What Tisha B’Av really represents

The mourning period known as “the Three Weeks” is upon us. It will end on Tisha B’Av (which will be observed a day later this year, from the end of Shabbat on July 25, through an hour after sundown on July 26).

For most of us in the Jewish world, this period goes by each year without our even realizing it came and went. Even if we do realize it, we have no qualms about ignoring it.

The “cheerless” nature of this period, of course, is part of the problem. From the 17th of Tammuz through the Ninth of Av, after all, the summer is in full bloom; it is a hardly fitting period, it seems, for deep mourning.

That is the wrong attitude.

What it is that makes us Jews? It could not be our religion, because both Muslims and Christians ostensibly pray to the same God as we do, so we are no longer unique in our religious beliefs. Besides, religion is only part of what we are; it is not all of what we are.

Our culture also does not make us Jews. Ours is the most multicultural culture of all. We are a people spread out across the four corners of the globe, and we have assimilated many of the cultural motifs of the countries in which we have lived.

What makes us Jews is memory. Nearly everything we do is related to memory.

We observe Shabbat each week, not because a day of rest makes sense, but to remind ourselves and the world that in God’s eyes all are equal, even animals, and all deserve the same day of rest that we want for ourselves.

We wear shawls with macramed fringes, and slap black leather boxes on our arms and foreheads—not as ends in themselves, but to remind us that we once stood before a mountain in the middle of a wilderness and made a deal with God to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

We are the people of memory — and there is no other day that is so infused with memory as Tisha B’Av.

According to the sages of blessed memory, this day began approximately 3,500 years ago, with the People Israel en route from Sinai to Canaan. As recorded in the Torah portion we read on June 13, Sh’lach L’cha, they became convinced that God brought them out of Egypt in order to have them die at the hands of merciless giants. So, the Torah reports, “The people wept that night.”

By following the Torah’s chronology, the date on which this occurred was the ninth day of the fifth month, the day we know as Tisha B’Av.

On this day in that year, God decreed that the generation of the Exodus would die out in the desert; only their children would live to inherit the Land of Promise. With the gift of hindsight, the sages concluded God also must have issued another decree that day: “Because you, Israel, cried for no reason on this day, I, God, will see to it you have reason to cry on this day forever after.”

Fanciful or not, history supports this midrash. It was on the Ninth of Av in the year 586 BCE that Babylonian forces set fire to the First Temple. In the year 70 CE, Roman forces set fire to the Second Temple.

In the year 135 CE, on the Ninth Day of Av, the Judean revolt against Rome reportedly came to a crushing end with the fall of Betar and the death of its leader, Bar Kochba. A series of executions followed that wiped out nearly an entire generation of religious leaders and scholars, including Rabbi Akiva.

On August 2, 1492, Tisha B’Av, what was arguably the greatest diaspora community the world had ever known until then ended with the departure from Spain of the last of its expelled Jews.

On August 1, 1914, Tisha B’Av, Germany declared war on Russia. This began World War I, but it also set into motion events that would lead to the creation of the Soviet Union, which would wage a 75-year campaign to destroy everything Jewish within its borders. World War I would end in the creation of a peace so debilitating to Germany that it paved the way for Adolf Hitler and the Shoah.

This is the day we toss aside.

Now, some people say. “We don’t need Tisha B’Av anymore. It’s not relevant anymore. It belongs to the past.” Chanukah belongs to the past, so does Purim, yet we celebrate both. Pesach belongs to the distant past, but we celebrate it. Why ignore Tisha B’Av?

Again, some would say: “Chanukah, Purim, Pesach—these are fun days, but Tisha B’Av is the ultimate downer. Why ruin sweet summer by imposing on it the bitter memory of such tragedies?”

The answer, as I noted in previous columns, is that Tisha B’Av is not about tragedy. It is about triumph.

Of course, Tisha B’Av reminds us that we have experienced more tragedies as a people than any other in history, with the Shoah topping the list. The point, however, is that we are still here to be reminded of them. The ashes of the Shoah especially should have buried us; instead, we are as a people reborn.

We are still here. No other day on the Jewish calendar better exemplifies the link between God and Israel. No other day better proves that God’s promise to Israel, God’s covenant with us, indeed is everlasting and irreversible.

That is the true memory of Tisha B’Av.

The greatest tragedy of Tisha B’Av is our refusal to remember this day.

We must not toss into the dustbin of disuse this most potent vehicle for reaffirming that tragedies are of the moment, but the Jewish people are forever.

Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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