Tisha B’Av, which means the 9th day of the month of Av, is the most mournful of Jewish holidays. It commemorates the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and second Temple by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Some Jews use the occasion to mark other tragedies in Jewish history, among them the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome in 135 CE and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Orthodox Jews spend much of the day in synagogue, reading the Book of Lamentations, a dirge about the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and sitting on the floor or on uncomfortable stools. Among the Sephardim, portions of the Book of Job are also read. Lights are dimmed and the bima (stage) and ark (where the Torahs are held) are draped in black. Old or worn clothes are worn, and eating food and bathing are forbidden.
Secular Jews do not find much value in this approach. We mourn the loss of Jewish lives and sovereignty, but we reject the approach to the Jewish experience, implicit in this type of observance, that depicts it as an unending series of persecutions. Not only is it historically inaccurate, but it promotes a morbid concept of Jews as passive victims. For much of Jewish history, Jews have taken an active role in shaping our own future. We have lived through good times as well as bad. Moreover, by Roman times, the Temple had become a reactionary institution run by a hereditary and corrupt priesthood. Its elimination cleared the way for the rabbis to develop a more de-centralized and egalitarian form of Judaism that emphasized values of personal responsibility and scholarship. Without this radical change, Jews would never have survived in the Diaspora. In Israel, only nationalist fanatics of the worst kind talk about the building of a Third Temple.
Tisha B’Av could be used to study the real history of the Jews during the periods of the first and second Temple. We may even find that our ancestor's own folly and fanaticism contributed to their defeats. We can also explore how change is intrinsic to our history as a people, and learn that there has never been only one way to be Jewish. Another area for fertile discussion can be how the Jewish people have coped with their national tragedies. The following folktale from the Talmud suggests an answer:
When the Second Temple was destroyed, many in Israel became ascetics, refusing to eat meat or drink wine. Rabbi Joshua approached them and asked why they did this. They responded, “Shall we eat meat that used to be offered as a sacrifice on the altar [of the Temple], now that the altar has ceased to exist? Shall we drink wine that used to be poured as a libation on the altar now that there is no place to pour it? He said to them, “In that case, we should stop eating bread, since the grain offerings have ceased.” “We will get by on fruit,” they answered. “But we cannot eat fruit,” Rabbi Joshua said, “because the offering of the first fruits has ceased [a reference to Shvuos]. “We will eat other kinds of fruit which do not require an offering at the Temple.” “But in that case,” Rabbi Joshua replied, “ we ought not to drink water because the pouring of the water on the altar [a ceremony performed on Succos] has ceased.” They were silent. He then said to them, “My children, not to mourn at all is impossible, because of the destruction that has befallen us. But to mourn too much is also impossible, because we are forbidden to impose a decree on the community that the majority will find unbearable.”
The rabbis took this advice to heart. They understood that all these national tragedies could not have occurred on the same day, but they deliberately chose one day for collective mourning, knowing that it is healthier to spend more time rejoicing than weeping. We might think of this message on Yom HaShoah, a new holiday devoted to Holocaust remembrance, that falls on April 30. Secular Jews prefer to remember the Holocaust on Passover (Pesach) because of its theme of liberation and its association with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Finally, now that we have a Jewish state again, Tisha B'Av can be an occasion to reflect on the extent to which it has provided us with a secure homeland.