahu, revulsed and in pain himself from the nightmarish vision, had trouble expressing his feelings. What this poet-Prophet saw in the stricken city of Jerusalem evaded description, which is why he stumbles for the right pungent words; stopping and starting no less than three times.

Ani ma-amin, ani ma-amin ani ma-amin b’emuna sh’lema –
B’viyat ha-mashiach, b’viat ha-mashiach ani ma-amin.
V’af al pi sheh-yitma-meyah
Im kol zeh ani ma-amin.

"I affirm, I affirm, I affirm with a full and firm belief
The coming of the Messiah.
And though he tarry, despite all that –
I affirm.
I will wait for him;
Every day while he is coming,
Despite all that, I will await his coming."

The first two "songs" of eichah ("Help us turn to You, Lord, and we will return, Renew our days as of old") are plaintive, mournful, wistful. The tone then shifts as the last eichah coda burst forth in joyous and rousing, bright and invigorating optimism, perhaps matching the marching spirit of those pious Holocaust victims who sang Ani ma-amin as they walked their last mile. These last lyrics make Tisha B’Av, in its own strange way, a day of robust and imaginative hope.lxix

I first came to this conclusion as a teenager.

Every year on Tisha B’Av, a Holocaust survivor sitting in front of me in shul would reminisce as to how he had softly repeated the phrase yissurim shel ahavah, "afflictions of love," over-and-over to himself during his four Tisha B’Av’s in the death camps.

The concept of yissurin shel ahavah is not found in the Torah. It is first introduced in the Talmudlxx by Rabbi Yohanan,lxxii a second generation Palestinian Amora and a Rosh Yeshiva in Tiberias, who enters Jewish history as a man of tragedy, a walking epitome of Judaic suffering who was born an orphan, raised through poverty, had ten sons only to outlive them all – yet remained pious despite all hardships.

When that survivor muttered Yohanan’s words of yissurin shel ahavah it allowed him the "comfort of comprehension,"lxxiv hope within his hopelessness, and a method to deal with his loneliness, pain and heartache. It reminded him that he was not alone, that his suffering was within the context of a Divine plan, that there already existed a Jewish calendar day of cruelty even before Adolf Hitler goose-stepped his way into Polish Jewry. This helped him retain his sanity in an insane asylum where Jews, reduced to madness, were obsessively sewing their own burial shrouds and trying them on to ensure a perfect fit.

Tisha B’Av allowed each Jew to look over his hurt shoulder and see the shifting silhouettes of Jewish history; the shadows of the Bar Kochba revolt, the first and second Crusades, the Mainz affair, the pogroms surrounding the Black Plague, the blood libel in Trent, the ferocious Christian passion plays, the burning of the Marranos, the "hep, hep" taunts of World War 1 (a Crusaders acronym of Heirosolyma est perdita, "Jerusalem is lost"), of Kishinev and the wretched "Ratevette!" (Please save me!) cries that poured forth from the Nazi-ghettos.

The repetition of Tisha B’Av reminded him that there exist not only days of dark destruction, but also desirable days of creation. That is why, at the end of reading the Book of Lamentations, all Jews say one particular verse together; "Turn us unto You, O Lord, renew our days of old" – in order to end the day on a hopeful note. It is also why Jews answer "Thank God" whenever asked how-are-you? – regardless of how they really are; because these two simple words represent the Jewish affirmation of life.

In his biography, The Book and the Sword, David Weiss Halivni (a Jew who survived Auschwitz, GrossRosen and Ebensee) writes that "spiritual power drove them to continue, not to falter under the yoke of hopelessness and despair." When Halivini saw a German guard eating a sandwich wrapped in a page of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, the Jew fell crying at the Nazi’s knees begging him for the precious page of Talmud in an incredible display of faith.

That same tone could be found in a large sign that hung over the entry to the Bratslav shul in the Warsaw Ghetto:

"Jews never despair! Know that the world is like a narrow bridge, and that man has to cross that narrow bridge. But, what matters, above all, is not to be afraid as one walks over it."lxxvi

…and in this moving reminder of an incredible faith so deep as to allow one Jew, in the midst of genocide, to inscribe

"I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when He is silent."

The recurring annual theme of Tisha B’Av allowed these Jews to see their own dreadful dilemma within the totality of Jewish history; for "If you regret yesterday and worry about tomorrow," mused Mordechai Menachem Reich, "when will you see today?" Tisha B’Av is mandated to solve this vision; its traumatic historiosophy acting as a compass to help each generation place their own sufferings within Jewish destiny.

There is an insightful talmudic parable about hope: two Jews lose something, say a sefer, at two o’clock. By four o’clock both conclude, "it’s gone." However one was found by a stranger at three o’clock, the other by another stranger at five o’clock. The first sefer must be returned to its original owner, but not the second. Why? Because the owner had renounced his own possession. The moral of the story is simple: never give up hope.

Because of Tisha B’Av’s concentrated remembrance to history’s emotional calibration Harvest of Hate, doomed Jews were able to look ahead. They knew the odds: that the Hitlerian or Crusader sounds in the background would be drowned out by the past voices of the Hebrew prophets; that the Auschwitzs would come-‘n-go, but the eternal Jew always remained, not so easily defeated after all.

This staying power was poignantly summarized by the poet Yitzhak Katzenelson, who wrote the definitive motto of Tisha B’Av, "We will take with us into our graves the awareness that the Jewish people will endure eternally."

But why, with so much contemporary tragedy crowding the highways of Jewish history, do our Sages keep reverting to the destruction of the ancient Temple as the event of Tisha B’Av? Because its absence constitutes the defining moment of the troubles of the Children of Israel. A quick glance at Maimonides’s list of the 613 mitzvot shows that more than half are no longer applicable since the abrupt disappearance of the Temple, and the sudden removal of the Shechinah, the "Divine Presence," from the nations midst. It was the Maharal of Prague who pointed out that the First Temple was built through the will of God and thus destroyed by Jews violating God’s injunctions; in contrast to the Second Temple that was built through the will of the people and destroyed by the same people because of their behavior (sinat hinam) of baseless internal hatred. Without the Temple we only have Three Books of Moses, not Five. It is as though a broom of history abruptly, without warning, swept aside a vast part of the national-spiritual foundation of Judaism, its core creed so to speak.

All future tragedies have therefore been experienced by an orphaned nation, a crippled folk, a people deprived of their life’s original and central axis.lxxx It is for this reason that thousands of Jews, religious and secular, even prior to 1967, made their way to the narrow alleys of Jerusalem and cried their hearts out at the Western Wall.

Typical of the feelings of grief are the eloquent words of Heinrich Heine

"Once a year they weep, and namely
On the ninth day of the month of Av –
Myself, with streaming eyes,
I have seen the heavy teardrops
From the mighty stones that trickled,
Heard the broken temple pillars
Utter cries and lamentations…"

There is another reason why the loss of Jerusalem is placed above all the other tragedies: to maintain a reminder (permanent, continuous and immutable) to all Jews of all time as to the Talmud’s reasoning behind its destruction; that of sinat chinam, "baseless gratuitous hatred," the opposite of the twin ideals of understanding and love that are the core being of Judaism, "Love your fellow as yourself. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary."lxxxvi

It is customary to read Isaiah’s haftora just before Tisha B’Av. Why? Because the prophet not only reminds Jews why the Temple was destroyed but what it will take to get it back. His conclusion is startling; a call for ethics and justice over ritual and mitzvas.lxxxix

The link is crystal clear. The presence or absence of ahavta lere’acha, "love of our fellow Jews," dictates whether the tangibility of God’s Presence stays around in a protective role. Even though the presence of the Shekhina was absent in the Second Temple it still served as a unifying force, the only place where sacrifices could be offered.

This is Tisha B’Av’s additional message to impart, one that is yet to be internalized fully: that the disunity behind the destruction of the Second Temple caused the beginning of an exile whose road led to Jews meeting their Maker through the crematoria. A cursory glance at the state of the Jews today, in and out of Israel, shows that this is a lesson that remains untaught.xciii Tisha B’Av should be, but has failed, to be a potent reminder to all Jews, regardless of their religiosity, to desist from inter-Jewish rivalry and cease being argumentative, contentious, fractiousness and disrespectful to each other. Judaism expected more of the Ninth of Av than just Jews remorsefully reminiscing over past destructions; it was also a warning not to let the root causes of those losses reoccur.

Our Sagesxcv ordered that the Book of Lamentations, one of the "Five Scrolls," be read from ordinary and inexpensive paper with simple binding and not, like Megillas Esther, from a parchment scroll. Why? Because parchment was considered a permanent means of recording something. Since the festival of Purim was to "spill-over" into Messianic times, it would have been appropriate for the Book of Esther, but not for the Book of Lamentations because of the faith that redemption would come speedily, and thus printing kinos was seen as a waste of money; since Tisha B’Av would one day be a time of happiness instead of sorrow, eliminating any further need for lamentations. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was convinced that, in the days of the Messiah, the Scroll of Lamentations will be prefaced with the Shecheheyanu, a blessing of thanksgiving since, by then, Tisha B’Av would be a day of rejoicing.

The final words of Lamentations are hadesh yamenu k’kedem, "make new our days of old" – and the first word of the tehillim chapterxcvii that relates some of the worst calamities of Tisha B’Av starts not with the word kina, a lamentation, but with the word mizmor, which denotes a song of praise, a hint of acclaim, a teaser of adulation. A chassid, astonished at the sight of his Chassidic Rebbe dancing happily on the Ninth of Av, approached his mentor. As he drew near he noticed that the Rebbe was dancing with tears of sadness pouring from his eyes. He asked why, and the Rebbe replied, "It’s very simple, it’s a mitzva to be sad on the ninth of Av, and a mitzva must be carried out with happiness!"

Therefore, while it is technically correct to refer to Tisha B’Av as the traditional day in the Jewish calendar of preeminent mourning, sorrow and grieving, it is just as correct to refer to it as our traditional day of hope and optimism par excellence.


ii Haim Bialik, describing the Second Temple destruction (back)

iii Franklin H. Littel, The Crucification of the Jews, Mercer University Press, 1986, 160 pp. (back)

v Ecclesiastes 7:1 (back)

vii For example: "From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry" and "Lubomi: The Memorial Book of a Vanished Shtetl," Ktav. (back)

ix Numbers 13:31-33; 14:2-3; 33:38. (back)

xi Joshua 2:1-24 (back)

xii For example; during the Arafat-inspired mini-war of 2000-2001. (back)

xvi Taanit 29a; Numbers 13:14, 18-20. (back)

xvii Itturay Torah, Vol 5, 80 (back)

xix Eicha 1:1 (back)

xx Yeshayahu 11:6-9 (back)

xxi There is no mention of a Satan in the Torah whose aim it is to lead the world, "Christian-style," to damnation and ruin. Instead Judaism views Satan as a prosecutorial-angel of the yetser hara, the evil inclination, which is why the siddur translates Satan as an "adversary." (back)

xxiii The Jerusalem-born prophet Ezekiel was among the Jews forced into Babylonian exile after the First Temple was destroyed, according to tradition, on a Saturday night. This is why an additional kinos is added ("and Yehi noam ceased on motzei Shabbas") after Eicha when Tisha B’Av immediately follows Shabbas (Ta’anit 29a). What is "Yehi noam?" This expression can be found in the Psalms (90) and is traced back to a saying by the Jews at the consecration of the Temple. Thus this kinos acknowledges the heightened date similarity. (back)

xxvii Deut 26:68; Kinoth; Avoda Zorah 3b. (back)

xxviii In 388 CE, a Christian mob in Milan burned down a shul, an act defended by the local bishop, Saint Ambrose, who declared a Jewish house of worship, "a haunt of infidels, a home of the impious, a hiding place of madmen, under the damnation of God himself." This was typical. For details on the role that institutional Christianity played in encouraging anti-Semitism see Robert Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Anti-Semitism, University of California Press and Claudine Fabre-Vassas’ absorbing, The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians and the Pig Author, Columbia University Press. However there is no better "proof" of Catholic guilt than the following kvitel that Pope John Paul II placed in the kotel in March 2000 during his unprecedented trip to Israel: "God…We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant, Signed: Joannes Paulus II." (back)

xxx Micah 3:12 (back)

xxxii 135A.D (back)

xxxiv 1290 (back)

xxxvi The First Temple lasted 410 years and was destroyed in 3338: the Second Temple stood for 420 years and was destroyed in 3828. The building of the Second Temple was inspired by two prophets (Chagai and Zecharya) who lived during the period known as shivat t’Zion, the "Return to Zion." (back)

xxxvii Taanith 29a (back)

xxxix The Yerushalmi offers a different explanation: that the Jews, in a state of trauma, simply got their dates mixed up (Rosh Hashanna 18b). The later Tanach did not ant to contradict them so wrote the "ninth" out of respect, instead of the more accurate "seventeenth." Later rabbis compared this purposeful discrepancy (a historic blemish) to the halachic requirement to leave a blemished spot on the wall of a house in memory of the destruction. (back)

xl When will the Temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem? There are (at least) 7 pre-conditions: the majority of the Jewish people must be living in Israel; there must be conditions of peace; the wish for a Temple must arise out of Jewish spiritual reawakening; there must be a supernatural act of God’s approval; a true prophet must give the command to rebuild; the site must be resanctified (though Maimonides’ view is that the original sanctity persists); the Biblically ordained measurements, proportions and specifications of the Temple must be scrupulously followed. (back)

xli It is a fallacy that all tragedies have been "lumped" into Tisha B’Av, an argument put forward by some Orthodox Jews as one of the reasons to boycott Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Jewish calendar contains several anniversaries of tragedies, eg; Sivan 20, a fast day chosen by Rabbi Shabbetai Sheftel Horowitz of Frankfurt-Posen (and the Rabbis of the Council of the Four Lands) to memorialize the 1648 Ukrainian Bogdan Chmielnicki rampage in which 100,000 Jews were massacred and 300 Jewish communities destroyed. In 1946 the rabbis of Hungary chose the same date (ignoring Tisha B’Av once again) as their annual commemorative memorial day for the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry. (back)

xliii When Zecharia (8:19) lists the four fast days of the year he does not do them in chronological order but by the order of the months. Why? I don’t know. (back)

xlviii Dagul Mervavah; Magen Avraham, Ch. 555 (back)

l Psalm 19:9; Taanith 30a; Tehillim 19 (back)

liii Prophets, in Hebrew n’viim, is the second of the books of the Tanach, and deals with the leaders of Israel after Moses, starting with Joshua (Yehoshua) and ending with Malachi. How many prophets were there? It is unclear. According to the Talmud the number of prophets that existed in the history of Israel were twice as many as the Jews that left Egypt. This gives us a figure of well over a million. Yet only 48 are listed scripturally by name. What, ask the rabbis, happened to the rest? Only "eternal" (netzach) prophecies "needed by future generations was included in the Torah" (Meggilah 14). Who decided the criteria of netzach? If, says Rashi, it qualified under either "tshuva (repentance) or Horaha (Jewish law)." But weren’t prophets non-halachic (Chulin)? Yes. However, as Maharatz Chayos points out, they were in fact instrumental in disclosing practices that became Jewish law (eg: our knowledge of geirus, "conversion," only comes from Megillas Ruth; certain laws on shechita come from the Book of Joshua, etc). (back)

liv Isaiah, the product of an affluent family in Jerusalem, was a prophet that denounced the national corruption of Jews; his Book becoming the prophetic reading (known as Haftarah) for many Shabbatot (Sabbaths). (back)

lvi According to the Rama, in the name of the Maharil, "One who eats on Tisha B’Av (because of illness or by mistake) should recite ‘Nachem‘ in the Birkat Hamazon" [Orach Chaim 557]; similar to adding the "Yaale Veyavo" prayer to the bensching if one if forced to eat on Yom Kippur. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, according to Rabbi Tzvi Shechter ("Nefesh Harav"), one should modify the beginning of the third Birkat Hamazon blessing by substituting the word Rachem ("have pity") with Nachem ("give consolation"). (back)

lix Rabbi Shlomo Riskin recalls that "Soon after I assumed the rabbinate of the fledgling Lincoln Square Synagogue in the West Side of Manhattan (1964) Rav Schwartz – a holocaust survivor who had re-married in America and had two sons – made aliyah to Israel. I was deeply saddened to have heard that his eldest son was killed in action during the Six Day War, and – when I took a special mission to Israel just before the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War – I was shocked to see the funeral notices that his second son had been killed as well. Of course I made a condolence visit. The small apartment on Shimoni Street was overflowing with people, Rav and Rebbetzin Schwartz were sitting on the floor, and since the mourners apparently were unable or unwilling to speak – a heavy silence seemed to scream up to the very heavens. After a while, I passed by the despondent mourners, reciting the familiar formula "May the Almighty (Makom, literally Place) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem," Rav Schwartz looked up "Rav Riskin, why does the text say HaMaKom, the Place?" Yes, I know it’s a synonym for God, for the entire world is in His place, but why not Elokim or HaShem? I’ll tell you why! When my first family was murdered in the holocaust, I could not be comforted; their death was so inexplicable, so absurd. And now I lost my last son; my sacrifice is greater than Abraham’s. I hurt, hurt so deeply that I can barely speak. But I am comforted. The Place comforts me. These sons died for Israel and Jerusalem. These sons died for Jewish future, for ultimate redemption. Jerusalem comforts me." (back)

lx Isaiah 1:1-27; Devir Hamutzna; Ari; Baer Hetev, 551: 25 (back)

lxiv Levush 552:2; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 35; Levush, 552:5. (back)

lxvii Shaarei Teshuvah, 554:1; Levush, 559:6.; Joel 4:15; Echa Rabthi (back)

lxix He builds the structure of Megilla Eicha on "Aleph-Bet" (which make the word Av), in that the first and last 2 of the 5 chapters begins with an aleph, the second with bet, the third with gimel, and so on. The middle chapter is built on the structure of a triple "Aleph-Bet;" that is, aleph, aleph, aleph; bet bet bet; gimel gimel gimel, and so on. Yirmiyahu, by writing in Hebrew, makes it appear as if the holy language itself has come to comfort a holy people. (back)

lxx Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 111:17. (back)

lxxii Berakhot 5a-b (back)

lxxiv As described by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek in Rabbi Pinchas Peli, ed., Besod Hayahid Vehayadad. Jerusalem: Orot, 1976, p. 343. (back)

lxxvi As depicted by Emmanuel Ringelbaum’s diary of life in the Ghetto of Warsaw. (back)

lxxviii Glatstein, Knox and Margoshes, eds., Anthology of Holocaust Literature, Philadelphia: JPS, 1969, p. 340. (back)

lxxx Rabbi Joshua Berman, The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now, Jason Aronson, (back)

lxxxii From Hebrew Melodies, Romancero to Jehuda ben Halevy, by Heinrich Heine. (back)

lxxxvi Why is Jerusalem associated with the emblem of a lion (Isaiah 29). In Hebrew "lion" has many names; eg: in his final message to his sons, Jacob calls Judah gur arieh, "a lion’s whelp" (Genesis 49:9). The Talmud calls the lion the "king of beasts" (Hag. 13b); the Mishnah urges one to be as brave as a lion to do God’s will (Avot 5:20); whilst the Torah sees the animal as a symbol of strength, majesty, valor; and compares Israel as a whole to those lionesque qualities (Numbers 23, 24). A lions’ den plays a major role in the story of Daniel; both Kings David and Solomon killed lions (Judges 14, I Sam. 17); golden lions stood on either side of Solomon’s throne and on both sides of its steps (I Kings 7:29; 10:19-20); and in rabbinic tradition, God’s voice is powerful like "the roar of a lion" (Ber. 3a). No wonder that the lion became a common motif in Jewish ceremonial art, even being used as shul decoration where it frequently flanks the Ark and Torah curtains, covers and breastplates. So what is its association with Jerusalem? I don’t know (Gittin 55b; Shabbat 31a). But if the Ten Commandments forbids graven images or likeness (such as lions), why are they found in ancient synagogues. Tacitus, Pliny, Strabo and Varro all noted the absence of statues and images from Jewish synagogues and cities, whilst rabbinic texts from the 3rd century do not consider the occasional use of representational art in synagogues, burial places, etc as idolatry. The lack of idolatrous motives is key; however, many Sages bitterly criticized the practice. Rabbi Nachum ben Simai was known as "the holy one" because he had never looked at an image, not even on a coin (Jer. Talmud Avoda Zora 3:1, Kohelet Rabbah 9:10). (back)

lxxxix Isaiah 1:10-17; Tehillim 122 (back)

xciii Should we observe Tisha B’Av now that we have a State of Israel and a Jerusalem that no longer "sits solitary," one that is no longer just a dream but a reality? Yes. Firstly, the establishment of Israel has not, as yet, been the fulfillment of Judaic messianic yearnings. The Temple has not been rebuilt, the security of the land is still uncertain, and there are still forces (local and international) that are hostile towards Jerusalem. Secondly, it is not only physical suffering and regeneration that the day symbolizes, but a moral and spiritual redemption that requires universal truth, justice and peace; all of which are still lacking. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein the emergence of the State of Israel radically altered the status of Jerusalem in that Jewish sovereignty eliminated the halachic status of churban (destruction and ruin) on Jerusalem (Iggrot Moshe, Vol 8, Orach Chayyim 27:1; 561:1, 2; Mo’ed Katan 26a). The false 17th century messiah Shabbetai Zvi made Tisha B’Av a yomtov and had his followers rejoice on this day. Why? Because the 9th Av was his birthday; and this helped promote himself as the expected messiah because Judaism had long taught that it would be on this date that the Messiah would be born. Zechariah had also prophesied that in the messianic era, fast days such as 17 Tammuz and 9 Av would "be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons" (8:19). Convinced that the messianic prophecies had been fulfilled in himself, Shabbetai Zvi believed the time had come to make Tisha B’Av a festival. His pretensions brought great suffering to the Jewish people. (back)

xcv Levush 559:1. (back)

xcvii Chapter 79. (back)