What the Grateful Dead Can Teach us about Tisha B’av

Yesterday was the 1st of Av, which marks the beginning of the darkest month on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud teaches that when Av begins, our joy is diminished, as we begin the process of communal mourning that culminates in the public fast day of Tisha B’av, or the 9th of Av (although the process of communal mourning really starts on the 17th of Tammuz, the date on which the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, things are ratcheted up once Av begins). According to the Jewish tradition, many of the most catastrophic events of Jewish history occurred on Tisha B’av, including the destruction of both the First Temple by the Babylonians and Second Temple by the Romans.

The period between the 1st of Av and the 9th of Av is known as the “Nine Days.” During this period, traditionally observant Jews refrain from getting married, cutting their hair, eating meat, and even washing their clothes. The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life for some 1,000 years; its destruction marks a major watershed moment in Jewish history. It is fitting that the rabbis established a solemn period for reflecting upon the end of this era.

Yet as we know, Judaism did not end with the destruction of the Second Temple. In the wake of the ruin of Jerusalem, Yohanan ben Zakai, one of the great sages of his day, led the charge to re-establish Jewish life at Yavneh. Slowly but surely, Judaism transitioned from being a priestly, sacrificial tradition centered in Jerusalem to a rabbinic, text-based tradition centered in Yavneh. As there was no longer a central hub at which to offer sacrifices, the rabbis substituted prayer as the primary means of Jewish religious worship. In other words, as its core, rabbinic Judaism is a Darwinian religious tradition: it had to adapt to survive.

On August 9th, 1995, Grateful Dead fans experienced their own watershed, historical moment: the death of Jerry Garcia. In a strange coincidence, the date of his death gave Deadheads their own Nine Days–Garcia’s birthday was August 1st and he died on August 9th. Among Deadheads, the period between August 1st and August 9th is referred to as the “Days Between” (after one of their songs); it is a time during which Grateful Dead fans reflect upon and remember Garcia and his music. This year, Tisha B’av falls on August 1st. As soon as the Nine Days end, the Nine Days for Deadheads begin.

Jerry Garcia was the foundation upon which the Grateful Dead empire was built—not only was he the lead guitarist and vocalist for the band, but he was also the group’s spiritual center, and a guiding light for their tens-of-thousands of fans. When Garcia died, it seemed inconceivable that the band could continue. How could the music go on without its foundational pillar to uphold it? Yet like Yohanan ben Zakkai, the surviving members of the group knew that they could not simply put an end to their way of life. If they wanted to survive, they needed to adapt.

And so, in the 22 years since Garcia’s death, the four surviving members of the band have evolved and grown in an effort to keep the music alive. Since 1995, they have toured relentlessly, with various guitarists filling in for Garcia and offering their own unique interpretations of the music. Two summers ago, the Dead played some of the biggest shows of their storied career: three sold-out nights at Chicago’s Soldier Field to mark the band’s 50th anniversary, with Trey Anastasio of Phish filling in for Jerry. This summer, the group toured with John Mayer playing the Jerry Garcia role. They sold out stadiums across the country. Their music is arguably as popular now as it has ever been.

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment. Tension between Israel and the Jewish community of the diaspora has never been higher. In the United States, the debate about intermarriage rages on. And just this past week, the conflict with the Palestinians began to intensify again in terrifying ways. Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive. After Jerusalem was destroyed, an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor. As the old Hebrew adage goes, gam ze ya’avor. Or as Jerry Garcia put it, “we will get by.”

About the Author
Rabbi Simeon Cohen was recently ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He completed his undergraduate work in the Joint Program between Columbia University and JTS, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Columbia and a Bachelor of Arts in Jewish Thought from JTS. In July, he will begin serving Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ as their new assistant rabbi.
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