THE JEWISH FAST OF DAY TISHA B’AV – Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black, Leo Baeck Centre 2011

Tisha B’Av is the name of a significant fast day in the Jewish calendar – but actually it is the date, Tisha meaning 9th, B’Av meaning of (the month of) Av. Tisha B’Av falls in August each year – in 2011 it started on Monday evening 8th August. The Jewish day starts (and ends) at sunset, so it started this year on Monday evening and finished on Tuesday evening. It is a 25 hour fast (half an hour before sunset to half an hour after), and is similar to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (September/October) in restrictions – no food, no drink, no sex, no perfumes and balms, no leather shoes etc.

The meaning is somewhat different from Yom Kippur, however. Whilst on that day we are meant to afflict our souls’, to reflect on the year past and repent and repair our sins, to atone and purify ourselves for the new year ahead, Tisha B’Av has a longer view. It looks back through nearly 4000 years of Jewish history, to all the tragedies and calamities that have befallen our people over the years. The Rabbis of the Mishna (edited 220 CE, the Common or Christian Era) listed 5 tragedies that each happened on that very date; 1) The Israelites did not have sufficient trust in God and therefore had to spend 40 years in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, 2) The destruction of the First Temple (Solomon’s) by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (before the Common Era), 3) The destruction of the Second Temple (known as Herod’s after his major redevelopment) in by the Romans in 70 CE, 4) The defeat of the Bar Kochba uprising by the Romans in 135 CE, and 6) The establishment of a pagan temple on the ruins of the Second Temple, and the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina by the Romans exactly a year later in 136 CE. Since that time, other tragedies are said to have happened on that fateful date, such as the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE.

Therefore, the tradition on this day is to fast in mourning and remembrance, and to sit on the floor or on low stools, and to read from the Book of Lamentations or other sad sections of our literature – indeed other Torah study is prohibited as studying Torah is considered a joy!

It should be said, however, that whereas most Jews today observe Yom Kippur, far fewer observe Tisha B’Av in the traditional manner. This may be partly because it falls in August, which, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the summer holidays! For Progressive Jews like us, we also have no wish to rebuild the Temple and return to the priesthood, centralisation and animal sacrifices that that would imply. We do not believe that God requires blood and burn offerings. So although we recognise the trauma and suffering that the destructions of Jerusalem and the Temples brought to our people, we do not see it in quite the same way as those who still wish to rebuild the Temple and return to those systems and values.

It could be that the Holocaust of the last century, when six million Jews as well as many millions of others were murdered by the Nazis, could be viewed as the most recent in the string of calamities, and should therefore be remembered on Tisha B’Av, and indeed some Jews do so, but many consider that the Holocaust was unique in scale and in its murderous genocidal aims, and so totally other’ that it should be marked on a day of its own. Thus Yom HaShoah’ (Holocaust Day) has been set in the Jewish calendar every April/May, marking the period of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where the desperate Jews, fully aware that they could never win or escape, never the less attacked the German army stationed to guard the ghetto.

The message we derive from our history is that many people have tried to destroy us, causing immense pain and loss, but that the precious messages of Judaism – one God, compassion and justice for all – still have great value.

[This talk was presented at the Leo Baek Centre for Progressive Judaism during the Islamic month of Ramadam and the Jewish month of Tisha B’Avon Sunday the 9th of August 2011. Read more here]