Tisha B'Av: The Jewish Response to Tragedy
By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
I never heard of Tisha B'Av when I was growing up. Rosh Hashanah? - As sure as honey cake. Yom Kippur? - Guilt gone wild. Purim? - Hallowe'en Jewish style. But Tisha B'Av never made our "Holiday Hit Parade."
Considering how much sadness filled my mother's heart as a result of losing both of her parents before the age of three, I'm surprised we didn't make more of the saddest day on the Jewish calendar year.-
Tisha B'Av, the day which commemorates national Jewish mourning, is the anniversary of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans. With an uncanny sense of historic irony, it is also the date of some of the worst disasters and expulsions that have occurred in Jewish history.
In 1190, the ninth of Av marked the day that the Jews of York, England were slaughtered; it was also the day Jews were expelled from England 100 years later. In 1305, it commemorated the imprisonment of the Jews in France and in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain. Italy ghettoized its Florence Jews on Tisha B'Av in 1571 and Austria forced its Jews out of Vienna in 1670.
The devastating pattern of deportation and death continued into the modern age beginning with Russia's mobilization towards World War I on the ninth of Av, which led to the expulsion of all Jews from the border provinces a year later. Not surprisingly, the Nazis took pleasure in organizing heinous actions against the Jews on Tisha B'Av, including increased deportations of Jews to the death camps.
Jewish religious responses to these events were similar to those that are followed when a family member dies. Extensive mourning rituals were developed by the Talmudic rabbis to help the community deal with the profound grief and loss they would continue to experience from losing their homes, families and communities. Today, more than 2,500 years after the destruction of the First Temple, we continue to re-enact the feelings of our ancestors by engaging in traditional mourning practices such as fasting and restricting our physical comfort by not bathing, not wearing leather shoes, makeup or perfume and refraining from sexual relations. The public reading of Lamentations occurs in synagogues while congregants often sit on the floor or low stools in the traditional style of mourners.
In some ways, Tisha B'Av is the holiday that reminds us that the Jewish way of life- its traditions, practices, culture and land - have been targeted for extinction since the beginning of Jewish time. History bears witness to a multiplicity of efforts to eradicate the heart and soul of the Jewish people by deporting them from the land of Israel, destroying their religious centers of worship and physically isolating or removing them from community life.
But what history has repeatedly failed to recognize is this singular amazing fact: Each time Jewish survival is threatened, the Jewish response that emerges is one of hope and defiance. Tragedy has always been a catalyst for Jewish national, religious and personal introspection. Jewish leaders, from Ezra the prophet to Theodor Herzl, have responded to Jewish tragedies by using them as an opportunity to build upon the Jewish belief that redemption is possible for every Jew and for the Jewish nation as a whole.
Since the creation of the first Jewish Community Center (the Bet Knesset) in Babylon to the creation of the state of Israel, Jews have responded to historic crises with two words: faith and community. Faith, that if we live according to the commandments, we will be restored to the land of Israel and knowledge that we must live, work, study and bond together as a community to guarantee Jewish survival.
Just as Rosh Ha Shanah provides us with the opportunity each year to engage in meaningful questioning and soulful introspection, Tisha B'Av serves as a time to appreciate what has kept Jews and Judaism alive throughout history: abiding faith and commitment to preserving Jewish community.
from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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