What does Tisha B’Av commemorate?
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (which falls in July or August), commemorates two catastrophic events: the destruction of the first and second temples. Both events occurred on or near 9 Av. The first temple was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians in 586 BCE (see
Other communal disasters are also remembered on Tisha B’Av, incorporated into the quintessential disaster of the loss of the temple. These include the devastation of the Jewish communities of France and the Rhineland during the first crusade (1096), the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), and the Holocaust (1933–1945).
How is Tisha B’Av observed?
Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting and public mourning; its tone is somber and subdued. In traditional communities the lights in the synagogue are dimmed, the decorative curtain covering the ark (where the Torah is kept) is removed, and normal greetings and chit-chat are avoided. One does not engage in pleasurable activities, like bathing, sexual relations, music, and entertainment. Since the study of sacred texts is deemed enjoyable, only mournful texts like Lamentations, Job, passages from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, and certain Talmudic sections may be studied. In accord with the Jewish rituals of mourning, leather shoes are not worn, and in synagogue people sit on the floor or on low chairs.
During the evening service that begins Tisha B’Av (the “day” in the Jewish calendar begins on the preceding evening), the biblical book of Lamentations is recited. This book is comprised of five moving poems about the destruction of the first temple. Special poetic laments, called qinot, are added in the evening and morning services. The prayers are not sung to their usual melodies but are intoned in a speaking voice. The tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) worn by men (and in some liberal congregations by women, too) during the weekday morning service are not put on until the afternoon service.
When did Tisha B’Av originate?
Tisha B’Av as it is currently observed took shape in talmudic times (the early centuries of the Common Era), but the commemoration of the first temple’s destruction originated in biblical times, during the Persian period. The book of Lamentations may have been composed for such an observance.
- Olitzky, Kerry M., and Daniel Judson. Jewish Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007.
- Berlin, Adele. Lamentations: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
- Roskies, David, ed. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.