Aside from Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the month of Av) is arguably the Jewish calendar’s most solemn holiday. The day commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem – two calamities that happened more than 650 years apart, but on the same Hebrew calendar day. Over the centuries, other sad historical events have been linked to the day, adding layers of meaning to the already packed day.
Tisha B’Av is the culmination of the three weeks – a longer period of mourning leading up to the day. Like Yom Kippur, Jews observing Tisha B’Av fast for 25 hours, from sunset on erev (the night before) Tisha B’Av until nightfall the following day. And like Yom Kippur, they refrain from other earthly activities like bathing, wearing leather shoes, applying creams or oils, or sexual intimacy. The sorrowful Book of Lamentations (“Eicha” in Hebrew) is read out loud on Tisha B’av and often followed by a series of sad liturgical songs. Many observers remove their shoes and sit on the floor in dimly lit rooms for the reading.
While mourning is certainly the primary focuses of Tisha B’Av, the holiday also holds within it opportunities for service. Fasting can be, in itself, an act of spiritual service – especially when combined with serious reflection or discussion on the current calamities facing our world today. And beyond fasting in the literal sense, consider the prophet Isaiah’s words:
Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? / Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? / Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:5-7)
What Isaiah is saying is that, while fasting and bowing one’s head in solemnity is certainly important, acting to “break every yoke” of injustice, “deal bread to the hungry” and “bring [in] the poor that are cast out,” are equally important ways to fast in the metaphorical sense. Until we live in a completely just world, Isaiah seems to say, Tisha B’Av’s mourning will carry on into the rest of the year. So this Tisha B’Av, add service and social action to your list of holiday customs, and work to bring some comfort and healing to the sorrowful day. Or make a commitment (and encourage others to do so as well) to use Tisha B’Av as inspiration to incorporate service more fully into your life.
Read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s moving article, “Eicha for the Oil Spill: A Tisha B’Av for the Earth” on Zeek.