THOUGHTS ON TISHA B’AV
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Tisha b’Av 5782
This essay is sponsored by Marlene & Armand Lerner in memory of David Evan Hirsch Z”L.
Setting the mournful moodRabbinic Judaism stresses the obligation of every Jew personally to mourn the long-ago destruction of the Holy Temple. The sages warned that whoever does not mourn the loss of Jerusalem will not merit to see its moment of rejoicing (Ta’anit 30b). Yet fostering such feelings in the hearts of contemporary Jews is extraordinarily difficult. Firstly, because the passage of nearly two millennia since the events of 70 CE makes it unlikely for people today instinctively to appreciate the relevance to their daily lives of the ancient destruction. Secondly, because the reality of modern Jerusalem as the heavily populated and densely built capital of the State of Israel seems to render earlier national losses moot. And thirdly, because not all Jews wish to preserve a national component to their religio-ethnic identity (a matter addressed at length in my 2019 essay “Tisha b’Av in the Era of Emancipation”). The laws and customs of Tisha b’Av have greatly evolved and expanded in the post-Talmudic era. A mournful mood is cultivated starting with the Fast of 17 Tamuz. Restrictions intensify as the calendar advances from the period of the “Three Weeks” to the “Nine Days” to the week of Tisha b’Av to the eve of Tisha b’Av. The bans on weddings, haircutting, shaving, laundry, eating meat, and drinking wine typically fail, however, to penetrate the heart of the modern Jew. Often, these rules are regarded as nuisances to be grudgingly adhered to, if not circumvented by some dubious stratagem. A ritually-observant Jew can arrive at the synagogue on the night of Tisha b’Av, sporting a scruffy beard and hankering for a hamburger, but with no sense of bereavement over the fate of the Jewish People, its ancestral homeland, or its holy city. In this regard, a comparison can be drawn between Judaism’s two major fasts, Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur. Just as the pre-Tisha b’Av restrictions often fail to bring the individual Jew to a mournful frame of mind, so can the High Holiday ceremonials fail to bring the individual Jew into a penitential frame of mind in advance of Yom Kippur. The month of Elul (with its everyday shofar blowing and recitation of Psalm 27), Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Shabbat Shuvah are supposed to bring Jews to introspection, contrition, and improved behavior. But far too many Jews enter the synagogue for Kol Nidre entirely unchanged and unmoved by the aura of the preceding weeks. It is in those instances that the pageantry of the synagogue service can have a powerful effect. A Jew who enters the synagogue as the sun sets on the eve of Yom Kippur sees an open ark and a parade of Torah scrolls solemnly being marched around the sanctuary by wardens of the congregation dressed in white. The clang of metallic Torah ornaments is followed by the haunting sounds of Kol Nidre. These customs were carefully designed to rouse even the most indifferent worshipper from his spiritual slumber. Similarly, the synagogue practices of the night of Tisha b’Av have the power to instill a sense of painful exile into the hearts of otherwise content diaspora Jews. Four such customs, first attested to in medieval Ashkenaz, significantly change the worshippers’ audio-visual experience: dimming the lights, removing the ark curtain, sitting on low stools, and chanting the evening service and Lamentations tearfully and with modulated volume. The Midrashic basis for the practice of conducting the Tisha b’Av evening service in a darkened sanctuary is a comparison drawn between God and earthly kings (Eichah Rabbah 1). Just as a flesh-and-blood king in a state of bereavement extinguishes the lamps of his royal palace, so does God, in His hour of bereavement over the fate of Israel, bring darkness to the world: “The sun and the moon are become black, and the stars withdraw their shining (Joel 2:10).” Rabbi Isaac Tyra, 15th century author of Sefer Ha-Minhagim, offered an alternative Scriptural basis for lighting only one candle in the synagogue during that service: “He has made me to dwell in dark places (Lamentations 3:6).” Both Tur and Shulhan Arukh codified the one-candle rule (Orach Chaim 559:3). Later halakhists relaxed the rule slightly, permitting more candles. Why? In earlier generations, when only the precentor read Lamentations and Elegies on behalf of the congregation, one candle was sufficient. In more recent times, when congregants read along from printed books, it became necessary to have more light around the room (Mishnah Berurah 559:15). Rema codified the practice of removing the ark curtain (Orach Chaim 559:2). He cited the verse “The Lord has done what He purposed; He has carried out the decree בצע אמרתו (Lamentations 2:17).” The Aramaic Targum renders that final clause בזע פורפירין דיליה, possibly connoting the removal of, or damage inflicted upon, sacred vestments. The above Midrash again compares God with an earthly king. Just as a human king in bereavement casts off his glorious attire, so does the Almighty cast away the sacerdotal cloths. This Aggadic flourish also serves as the source for not wearing the large Tallit on Tisha b’Av morning. Common synagogue practice is to pull the ark curtain open for the duration of Tisha b’Av services, leaving only the ark’s outer wooden doors to conceal the Torah scrolls. It is also customary to remove the decorative covering from the Reader’s Desk. Sitting on the ground or on a low stool is a practice borrowed from the rites of mourning (Ra’avyah Hilkhot Ta’anit 890). The Talmud teaches that all mitzvot applicable to mourners in the week of shiva are applicable to Jewry on Tisha b’Av (Ta’anit 30a). Since Biblical times it has been customary for mourners to sit low to the ground (Job 2:13), a practice codified by the halakhists (Yoreh Deah 387). The presence of fixed pews in the sanctuary can make it difficult on Tisha b’Av to accommodate all worshippers on low stools. Typically, congregants will fill the aisles, the open areas around the Reader’s Desk, and the Bimah steps. Some will sit on cardboard boxes, while others will sit on the floor and prop themselves up against the wooden pews. Maariv on the night of Tisha b’Av is recited slowly and in mournful tones (Maharil). When chanting the Book of Lamentations, the reader or readers begin with a low voice; the volume is raised as each succeeding chapter is read. The reader pauses between each verse and inserts even longer and more dramatic pauses between each chapter. The congregation loudly recites “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old (Lamentations 5:21)” before the reader repeats it (Arukh Ha-Shulhan Orach Chaim 559:2; Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 124:1). The cacophony of sound overtakes the room, as Jews plead for a restoration of the intimacy of the Divine relationship with Israel. I have vivid childhood memories of the Tisha b’Av observances in which I participated as a congregant in the Great Neck Synagogue. When I began the fast, my thoughts focused on enjoying summer vacation and making sure I ate and drank enough to steel myself for the long, hot day ahead. My mind was not on the historic suffering of our people. It was the synagogue ritual -- specifically, the ways in which the services looked and sounded quite differently – that brought me to a frame of mind appropriate for the annual day of national mourning. Most impactful was the somber reading of Lamentations by Mr. Aaron Feinerman Z”L. When I was very young, and before I had a grasp of chronology, I thought of him as the elderly man who literally saw the churban. The words of Eichah came alive and the historic travails of Am Yisrael were suddenly real to me. The Tisha b’Av traditions reviewed here remind us of the power of properly orchestrated services to touch the hearts of worshippers. The sages and the doctors of the liturgy enacted customs and composed prayers designed to transport us away from our mundane concerns and to our feeling a heightened sense of Jewish solidarity and Jewish destiny.