Today is Tisha B’Av (lit. “the ninth of Av”) (תשעה באב or ט׳ באב) according to the Jewish lunar calendar. As with all Jewish holy days it actually began yesterday at sundown and continues today until sundown. It is an annual fast day in Jewish religious and secular tradition which commemorates the anniversary of a number of disasters in Jewish history, primarily the destruction of both the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans. Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and is held to be a day which is destined for tragedy.
The observance of the day includes five prohibitions, most notable of which is a 25-hour fast. The Book of Lamentations, which mourns the destruction of Jerusalem is read in the synagogue, followed by the recitation of kinnot, liturgical dirges that lament the loss of the Temples and Jerusalem. As the day has become associated with remembrance of other major calamities which have befallen the Jewish people, some kinnot also recall events such as the murder of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans, massacres in numerous medieval Jewish communities during the Crusades and The Holocaust.
According to Rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Taanit 4:6), the sin of the Ten Spies inaugurated the annual fast day of Tisha B’Av. When the Israelites, wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, accepted the false report from the spies that the land of Canaan would be impossible to conquer, the people wept over the false belief that God was setting them up for defeat. The night that the people cried was the ninth of Av, which became a day of weeping and misfortune for all time. The fast subsequently commemorated the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, both of which supposedly occurred on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, about 655 years apart.
Taanit 4:6 notes five specific events occurred on the ninth of Av that warrant fasting:
The Twelve Spies sent by Moses to observe the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, brought a positive report, while the others spoke disparagingly about the land. The majority report caused the Children of Israel to cry, panic and despair of ever entering the “Promised Land”. For this, they were punished by God that their generation would not enter the land. Because of the Israelites’ lack of faith, God decreed that for all generations this date would become a day of crying and misfortune for their descendants. (See Numbers 13; Numbers 14).
The First Temple built by King Solomon and the Kingdom of Judah destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC (Anno Mundi [AM] 3175) after a two-year siege and the Judeans were sent into the Babylonian exile. According to the Talmud in tractate Ta’anit, the actual destruction of the First Temple began on the Ninth of Av and the Temple continued to burn throughout the Tenth of Av.
The Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans in August 70 AD (AM 3830), scattering the people of Judea and commencing the Jewish exile from the Holy Land that continues to this day.
The Romans subsequently crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 500,000 Jewish civilians (approximately 580,000) on July 8, 132 CE (Av 9, AM 3892).
Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus ploughed the site of the Temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, in 135 CE.
Over time, Tisha B’Av has come to be a general day of mourning, not only for these events, but also for later tragedies. Regardless of the exact dates of these events, for many Jews, Tisha B’Av is the designated day of mourning for them, and these themes are reflected in liturgy composed for this day.
Other calamities associated with Tisha B’Av:
The episode of the Golden calf (17th of Tammuz) in which the Hebrews, after their exodus from Egypt, reintroduced idolatry as a form of spirituality.
The First Crusade officially commenced on August 15, 1096 (Av 24, AM 4856), killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
The Jews were expelled from England on July 18, 1290 (Av 9, AM 5050).
The Jews were expelled from France on July 22, 1306 (Av 10, AM 5066).
The Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 (Av 7, AM 5252).
Germany entered World War I on August 1–2, 1914 (Av 9-10, AM 5674), which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.
On August 2, 1941 (Av 9, AM 5701), SS commander Heinrich Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” As a result, the Holocaust began during which almost one third of the world’s Jewish population perished.
On July 23, 1942 (Av 9, AM 5702) the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began, en route to Treblinka.
Most religious communities use Tisha B’Av to mourn the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, including special kinnot composed for this purpose (see the main kinnot article) (in addition to, or instead of, the secular Holocaust Memorial Days.)
AMIA bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and injuring 300 on 18 July 1994; 10 Av, AM 5754.
Tisha B’Av falls in July or August in the Western calendar. When Tisha B’Av falls on the Shabbat (Friday/Saturday) it is known as a nidche (“delayed”) in Hebrew and the observance of Tisha B’Av then takes place on the following day that is Saturday/Sunday. No outward signs of mourning intrude upon the normal Sabbath, although normal Sabbath eating and drinking end at sunset Saturday evening, rather than nightfall. The fast lasts about 25 hours, beginning at sunset on the preceding evening lasting until nightfall the next day. In addition to fasting, other pleasurable activities are also forbidden.
Tisha B’Av bears a similar stringent nature to that of Yom Kippur. In addition to the length of the fast which lasts about 25 hours, beginning at sunset on the eve of Tisha B’Av and ends at nightfall the following day, Tisha B’Av also shares the following five prohibitions:
No eating or drinking;
No washing or bathing;
No application of creams or oils;
No wearing of leather shoes;
No sexual relations.
Torah study is forbidden on Tisha B’Av (as it is considered a spiritually enjoyable activity), except for the study of distressing texts such as the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, portions of Jeremiah and chapters of the Talmud that discuss the laws of mourning.
According to the Rema it is customary to sit on low stools or on the floor, as is done during shiva, from the meal immediately before the fast, the seudah hamafseket, until midday (chatztot hayom). It is customary to eat a hard boiled egg, and a piece of bread dipped into ashes during this meal. The Beit Yosef rules that the custom to sit low to the ground extends until one prays Mincha (the afternoon prayer).
Although the fast ends at nightfall, according to tradition, the First Temple continued burning throughout the night and for most of the following day, the tenth of Av. It is therefore customary to refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, bathing, cutting hair, doing laundry, listening to music, making a shehechiyanu blessing until midday (chatzos) of the following day.
When Tisha B’Av begins on Saturday night (as this year – 2016), the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat is truncated (using a candle but no spices), without a blessing over wine. After Tisha B’Av ends on Sunday evening, another Havdalah ceremony is performed with wine (without candle or spices).
Matzo balls are common in the Ashkenazi tradition and are suitable for meals before and after fasts. They are usually cooked and eaten in chicken broth, but you can observe the prohibition against meat by having them in vegetable broth (although I’m not fully sure whether the prohibition against meat applies to the broth of animal meat). You can buy matzo balls, of course, but they are much better if home made. It’s best to buy the matzo meal, but you can also make it by crushing matzo with a rolling pin or (better) using a food processor.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ cup matzo meal
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp club soda (or plain water)
Whisk the eggs well with the oil and salt in a mixing bowl.
Add the matzo meal and water, then mix thoroughly. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or longer.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Shape the matzo mixture into small balls, and place them into the boiling water. Boil uncovered for 20 minutes.
Lift the matzo balls out of the water with a slotted spoon. If you want, at this point you can freeze the. They keep well and are generally lighter after being frozen.
Heat the matzo balls through in simmering broth when ready to serve. Do not boil them vigorously or they will break up.