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Tishah B’Av: Questions, Answers and Relevant Texts

History

Why do Jews commemorate the ninth of Av (Tishah B’Av)?

The ninth of Av has come to symbolize a day of great sadness for the Jewish people, and hence has been set aside as a day of fasting and commemoration. This date memorializes a number of historical events, whether they in actuality did occur on this date, or not.

The initial historical occurrence on tishah b’Av, according to the final chapter of II Kings, was the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem (thus leading to its destruction) by the army of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE (II Kings 25:1-11):

In the ninth year of his [King Zedekiah] reign of, on the tenth day of the tenth month [asarah beTevet], Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedediah. By the ninth [of the fourth month] the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people.

Then [the wall of] the city was breached. All the soldiers [left the city] by night through the gate between the double walls… They captured the king and brought him before the king of Babylon at Riblah…

On the seventh day of the fith month – that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, an officer of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the House of the LORD, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down the house of every notable person. The entire Chaldean force that was with the chief of the guard tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. The remnant of the people that was left in the city…and the remnant of the population …were taken into exile by Nebuzardan.

According to the account of Josephus, the first century historian and eyewitness to the first revolt against Rome (66-70 CE), the second temple was destroyed by the Roman army on the ninth of Av, in the year 70 CE (Josephus: Jewish Antiquities (Book 6: Chapter 4):

(220) And now two of the legions had completed their banks on the eighth day of the month of Lous [Av]. Whereupon Titus gave orders that the battering-rams should be brought and set over against the western edifice of the inner temple…(232) and now the soldiers had already put fire to the gates, and the silver that was over them quickly carried the flames to the wood that was within it, whence it spread itself all on the sudden, and caught hold of the cloisters…(235) the firs prevailed during that day and the next also, for the soldiers were not able to burn all the cloisters that were round about together at one time…

(267) Now although anyone would justly lament the destruction of such a work as this was, since it was the most admirable of all the works that we have seen or heard of, both for its curious structure and its magnitude, and also for the vast wealth bestowed upon it, as well as for the glorious reputation it had for its holiness…

(268-270) However, one cannot but wonder at the accuracy of this period thereto relating; for the same month and day were now observed, as I said before, wherein the holy house was burnt formerly by the Babylonians. Now the number of years that passed from its first foundation, which was laid by king Solomon, till this its destruction, which happened in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, are collected to be one thousand one hundred and thirty, besides seven months and fifteen days; and from the second building of it, which was done by Haggai, in the second year of Cyrus the king, till its destruction under Vespasian, there were six hundred and thirty-nine years and forty-five days.

The expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 was signed by Edward I on the ninth of Av. The entire Jewish community of England was driven from English soil, not to return until members of the Jewish community in Amsterdam petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow them back in 1656.

The final phase of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was carried out on the ninth of Av:

Excerpts from the Edict of Expulsion, Spain 1492: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, by the grace of God… with the counsel and advice of prelates, great noblemen of our kingdoms, and other persons of learning and wisdom of our Council, having taken deliberation about this matter, resolve to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them or to any of them. And concerning this we command this our charter to be given, by which we order all Jews and Jewesses of whatever age they may be, who live, reside, and exist in our said kingdoms and lordships, as much those who are natives as those who are not, who by whatever manner or whatever cause have come to live and reside therein, that by the end of the month of July next of the present year, they depart from all of these our said realms and lordships, along with their sons and daughters, menservants and maidservants, Jewish familiars, those who are great as well as the lesser folk, of whatever age they may be, and they shall not dare to return to those places, nor to reside in them, nor to live in any part of them, neither temporarily on the way to somewhere else nor in any other manner, under pain that if they do not perform and comply with this command and should be found in our said kingdom and lordships and should in any manner live in them, they incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their possessions by our Chamber of Finance, incurring these penalties by the act itself, without further trial, sentence, or declaration.

…And we command all councils, justices, magistrates, knights, squires, officials, and all good men of the said city of Burgos and of the other cities, towns, and villages of our said kingdoms and lordships and all our new vassals, subjects, and natives that they preserve and comply with and cause to be preserved and complied with this our charter and all that is contained in it, and to give and to cause to be given all assistance and favor in its application under penalty of [being at] our mercy and the confiscation of all their possessions and offices by our Chamber of Finance.

Given in our city of Granada, the XXXI day of the month of March, the year of the birth of our lord Jesus Christ one thousand four hundred and ninety-two years.

I, the King, I the Queen,

I, Juan de Coloma, secretary of the king and queen our lords, have caused this to be written at their command.

The Ninth of Av in Rabbinic Literature

Why do Jews commemorate the ninth of Av (Tish’ah be’Av)?

According to the Talmud, God decreed the ninth of Av as a day of calamity because of the incident in Numbers 13-14 when the spies were sent out on a reconnaissance mission to Canaan. They brought back a discouraging report and the people, once again displaying ingratitude for God’s miracles, bemoaned their fate. “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt’, the whole community shouted at them, ‘or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the LORD taking us to that land to fall by the sword?…It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ ( Numbers 14:1-3)

Furthermore, according to the Rabbis (B.Ta’anit 29a):

Rabbah said in the name of R Johanan: That night was the ninth of Ab. The Holy One, blessed by He, said to them, ‘You wept without cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you.’ It was then decreed that on the ninth of Av the Temple would be destroyed and the children of Israel would go into exile.

On the Ninth of Ab the Temple was destroyed for the first time… For it is written: ‘Now in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar…and he burnt the house of the LORD… On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth [of Ab] and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day…

And the Temple was destroyed the second time. Whence do we know this? For it has been taught: Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, and bad things on an unlucky day. It is reported that the day on which the first temple was destroyed was the eve of the ninth of Ab, a Sunday…

Bethar was captured. This is a tradition.

Ritual Observances

What are the observances attendant to Tishah B’Av?

The Three Weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz (the day on which the Babylonians breached of the outer wall of Jerusalem) and the ninth of Av (when the Temple was burned) are regarded as days of mourning.

  • No weddings and other joyous events should take place
  • During the nine days of Av, eating of meat and drinking wine, except on Shabbat are prohibited.
  • No cutting hair

Fasting: The last meal, eaten before sunset (se’udah ha-mafseket) marks the boundary between eating and fasting. At one time it was customary to eat the foods associated with mourning, such as eggs and lentils. Some even went so far as to dip the bread in ashes and sit on the ground while eating.

Prohibition Against Wearing Leather: Many do not wear leather shoes during Tishah B’Av (like Yom Kippur), or, minimally will remove their shoes during the reading of Eikhah.

Synagogue practice:

  • In many congregations, worshippers sit on the ground or on stools for the reading of Eikhah.
  • Worshippers do not wear talit or tefillin at Shaharit as an additional sign of mourning. [Tefillin are regarded as ornaments].
  • Worshippers do wear talit and tefillin at Minhah service as the mood progresses to one of hope.

Other prohibitions:

  • Subject to the same limitations as Yom Kippur, tradition prescribes the same behaviors: abstention from food, bathing, wearing leather and sexual relations.
  • Study of most sacred literature – regarded by the Sages as joyful – is prohibited except those in keeping with the mood of the day such as Job, Jeremiah, and those parts of the Talmud that deal with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Theology

Why is the book of Lamentations (Eikhah) read on Tishah B’Av?

Set against the background of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, Lamentations (Eikhah) is comprised of a series of poems describing the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the exile of its population. It is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, a contemporary to the events of the destruction of Jerusalem, and whose career consisted of chastising the children of Israel for their great moral shortcomings.

The theology of chapter 3 in particular reminds Israel that its destruction was caused by her own guilt; the punishment was earned, not arbitrary: (3:39) “Of what shall a living man complain? Each one of his own sins!” Remarkably, however, the book is silent on the expressed nature of Israel’s sins: there is no mention of idolatry, social injustice, oppression of the weaker classes that are the subject of repeated reprimands by the classical prophets.

Nevertheless it is also clear from the theology of the book that hope and repentance can bring an end to the suffering (3:40-41).This idea is invoked in the comforting of Zion (4:22): “Your iniquity, Fair Zion, is expiated”. He will exile you no longer.”

The message remains unambiguous: the LORD is ever merciful and prepared to redeem the people Israel (3:21-26):

But this I do call to mind;
therefore I have hope:
The kindness of the LORD has not ended,
His mercies are not spent.
They are renewed every morning—
Ample is Your grace!
‘The LORD is my portion,’ I say with full heart;
Therefore will I hope in Him.
Till rescue comes from the LORD.

Why observe Tishah B’Av today?

With Israel a reality today, and particularly with the reunification of Jerusalem since 1967, some maintain that the observance of these days have lost their relevance. Why is it still appropriate to fast and commemorate these days of mourning?

Robert Gordis, one of the most influential Jewish theologians in the mid twentieth century wrote in his work, Judaism for the Modern Age:

“Tishah B’Av can perform these basic functions for Jews living in the middle of the twentieth century, with the state of Israel before them as a reality. It can keep Jews mindful of the tasks which lie ahead in the areas of Jewish religious rebirth and of ethical living, both in the state of Israel and throughout the world. It can focus attention upon the universal aspects of the Messianic hope, which have long been integral to Judaism. Finally, it can help to remind Jews of the long record of sacrifices and sufferings of past generations, and thus prevent the cultural degeneracy which would follow from the ignoring of the achievements of Galut or Diaspora.”