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Tisha B’Av: Mourning, Memory and Meaning

08/06/2019 06:25:56 PM


This mid-summer holiday-that-is-not-a-holy-day, mourning a historical event to which we have difficulty relating, is among the least-observed date on the calendar in liberal Jewish communities. Perhaps the early rabbis felt its difficulties as well, and so added to this fast day commemorating the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second Temples (70 CE) in Jerusalem a cumulative list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people, such as the edicts of expulsion from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492. They even added additional Biblical events, through the interpretive and inventive tools of midrash.

There are many details to the observances that precede, and follow, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av. Attention and rituals intensify on the first of the month, including Yom Kippur-like prohibitions. There are liturgical insertions and emendations, such as the reading of prophetic passages of comfort and vision on Shabbat morning, and the chanting of Lekha Dodi, the Kabbalat Shabbat hymn, in a mournful chant, in the week before.

The day itself, also like Yom Kippur, brings a sundown-to-sundown fast, and the major synagogue service, unusually, occurs in the afternoon, or mincha, and included the wearing of tefillin (prayer phylacteries, usually worn only on weekday mornings. The morning service would include the chanting of Eikha, the book of Lamentations, which is also read the previous evening.

And many of these observances take on a heightened association with mourning in communities where participants sit on or close to the floor, or remove their shoes.

Still, even for those of us with the knowledge of, or experience with, the Jewish calendar’s details question the relevance of marking Tisha B’Av. Can we still make meaning from this date? In some ways, this query is no different for us than it has been for our ancestors, ancient and recent, nor is it relevant only to this date. Like all other sacred and secular dates we mark, we seek from them ways to punctuate time, to interrogate our lives and the epoch in which we find ourselves.

If viewing Tisha B’Av through a progressive and Reconstructionist lens gives context to the present, sheds light on the past, and prepares us for the future — including the forthcoming Days of Awe —ken yehi ratzon, so may it be. As the familiar-to-us verse from the book of Lamentations reads: “Return us to you, Holy One, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.” It’s all-ways a good time to begin.

— Rabbi Liz
Reposted from July 22, 2015

Thu, June 4 2020 12 Sivan 5780