The Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’av: The Hard Knocks of History

It is important to recognize the presence of sadness, fear, and lingering mourning from horrific events in our lives and lineage. To express the anguish of this is called a lament. The sages noticed that excess lamenting was destroying the creative spirit of our people. After allowing an ample period for grieving, they created a container for the grief, this annual three week process to honor and integrate our losses. Done in the safety of home and community, this process commences with a daylight fast on the Seventeenth of Tammuz to mark the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, and concludes with a full fast on the fifteenth of Av, Tisha b’Av, the date of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, and again by the Romans in 70 CE. This is similar to the function of shiva, the Jewish mourning process, it is intensive in the first week, month, year and then the container of a yartzeit, a yar (year) of tzeit (time) having passed, on the anniversary of the person's soul's departure from their body, we remember them. Tisha b'Av is one huge yartzeit (anniversary of death memorial) that isn't about any one person, but rather oceans of our people.

Scholars estimate that one fifth of all Jews died in the struggle for Jewish independence from Rome, by siege, slaughter, starvation, crucifixion, being sold as gladiators, slaves, in direct battle and by fire in the burning city. Over time, onto this date have accrued memories of hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered during the three centuries of the Crusades, including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the over three hundred fifty years of the Spanish Inquisition, the 1648 Chmielnicki massacres in the Ukraine of some 100,000 Jews, and many other murderous rampages called pogroms that decimated Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

Eihah, the Book of Lamentations, became a holy repository for the anguished memories from the destruction of the Temple and exile. Eihah is chanted as the sacred text for Tisha B’Av. Sometimes recent events loom so huge that they require an additional spiritual container for the river of sadness that flows through the life of our people. This is the case for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day of memorial to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Practices: Traditionally, from the first until the fifteenth of Av, no weddings are held, movies, musical festivities and plays are not attended. Meat is not eaten, nor wine drunk, perfumes are not used, beards remain unshaven and hair uncut, except to honor Shabbat. On Tisha B’Av; the ninth of Av, there is full fasting, no water, beverages or food, unless a health condition requires them. In Judaism, your health comes first! On this day Torah is not studied for pleasure, only portions pertinent to Tisha b’Av themes are to be read, perhaps to simulate a world turned upside down. In some communities tallit and tefillin are worn in the afternoon and not in the morning.

The record reveals that after conquering Jerusalem and the temple and only partially exiling the Jewish people, the Babylonian armies return. They return because of Jewish in-fighting; the Jewish governor the Babylonians had left in place is assassinated by another Jew. This results in an extremely brutal and much more extensive exile of Jews from the land. To retain the toxic memory of this tragedy within trauma, there is a another partial fast observed several weeks after Tisha B’Av known as Tsom Gedaliah, named after the murdered governor.

Liturgy: In addition to reading the book of Eichah, a title which means "How?" There are also poems called Kinnot to pray. These give voice to the terrors of their times and are remarkable for the anger at God expressed in them and yet they are found right in the most traditional Tisha B'Av prayerbook. The term "laments" in Hebrew is kinnot, and in English, keening is the act of giving a deep sound to inner pain, giving over your heart, voice, throat, soul, to being in touch with loss.