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The book of Numbers describes how after the Israelites left Egypt, received the Torah, and built the Tabernacle, they were set to enter the Promised Land. As a precaution, Moses sent 12 princes “to spy out the Land of Canaan.” But when the spies returned, ten of them “spread an evil report of the land.” The people despaired and wept. As a consequence, God made the Children of Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years, so that they would enter the Land of Israel only after the generation of slaves had died out.
According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites received a second punishment that night as well. “You weep for no reason,” the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 104b) relates God saying, “so I will fix this as a night of weeping for you, for the generations.” The night in question is the ninth of the Hebrew month of Ab, or in Hebrew, Tish’a B’Av. It begins tonight.
The early Rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the first few centuries CE, explain in tractate Taanit (M 4:6) that Tish’a B’Av is the date of five separate tragedies: “On the Ninth of Ab, it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel; the First and Second Temples were destroyed; Beitar was captured; the city of Jerusalem was plowed over. From when the month of Ab starts, we reduce joy.”
The day’s central observance is a 25-hour fast. As indicated in Taanit, an atmosphere of mourning is achieved through an intensifying sequence of self-denial which starts up to three weeks prior. Weddings are forbidden, as is musical performance; personal grooming is curtailed; cosmetic improvements to home and garden are put on hold; ultimately meat and wine are forbidden. On the day itself, we not only fast, but also refrain from wearing leather shoes, bathing, or engaging in sexual activity. We dim the lights of the synagogue, sit on the floor, read the book of Lamentations — which graphically describes the First Temple’s destruction—and recite liturgical poetry composed to commemorate the day’s tragedies.
Those tragedies have multiplied in the centuries since the Talmud was compiled. In addition to lamenting the lost Temples, the exiles, and the staggering loss of life that accompanied them, the poetical liturgy now includes commemoration of the burning of Talmudic manuscripts by King Louis IX in 1242 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, both of which happened on or near Tish’a B’Av. Poems mourn historical tragedies that occurred at other times of year too, such as the destruction of the Rhineland Jewish communities in 1096. (The theological logic is that if Jews had still been sovereign in our land, none of these tragedies would have occurred, so there is a direct line between the Temple’s destruction and all subsequent adversity.) When Jewish community leaders discussed the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day, many Orthodox rabbis protested that no new memorial day was needed; on Tish’a B’Av, we recite poems that were written to commemorate that tragedy, too.
I must admit though, that as I get older, I find it increasingly difficult to get into the mourning spirit. Jewish sovereignty has been restored to much of the land of Israel; we have seen the ingathering of exiles from North Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Ethiopia, and Europe. Intellectually, I can see that we still lack the Third Temple. But emotionally, how can I mourn a destroyed land, when today I see a land teeming with Jewish religious and cultural life? What resonates with me more is the collection of poems, composed for later in the day, that recall God’s promises of Jewish restoration. I also think of Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveichik’s observation that the fast was observed during Second Temple times, even though the Temple had been rebuilt. Mourning is not the day’s only theme; also important are commemoration and repentance, a resolve to learn from our past sins and never to repeat them.
An old (though probably apocryphal) story about Napoleon relates that the emperor was once passing through a Jewish village on Tish’a B’Av and heard wailing coming from the synagogue. Entering, he saw a strange sight: The lights were out, and the men were sitting on the floor, wailing and weeping. Napoleon asked for an explanation. He was told they were crying for the Temple, destroyed more than 1700 years before. His reported response: “Certainly a people that continues to mourn their Temple for so long will survive to see it rebuilt.”
The final passage in Taanit describes another observance, one that comes six days later. That day too has no name, and is simply called “The Fifteenth of Ab”, or Tu B’Av. During Talmudic times, it was a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day:
Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel says, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Ab and the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur], for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments—borrowed ones, in order not to cause shame to those who had them not of their own… and thus they went out and danced in the vineyards, saying, Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose [as a wife]; regard not beauty, but rather look to a virtuous family, for ‘Gracefulness is deceitful, and beauty is a vain thing, but the woman that feareth the Lord, she is worthy of praise’ (Prov. 31:3); and it is also said (Prov. 31:31), ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.’ And thus is it said [in allusion to this custom], ‘Go out, maidens of Jerusalem, and look on King Solomon, and on the crown wherewith his mother has encircled [his head] on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart’ (Song of Songs 3:11); ‘the day of his espousals,’ alludes to the day of the gift of the law, and ‘the day of the gladness of his heart,’ was that when the building of the Temple was completed.” May it soon be rebuilt in our days. Amen!
I love this image—the borrowed dresses, the dancing in the vineyard in summertime, the arresting modernity of a Sadie Hawkins Day in ancient society, the establishment of customs to harness and elevate the forces of seduction. There is also deep symbolism in it. Throughout the Bible and the Talmud, the relationship between God and the Jewish people is compared to a marriage. The verses cited from Proverbs and Canticles are understood by the Rabbis precisely in that figurative sense. The Prophets—including Jeremiah in Lamentations—make extensive use of the metaphor, attributing Israel’s humiliation and exile to her infidelity. Tu B’Av (which remains a popular day for Jewish weddings) is simultaneously a day of earthly romance, and a renewal of the Jewish people’s marriage to God.
The Rabbis explain Tu B’Av’s origins with a story that bookends their explanation of Tish’a B’Av’s. In accordance with God’s decree that the generation of slaves would die in the wilderness, each year on Tish’a B’Av night, the wandering Israelites dug their own graves and slept in them. In the morning, those who awoke would bury and mourn their loved ones who didn’t. Finally, after 40 years, no one died in the night. The Israelites, fearing they had miscalculated the date, slept in their graves a second night. And a third. And so on, until they saw the full moon. The Jewish calendar is a hybrid lunar-solar calendar, with months following the lunar cycle. The newly waning moon indicated they had reached the 15th day of the month. There was no longer any doubt as to the date, and it was established as a holiday.
There is symbolism in this story too. The moon’s waxing and waning is suggestive of the Jewish people’s cyclical relationship with God. On Tu B’Av, the full moon tells us: The time of dying is over. It is time to arise from the grave—alive—and prepare to enter the Promised Land.