The Traditional Observance of Tisha B'Av


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Observing The Ninth of Av

By Yehuda Posnick

The date of September 11th, a day in which over 3,000 lives were lost in four separate terrorist attacks, is now known by all by its abbreviated form. 9/11. No further explanation is needed to explain the horrendous enormity of the day. However, in an ominous way, there is a date in the Hebrew calendar which can be referred to as 11/9. This refers to the 9th day of the eleventh month which is known in the Hebrew as "Tisha B'Av". The Talmud lists five calamities that occurred on that very day (in chronological order):

1. In 1310 B.C.E. it was decreed on the generation that left Egypt that they would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. This was because they had accepted the report of the spies that Moses had sent who felt that they wouldn't be able to defeat the indigenous population.

2. In 421 B.C.E., the first Temple in Jerusalem, which stood for 410 years, was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.

3. In 69 C.E., the second Temple in Jerusalem, which stood for 420 years, was destroyed by Titus.

4. In 133 C.E., the city of Beitar fell and the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion, the final attempt to regain independence from Roman rule, by the emperor Hadrian.

5. In 133 C.E., the Temple Mount was plowed over and subsequently a a temple to Jupiter was erected. In addition, this day also marks the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1280, from France in 1295, from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1498.

There are a number of observances which were therefore instituted by the Sages to mark this tragic day, both in the liturgy, and also in one's personal conduct. Tisha B'Av is the culmination of a three-week period which starts with the day of 17th Tammuz (which fell on July 24, 2005). This was when the Romans breached the outer and most impregnable wall of Jerusalem; three weeks later came the destruction of the Temple. Three weeks may seem like a remarkably long time to conquer a practically defenseless city. It was a respite which was given to the people of the generation to repent, which unfortunately did not occur.

* * * * *

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz is marked with a fast for only the daylight hours. Subsequent to this date, until midday of the 10th of Av, the following prohibitions are in effect:

· We do not cut our hair or shave

· We refrain from purchasing any articles of clothing or appliances which would cause rejoicing or happiness.

· Marriages are prohibited (engagements, however, are allowed).

· We refrain from listening to music. One who makes a living from performing may do so (for non-Jewish audiences) until the 1st of Av.

* * * * *

The Talmud states, "From the time the month of Av starts, one minimizes one's joy". Propitiously this year, 2005, the first day of the month of Av falls on August 6th, a Shabbat, when one does not practice any public signs of mourning, so the following prohibitions take effect only when Shabbat finishes:

· One should not expand or beautify one's house (this includes painting).

· We refrain from eating meat or drinking wine. The prohibition extends to poultry as well. (Fish is permissible.) These prohibitions do not apply on Shabbat, so one may eat meat on 1st of Av (Aug. 6th) and the 8th of Av (Aug. 13th) this year.

· We refrain from laundering clothes or wearing freshly-laundered clothes. People generally take the clothes they plan to wear over the course of the nine days and wear the shirts and pants for a short period before the start of the 1st of Av, so the clothes no longer are considered "freshly laundered". Underwear, which absorbs a lot of perspiration, may be changed daily. Children's clothing may be washed, and the children can wear freshly laundered clothing, since they soil their clothes so often.

· We refrain from bathing for pleasure (e.g., swimming in a pool or going to the ocean). Washing for hygienic purposes is permitted.

* * * * *

Tradition has it that the Romans entered the Temple area on the 7th of Av, ate and drank on the 8th and 9th, and set fire to the Temple on the afternoon of the 9th. The Temple continued to burn on the 10th of Av, so all the above prohibitions are in effect until the afternoon of the 10th of Av (approximately 12:45 PM on Aug. 15, 2005). The beginning of a tragedy is considered the worst time, therefore the full-day fast of Tisha B'Av starts on the 9th of Av (Aug. 13th at night, after sundown on Shabbat).

For those who are familiar from years past with the custom of eating a hard-boiled egg dipped in ash at the meal just before the beginning of the fast, this year since the eve of the fast is on Shabbat we do not mourn while it is still Shabbat. Instead, one may eat at last meal on Shabbat on the 8th of Av (Aug. 13th) a meal as lavish "as that of King Solomon at the height of his reign". One must however take care to stop eating and drinking before sundown.

* * * * *

At sundown at the end of Shabbat, the 8th of Av, the five main prohibitions of the day of Tish'ah B'Av take effect, until the end of the fast after nightfall on the 9th of Av:

· no eating and drinking

· no washing oneself, even to remove perspiration (if one's hands become dirty, they may be washed).

· no wearing leather shoes (sneakers that have leather tops are also prohibited)—ideally one should bring non-leather shoes to the synagogue before the start of Shabbat, hide them, and put them on after the Shabbat just before the evening service of Tish'ah B'Av starts..

· no perfuming or anointing oneself (if one applies an ointment for medicinal purposes, it is permitted).

· no sexual relations

There are additional signs of mourning that are performed even though they are not of the same severity as the five listed above:

· one does not greet friends, this is to minimize socializing and becoming distracted from the sadness of the day.

· one does not engage in pleasure walks

· one does not sit in a chair higher than three handbreadths (12 in.) off the ground. This prohibition is only in effect until midday, 12:45 PM on Sunday August 14th.

· one should refrain from doing any work until after 12:45 PM on Sunday Aug. 14th, again so as not to be distracted from the mourning of the day.

* * * * *

There are also numerous changes in the liturgy for the day of Tisha B'Av:

In the evening service (Saturday night, Aug. 13th), after the regular evening service, the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) is read, it being prophecies about the destruction of the First Temple composed by the prophet Jeremiah. It is read in unison in the synagogue, while all the congregants are seated on the floor and the lighting in the synagogue reduced to a minimum. The reader conducting the reading increases the volume of his voice with each successive chapter, since the book ends with a plea to G-d that our relationship with Him be restored to as it was.

This is followed by several elegies (kinnot, in the Hebrew) which have been composed over the centuries and introduced into the liturgy. (According to legend, Napoleon witnessed the observances of Tisha B'Av, and inquired what is the reason for everyone sitting on the ground and mourning. When he was informed that the congregants are mourning an event that occurred 1,800 years ago, Napoleon remarked that since they still commemorate the events of so long ago, the Jewish nation is assured of lasting for all eternity.)

The morning service is noteworthy in that one doesn't wear tallis and tefillin, which is customarily an observance that mourners also practice on the first day after the passing of a close relative. A special Torah reading is selected (Devarim 4:25-40) which predicts the exile of the Jewish people from their land, their calling out and return to G-d in the midst of the exile, and their eventual return.

More elegies are recited as in the evening; and the reading of these elegies is to last until midday, again followed in most congregations by each one reading the Book of Lamentations privately. Most of these elegies composed over the course of the tribulations of the Jewish people in the Middle Ages (for example, over the decimation of the communities of Mayence, Worms and Speyer during the Crusades and the burning of the Talmud in France by Henry IV in 1244), and some more recently mentioning the period of the Holocaust. The last elegies all start with the word "Zion", and describe the beauty of the land of Israel and a longing to return to the Holy Land.

The Afternoon service already has a more optimistic attitude, in accordance with the Midrash that relates that the birth of the Messiah was announced at the time of the destruction of the second Temple. (Some communities make a point of cleaning the house after midday on Tisha B'Av, in expectation of the redemption.) One now wears tallis and tefillin during the service, and recites any portions of the morning service which were omitted because they made mention of the Temple sacrifice.

All the prohibitions of Tisha B'Av previously mentioned are still in effect until the completion of the Evening prayer after the fast. As mentioned before, even after the completion of the fast, one reverts back to the level of mourning appropriate to the nine days before Tisha B'Av (i.e.,one still may not eat meat, drink wine, wash one's clothes, etc.), until midday on the 10th of Av, since the blaze continued the entire day of the 10th. (Individuals are recorded as having fasted two consecutive days, the 9th and the 10th, but this was not instituted for the whole community, this being seen as far too difficult for everyone to observe).

Another peculiarity of this year's calendar, where Tisha B'Av falls on Sunday, is that one can make havdalah, the concluding service normally recited at the end of Shabbat over a glass of wine, a candle of multiple wicks, and fragrant spices, only at the end of Tisha B'Av, since it wasn't possible to make the havdalah service prior to then. But, most significantly, tradition has it that the Temple both times was destroyed on the day following Shabbat, which only heightens expectation that the Temple should be rebuilt this year, when Tisha B'Av again falls on a Sunday. As we recite in the Nachem prayer added at minchah on Tisha B'Av, "For it was by fire that you destroyed Jerusalem, and by fire will it be rebuilt, as it is written, "And I will be for [Jerusalem] as a wall of fire surrounding it, and I will dwell in its midst in glory (Zechariah 2:9)."

May it be Your will, O G-d, that the Temple be built speedily in our time, Amen.




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