Aug 142016


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).[7]

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.


Matzo Balls


2 eggs
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.

Mar 062016


Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, commonly now simply called Michelangelo, was born on this date in 1475 in Caprese, now a commune (called Caprese Michelengelo) in Tuscany. Let me first dispense with the idea that Michelangelo was an Italian artist, as he is almost universally styled. This is a ridiculous anachronism. Italy as a nation did not exist until the 19th century, and, therefore, “Italian” is a purely modern term embraced by revolutionaries such as Garibaldi, but absolutely not pertinent to the 15th and 16th centuries. At best we might call him Florentine since in Michelangelo’s time Caprese was part of Florence.

I don’t need to give you a big song and dance about Michelangelo. I’ve referred to him many times in posts here. I’ve been to Florence and Rome to see many of his most famous works, and I recommend doing likewise. Otherwise there are plenty of “experts” to read and images online to keep you busy.

As demonstration of Michelangelo’s unique standing in his day, he was the first Western artist whose biography was published while he was alive. Two biographies were published of him during his lifetime; one of them, by Giorgio Vasari, proposed that he was the pinnacle of all artistic achievement since the beginning of the Renaissance. Perhaps a tad overblown, but fair enough. In his lifetime he was often called Il Divino (“the divine one”).

Apart from his art he was also a prolific writer and poet. So, I’ll start there with a few quotes. He is famous for having said on several occasions, in different ways, that his job as a sculptor was to reveal the statue latent in the stone:

Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Michelangelo was, likewise, rather humbly self deprecating:

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.

I’ll disagree. Yes, he worked exceptionally hard; but his genius is, nonetheless, evident. I could work for 100 years, a thousand times as hard, and never produce anything approaching what he did. Furthermore, there was a passionate fervor to his devotion to his work:

There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.


As tribute to the great man I’d like to focus on one piece, his final sculpture known variously as the Deposition, the Florence Pietà, the Bandini Pietà or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Its various names derive from the fact that art historians have argued for centuries about the scene depicted. Michelangelo worked on this piece between 1547 and 1553. There are four figures: the dead body of Jesus, newly taken down from the Cross, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and a hooded man who could be Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. It is generally agreed that whoever this man it is meant to be, it is actually a self portrait of the aging Michelangelo. I find the identification with Joseph of Arimethea plausible because the scene has the effect of a deposition from the cross to my eyes, and Jesus was being taken to Joseph’s tomb. However, Nicodemus is also recorded as being present at the deposition and was conventionally portrayed as hooded. The identification with Michelangelo himself is not insignificant, however. One can see this sculpture as an act of pure devotion, with Michelangelo himself caring for his savior. After all, Michelangelo meant it to be his own tomb decoration according to Vasari.


Vasari noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, he worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this piece to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy. After 8 years of work, Michelangelo attempted to destroy the piece in a fit of frustration. Vasari gives several reasons why Michelangelo tried to destroy the sculpture:

Either because of defects in the marble, or because the stone was so hard that the chisel often struck sparks, or because he was too severe a judge of his own work and could never be content with anything he did. It is true that few of his mature works were ever completed and that those entirely finished were productions of his youth. Such were the Bacchus, the Pieta of the Madonna della Febbre [in Saint Peter’s], il Gigante [the David], at Florence, and the Christ Risen of the Minerva [Santa Maria sopra Minerva], which are finished to such perfection that a single grain could not be taken from them without injury. Michelangelo often said that, if he were compelled to satisfy himself, he should show little or nothing. The reason is obvious: he had attained such knowledge in art that the slightest error could not exist without his immediate discovery of it. But once it had been seen in public, he would never attempt to correct it, but would begin a new work, for he believed that a similar failure would not happen again. He often declared that this was the reason that the number of his finished works was so small. He gave the broken Pieta to Francesco Bandini. While it was still in Michelangelo’s house, the Florentine sculptor, Tiberio Calcagni, inquired after a long discussion why he had destroyed so admirable a performance. Our artist replied that he had been driven to it by Urbino, his servant, who urged him every day to finish it. Besides, a piece had broken off the arm of the Madonna. This and a vein which appeared in the marble had caused him infinite trouble and had driven him out of patience.

ma3 ma6

Upon receiving the piece, Bandini asked a young apprentice, Tiberius Calcagni, to restore it. Calcagni used models provided by Michelangelo himself to base his repairs on. In his restoration, Calcagni reattached the limbs of Mary Magdalene, the Virgin’s fingers, Christ’s left nipple, Christ’s left arm and elbow, and Christ’s right arm and hand. The only thing that was not reattached was Christ’s left leg which Michelangelo specifically asked to be left off. This request has led to a number of speculations about the inadvertent sexuality of the pose which Michelangelo subsequently detested.


Calcagni caused controversy with the changes he made to Mary Magdalene’s face. It has been noted that prior to the destruction, Mary Magdalene’s face reflected the pain shown on the Virgin’s. The change in her face altered the overall tone of this work. She was no longer in complete anguish but instead was now disassociated from and seemingly uninvolved in the scene. The sculpture stayed with the Bandini family in Rome until 1671 when it was sold to Cosimo III. Cosimo III brought the piece to Florence where it went around from museum to museum for a while. It currently resides in the Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo, which I find to be something of a problem. Should it not be on Michelangelo’s tomb, as he originally desired? Or would this be seen as counter to his desire to destroy the work?


Vasari noted that Michelangelo had no interest in food, so finding a celebratory recipe is a challenge. Michelangelo was known to have appalling table manners, eating rapidly because he saw eating as time wasted away from his work. As a compromise I’ve settled on pappardelle, very broad, flat noodles originating from the region where Michelangelo was born. The name derives from the verb “pappare”– “to gobble down,” which seems massively appropriate given the way he ate. Also, papparele on a plate remind me of the delicate folds in the draperies of Michelangelo’s work. Fresh papparele, which are the best, are 2 to 3 centimeters (3⁄4–1 in) wide and may have fluted edges. They can be sauced in all manner of ways. There are tons of local recipes for papparele in rich meat and wine sauces, but these seem inappropriate. I suggest the following:


First, make your own pasta. I give a good recipe in the Hints section of this blog. You may be able to buy the pasta readymade, but it is not easy to find, even in Italy, and it is not usually made with egg.

Second, decide on a sauce. For me the most delectable, and simple, is a butter sauce with fresh porcini. Chop the porcini coarsely and sauté them gently in ample butter over medium-low heat. Cook the papparele to al dente in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water. Drain the pasta, but reserve a little of the water. Toss the pasta in the butter and porcini mix, adding a touch of the water as needed. Serve in a deep, warmed serving dish with a garnish of finely shaved Parmesan cheese. Then gobble it down. I do.