Tisha B’Av begins tonight at sundown. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar and marks the traditional anniversary on which both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Along with Yom Kippur, it is one of two 25-hour fasts on the calendar. Three years ago, I fasted on Tisha B’Av for the first time and wrote a diary about it afterwards discussing my experience. This year, I am fasting once again, with the fast having begun here in New York just before 8:30 p.m.
Traditionally, we recite Eichah (Lamentations), which details the destruction of the First Temple, on Tisha B’Av. We are also supposed to refrain from many activities considered enjoyable because it is a day of mourning. Tonight, I’ll be heading to shul to hear Eichah, along with what will hopefully be a discussion afterwards about Tisha B’Av, its history, and what it means to us today. Unlike Yom HaShoah, which specifically remembers victims of the Holocaust, Tisha B’Av is a general day of mourning to remember the various calamities that have befallen the Jewish People through our history. Many of those calamities have, interestingly enough, occurred on Tisha B’Av itself.
There are five specific reasons cited by the Mishnah for why we fast:
- The return of the 12 spies Moses sent to Canaan. All but two of the spies delivered a negative report, leading to despair at ever entering the Promised Land.
- The destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
- The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. This also marks where we date the Diaspora from.
- The destruction of Betar, the last fortress held by Jewish rebels in the Bar Kochba revolt against Roman rule in 132 CE.
- The plowing of the Temple site by the Romans in 133 CE.
The following additional calamities have befallen the Jewish People on Tisha B’Av:
- 1290 – The Expulsion of Jews from England.
- 1492 – The Alhambra Decree expelling Spanish Jews.
- 1914 – Germany entering World War I. Many consider World War I and World War II to be closely related and potentially the same war with an extended peace in-between and German entry turned World War I from a regional European war into a general European, and a global, conflagration.
- 1942 – The beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka.
Let me close by noting that there is some hope rooted in our tradition. Many believe that Moshiach (the Messiah) will be born on Tisha B’Av. It is also believed that when the Messianic Era does arrive, Tisha B’Av will cease being a day of sorrow and fasting, and instead become a day of great celebration.
In the meantime, we fast and we remember. Through the ages, many times have our ancestors been subjected to expulsion, forced conversions, discrimination, hatred, pogroms and murder. Despite all this, we remain here today. There is a joke that many of our holidays are, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” Tisha B’Av is similar, except that because we are remembering what we lost, rather than celebrating our survival, I suppose we should say, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s fast.”
Aside from minor edits, this was originally published two years ago on Tisha B’Av 5771