Shabbat, Tisha B’Av, and the key to Jewish survival

Shabbat table. (Shutterstock)
Shabbat table. (Shutterstock)

A fashion designer once said, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” While there is truth to this statement throughout the year, it is particularly accurate this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat immediately preceding the fast of Tisha B’Av.

According to Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in his 16th century code of Jewish law, Jews may not wear their special Shabbat clothing on Shabbat Chazon. Instead, we are instructed to wear weekday clothing as an outward sign of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, there are many rabbis who disagree. The great 18th century sage, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, more commonly known as the Vilna Gaon, instructed his congregation to wear their regular Shabbat clothing on Shabbat Chazon. Many communities today follow this practice.

At first glance, the ruling of Rabbi Isserles is most compelling. After all, the fast of Tisha B’Av is right around the corner. In particular, this year, the ninth day in the month of Av is on Shabbat and the fast begins on Saturday night. The entire Shabbat should be marked by a mournful tone. How can the Vilna Gaon have instructed his congregation to wear festive clothing and ignore the upcoming fast?

The answer can be found in the words of the Midrash. The Midrash records that G-d tells the Jewish People if they follow His ways they will receive eternal life.

The Jewish People ask for proof! Master of the Universe, give us an example of the next world.

G-d responds: This is Shabbat, one-sixtieth of the world to come.

The Midrash captures a feeling that Jews for millennia have experienced each week. Shabbat is a delightful “taste” of the world to come! Shabbat is an oasis. For 25 hours, Jews around the globe are transported to a different reality. On Shabbat the worries of the week fade away as we power-down our devices – and our daily lives – and spend our time embracing the Almighty and enjoying with friends and family.

As Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”

Preserving this oasis of sanctified time has been a critical component for our People’s survival. Without exaggeration, celebrating Shabbat is one of the most important ingredients for Jewish continuity. However hellish our lot may have been during this long exile; the Jewish People have always found spiritual peace and tranquility on Shabbat.

I believe it is for this reason that the Vilna Gaon instructed his disciples to wear Shabbat clothes even on Shabbat Chazon when mourning is just moments away. This venerable sage was teaching a profound lesson to his students: the Jewish People can be on the brink of destruction yet still muster the spiritual courage to celebrate Shabbat and embrace the Almighty for 25 hours.

From the silent kiddush prayers recited during the Roman persecutions in the 1st century, to the Shabbat songs that were sung quietly in the Nazi death camps, there is an unshakable and everlasting bond between the Jewish People and Shabbat.

This year is no different. While we are blessed to live at a time of unprecedented freedom and success, the world remains a frightful place. The tragic mass shootings in Texas and Ohio this past week are further painful reminders that we live in dangerous times. As Jews, the surge of anti-Semitism in the US and Europe is worrisome. The tragedies for which we will grieve as we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av are as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

And yet despite all the legitimate fright, this Friday night, we will follow the Vilna Gaon’s instructions. We will take off our weekday clothes and shed our weekday worries. We will put on our finest Shabbat clothes and raise our voice in song to welcome the Shabbat Queen. We will sit down with our friends and family and enjoy delicious Shabbat food as we do each and every week. We will sing, we will laugh, we will share inspiring words of Torah.

Yes, beginning Saturday night we will mourn for the Temples and for this bitter exile. But for 25 precious hours before so, we will treasure our weekly rendezvous with the Almighty.

As Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi at Young Israel of Fort Lee in Fort Lee, NJ.
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