Appreciating the Inner Spirituality of Tisha B’Av

The Three Weeks, the period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, two summer fasts 3 weeks apart commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, comes at an awkward time. The period always falls between late June and early August (depending on Judaism’s modified lunar calendar), i.e. smack-dab in the middle of the summer. Though the timing of this period may seem like a nuisance, I think there is much value using this period as an educational opportunity in teaching about Judaism’s perspective on both joy and sorrow.

Summer is the most fun time of the year. The weather is finally nice, there is swimming, boating, sports, water park outings, and, most of all, summer camp. As a child and teenager, I always attended religious summer camp for the entire 7 weeks of the summer and was always annoyed at the Three Weeks. Why did it have to come now? Though different camps have different practices, many religious camps engage in strict observance of this period. Many camps like to play joyous music from the loudspeakers, a practice often curtailed during either the Three Weeks or the Nine Days (about a week and a half after the commencement of the Three Weeks). During the more strict Nine Days period, free-swim, overly fun activities (such as amusement park trips and concerts), and even the consumption of meat is often removed from camp programming. This culminates in Tisha B’Av a day of total sadness in the midst of our summer fun.

I always used to say that the rabbis were geniuses for having this period fall out during the summer. If Tisha B’Av was in February, when there is no constant music playing, swimming, concerts, or amusement park trips anyways, I probably would have barely even noticed the day. Alternatively, I thought, the laws were made to reflect the time of year. If Tisha B’Av was in February, maybe skiing would have been forbidden (I was a child, ignore the anachronism and historicity questions). Jewish camps have between 4 and 8 weeks (depending on the program) to inundate their campers with a total Jewish experience. These programs especially want to impart the joys of Judaism, and focus on spirituality, song, art, dance, and music. They want the campers to have fun with other Jewish friends, to see that you can live a “cool” normal life and still be committed to Judaism. Understandably, camps probably do not want to waste nearly half that time talking about mothers eating their own children (as described in Lamentations), the Holocaust, death, and sorrow. I used to be confused because I thought that this period undermined their agenda, like I was missing out on a fun, spiritual time because some building was destroyed 2000 years ago.

Now I realize that spirituality is based not just on external things such as song and dance, but is also based on slow melodies, contemplation, and internal emotions. I am glad that I was in a total Jewish environment when learning how to experience inner spirituality and even sorrow in a “Jewish” way. I was able to tangibly feel the tragedies of yesteryear, and yearn for a better world. In retrospect, a part of me always enjoyed this period (somewhat ironically) because of this experience of inner spirituality that came with it. As a contemplative person (even as a child), I appreciated this type of spirituality more than the running-around-in-circles-to-loud-music type.

I think it is important to not be overly meticulous in observing this period, both in terms of its laws and length of time. In a world in which Jews have our own state and live free and secure lives throughout much of the world (though certainly not all of it) we can and should start focusing more on joy, an aspect of Judaism that was lost a little bit throughout the horrors of Crusades, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Whereas my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were tasked with picking up the pieces from the Holocaust, the task of our generations is to use those rebuilt pieces to create a Judaism more vibrant than ever before. Tisha B’Av must not be ignored, but it should not be emphasized either. Judaism embraces a spirituality that comes both from the joys of life and from life’s more serious moments.

Living a total Jewish life includes both, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to experience the ups and downs of life from a Jewish lens, from both external and internal spiritual perspectives. Most of all, the despair of Tisha B’Av helps us greater appreciate the subsequent Simcha (existential joy) that hopefully fills our daily lives thereafter.

About the Author
Daniel is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and resides in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He graduated from the Honors Program at Yeshiva University where he studied Psychology and Jewish Studies and served as the Managing Editor and Senior Opinions Editor of The Commentator.