Faith

Jewish People Find Hope in Tragedy

Here's why Tisha B'Av is a day of both mourning and strength

Many Jewish holidays have rather colorful names — the Festival of Lights (Chanukah), Rejoicing of the Torah (Simchat Torah), Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), and more.

Tisha B’Av, starting at sundown on Saturday, Aug. 13, is different.

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The name itself means, merely, “the ninth of Av,” or the ninth day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar. Its name is unadorned in the same way that Americans refer to the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as simply “Sept. 11.”

On the ninth day of Av, just after the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt, 10 spies returning from the land of Canaan (soon to be the land of Israel) reported that its conquest would be impossible — despite God’s promises to Abraham, that “unto thy seed will I give this land” (Genesis 12:6). The people of Israel believed the spies, and wept, thinking God had betrayed them. As a result of their lack of faith, they were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years, until the generation that had come from Egypt had died, before the people of Israel could come to Canaan again.

On the ninth day of Av, in 587 B.C., the Temple built by King Solomon, which housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies (said to be the literal dwelling place of God), was burned to the ground by Babylonians during the siege of Jerusalem. Many of the city’s residents were taken captive and exiled to Babylon.

Nearly 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism is still going strong.

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On the ninth day of Av, in 70 A.D., the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire during their siege of Jerusalem. The Romans plundered the holy site, taking even the menorah that was part of Moses’ tabernacle in the desert wilderness. Jews were later banned from the city entirely, after Jewish rebels were defeated and massacred at Betar — on the ninth of Av, 133 A.D.

On the ninth day of Av, in 1290 A.D., all the Jews were expelled from England.

On the ninth day of Av, in 1492 A.D., all the Jews in Spain were officially exiled from the country, according to Chabad.org, a Jewish website.

And on the ninth day of Av, in 1942 A.D., all of Warsaw’s Jews were expelled from the Warsaw Ghetto. Over the days that followed, men, women, and children would be shipped to their deaths in Treblinka, where, according to The Algemeiner, the Nazi regime would execute some 800,000 people within the space of a few months.

So, every year, on the ninth day of Av, the Jewish people mourn. From sunset to nightfall (roughly 25 hours), Jews do not eat. They do not drink. They do not bathe. They study nothing in the Torah unless it pertains to the tragedy itself — limiting us mainly to the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, and Jeremiah. Jews are not even allowed to use normal chairs, sitting on stools or on the floor instead. In many ways, they behave like mourners sitting shiva (mourning the death of a loved one), not allowing themselves comfort or pleasure for the duration of the holiday.

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They mourn the loss of their way of life — early Jewish religious ritual revolved around the temple the way the Earth revolves around the Sun. One of the terms for the Temple is “Beit HaElohim” — literally, “House of God.” It was home to some of the most sacred artifacts in Judaism, and was the site of sacrifices pertaining to important Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur. The Temple priesthood (or Kohanim) were descendants of Aaron and the ones who performed daily offerings to God. The destruction of the Temple destroyed the literal center of Judaism.

Jews also mourn the loss of 6 million of their own in the Holocaust — men, women, and children who were targeted for nothing more than their faith, and who were systematically murdered as convenient scapegoats for a troubled world. They mourn that this was not the first time Jews were seen as “other” — they were targets of English prejudice in the 13th century, targets of Spanish religious fervor in the 15th century, and now, in the 21st, targets in places in Europe once again.

Yet, in the midst of these tragic events, there is hope. Tisha B’Av is held in Judaism as a sign of divine presence, that the existence of God is a certainty — because otherwise, it’s an awfully big coincidence to have so many powerful events in Jewish history occur on the same date. Tisha B’Av is also proof of Judaism’s survival.

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Nearly 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism is still going strong. The faithful emerged from that crisis with a new way of worshiping. Now, instead of centering their practices around a single spot, hundreds of Jewish communities flourish all over the world. The diaspora (the population of Jews after exile from Israel) created a font of Jewish rabbinical thought and intellectual discussion, turning Judaism from a religion based on sacrifice and offerings and an exclusive priesthood to a community where any 10 Jewish adults (a minyan) can meet for public worship. Some 3,500 years after the freed slaves of Egypt were denied entry into the land of milk and honey, God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled with the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

But that’s not all.

Tisha B’Av is not destined to be a day of mourning forever. It’s also considered to be the birthday of the Messiah, and will change to a day of celebration on his arrival. In this lies the message of the holiday, and the message of the people who observe it — that in tragedy, there is the opportunity to rise again, to start over and become stronger.

Jews mourn the people and the world that they have lost, but they honor the way those calamities have shaped the modern Jewish people — and strengthened their faith in God.

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