It is a
testament to the amazing variability of Jewish synagogue life in America that
the summertime fast of Tisha B’Av is for some a time of momentous communal
mourning, and for others a normal and unremarkable day. In contrast to Yom
Kippur, which sees widespread observance in one fashion or another across the
denominational spectrum, Tisha B’Av and its ritual restrictions (which are
nearly identical to those of Yom Kippur) are unfamiliar to a sizable contingent
of American Jews.
Click photo to download. Caption: The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, oil on canvas, by Francesco Hayez. Both the first and second iterations of the “Beit HaMikdash” were razed on Tisha B’Av, hundreds of years apart. Credit: Francesco Hayez.
A bit of
anecdotal evidence: This author recently worked as the Judaics director for a
summer camp affiliated with the JCC movement and was asked to put together a
brief Tisha B’Av ceremony, something this particular camp had never before
included in its Jewish programming. The campers were so incredulous about the
existence of this holy day that many were whispering to each other that it had
been invented by the camp staff as a color war breakout prank.
Tisha B’av, traditionally one of the most intense and salient religious
experiences of the year, be wholly foreign to a large portion of American
Jewry? Surely it cannot simply come down to the fact that most people are
averse to fasting—if that were the case, how could we explain the ongoing
popularity of Yom Kippur?
answer revolves around the traditional thematic elements of the fast. The
narrative of Tisha B’Av centers on the destruction of the holy temple in
Jerusalem, a national calamity that marked the end of Jewish sovereignty in
ancient Israel and the official onset of the long Jewish diaspora. The day’s
liturgy mourns the disappearance of high priests and animal sacrifices, and
woven into its eulogizing is the wish for a return to these original forms or
It is in
reaction to these sentiments that the modern Jewish thinkers have diverged on
how Tisha B’Av ought to be approached in the present. Unlike Yom Kippur, whose
themes of repentance and forgiveness are timelessly compelling, Tisha B’Av as
traditionally observed openly longs for a way of religious life that has
irrevocably passed and that even the most fervently Orthodox today would find
alien. Understandably, those movements and individuals in recent history that
have championed Judaism’s ability to evolve and adapt would not be interested
in the message of Tisha B’v—that what is old is best.
the feeling that guided early leaders of the Reform movement in the 18th century
to do away with the observance of Tisha B’Av. Since they were interested in
making Judaism appealing to a modern, scientific milieu, the reformers
emphasized the ethical elements of Jewish teaching and minimized ritual law.
The transition from sacrificial worship to verbal prayer brought on by the
destruction of the temple was not seen not so much as a tragedy, but as an
important step in the development of Judaism toward pure ethical monotheism.