Summary: a Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples
2018 Date: 21st – 22nd July (sunset to sunset)
Celebrated by: Jews, the State of Israel
Linked Holidays: The Three Weeks and the Nine Days
Background and Theological Significance
Tisha B’Av (in Hebrew, תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב) literally means ‘The Ninth of Av’ and is considered to be the saddest day in the year for the Jewish people. It is the date when several disasters occurred, principally the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) states that there are five major events which occurred on the Ninth of Av, with the first two being the destruction of both Temples. The third is the return of the twelve scouts whom Moses sent out to observe Canaan, bringing predominantly negative reports that made the Israelites despair. The fourth is the crushing of the Bar Kokhba Revolt by the Romans and the destruction of the city of Betar in 135 CE. The fifth is the ploughing over of the Temple Mount by the Roman authorities one year after the Revolt. Over the centuries, Tisha B’Av has also become associated with other calamitous events in Jewish history, including persecution during the Crusades, the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain during the Middle Ages, and the Holocaust.
Tisha B’Av is the climax of a liturgical season known as the Three Weeks, which is a time of mourning for the loss of the First and Second Temples. The Three Weeks commences on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, a fast day on the Seventeenth Day of Tammuz commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and continues until Tisha B’Av, with the state of mourning increasing as the weeks progress. The first nine days of Av are known as the Nine Days and signify the final approach towards Tisha B’Av. The fast day is the liturgical climax of a season of mourning and is a time for Jews to remember the tragedies and sufferings that their people have had to endure throughout the ages.
The exact dates for the destruction of the First and Second Temples are unclear, although sources tend to agree that they both occurred early in the month of Av. The rabbinic authorities chose the Ninth Day of Av as the date to commemorate their destruction, as well as the date for other calamitous events in the history of the Hebrew people – although, as with the Temples, the actual dates of these events are unclear. According to the Talmud (Rabbinic writings), G-d decreed that the Ninth Day of Av would be an eternal day of mourning due to the Israelites weeping ‘without cause’ over the reports that the scouts of Moses brought back concerning the Promised Land. Therefore, this date has a theological significance that explains why it has gathered together memories of so many tragedies in Jewish history.
The commemoration of Tisha B’Av is debated within different strands of Judaism. According to some, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 has rendered the holy day irrelevant, as it marks the return of the Jewish people to their homeland. The prophet Zechariah stated that when Jerusalem was restored then fast days would become feast days, suggesting that Tisha B’Av is now redundant. However, others believe that the fast day should still be commemorated in order to remember the events of the past and the sufferings endured by their forebears. This debate demonstrates how traditions are constantly evolving and how theological narratives develop in line with the events of human history.
The name ‘Tisha B’Av’ simply means the Ninth Day of Av, which is the fifth month of the year in the Hebrew calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, Tisha B’Av always falls in late July or early August depending on the year. If the fast day coincides with the Sabbath in any given year then it is moved forward to the Tenth Day of Av instead, as is the case in 2018.
The fast of Tisha B’Av lasts for around 25 hours, beginning during the evening before the Ninth (or Tenth) of Av. It is similar to Yom Kippur in the level of austerity required for observant Jews. The final meal before the fast commences often includes an egg or bread dipped in ashes and is eaten whilst seated on the floor. During the fast, eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather and sexual relations are all prohibited. Torah study, which is considered a spiritual joy, is also forbidden except for certain mournful texts. During services in the synagogue, ‘kinnot’ (sad poems) and passages from the Books of Lamentations are usually read. Even once the fast is ended, meat and wine are not consumed until the following morning, in acknowledgement that the Temple continued to burn throughout the night. Only on the following day is the sadness that started with Shiva Asar B’Tammuz finally over, and a more joyful season leading up to Rosh Hashanah begins.