Tishah B’Av and the Importance of Remembering Tragedy

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The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by shlomi kakon Pikiwiki Israel / Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

From the evening of July 26 to the evening of July 27, the Jewish community will mark Tishah B’Av, a particularly somber occasion.

Known as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the date marks several tragedies, most notably the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. But it also marks the day the spies returned from the Promised Land and God commanded the Israelites to wander the desert for 40 years, the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans and the banishment of Jews from England and Spain during the 13th and 15th centuries, according to Chabad.org.

For those who observe Tishah B’Av traditions, the day is a quiet and reflective one. Tishah B’Av is a fast day. Torah study is discouraged unless it relates to the destruction of the Temple or another sad topic. For services, synagogues dim their lights and remove the decorative curtains from the ark.

Many of the events that Tishah B’Av commemorates occurred hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. The Union for Reform Judaism states on its website that the date is no longer considered ritually significant for many liberal Jews. So why is it still important to observe the day after all this time?

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In part, it is because the tragedies of Tishah B’Av are historically significant and are still relevant, not only because of the impact they have had but because of the lessons that can be gleaned from them.

“Tishah B’Av is connected with so many dates of not just destruction, but the kind of destruction that set us in motion,” explained Lauren Strauss, a modern Jewish history professor and the director of undergraduate studies at American University’s Jewish studies program. “It’s a sad day, but it’s significant in Diaspora history.”

Tishah B’Av is not only an occasion to reflect on the tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, but during the totality of Jewish history. Many use the date as an opportunity to mourn for victims of the Holocaust and of other devastating events.

“We use [Tishah B’Av] to ask ourselves what it means to be a nation in exile, what it means to develop a culture and identity outside your land. … On one hand, our community was scattered, and we have dispersed and wandered in our search for a home,” Strauss said. “But it also reminds us of the miraculous fact that we’ve still managed to maintain a national identity all these years.”

Strauss also referenced the Book of Lamentations, traditionally read on Tishah B’Av, which acts as a firsthand account of the destruction of Jerusalem. Over the years since it was first written, people have used the book’s text as a way to process and contextualize similar tragedies such as pogroms and the Holocaust.

“Writers in the Warsaw Ghetto would use quotes from the Book of Lamentations, not just because they are profound quotes, but because it communicated the scale of the hardships they went through,” Strauss explained. “It was a conscious connection, saying, ‘What I am experiencing right now is comparable to this historic tragedy that we have discussed for thousands of years.’”

Recent years have seen an effort to position Tishah B’Av as a day to honor the strength and persistence of the Jewish people as well as their loss.

In an article written for Reconstructing Judaism, Rabbi Lewis Eron argued that doing such would be a powerful way to make the occasion more potent for the Jewish people, and a way to reframe them not as victims, but as survivors.

“To speak to us today, Tisha B’Av can not [sic] longer be the day on which we remember all the evil that has happened to us,” he wrote. “It needs to become the day on which we understand that despite our setbacks, our struggles, our real losses and deep suffering, we, the Jewish people, have overcome the obstacles fate has set before us.”

While mourning remains the primary goal of Tishah B’Av, the fact that the Jewish people have experienced so many hardships and still persist as a nation today is an inspiring one. It is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish people, and that they will not forget what has happened to them as they work toward a better future.

“People do have to understand the tragic nature of Tishah B’Av so it doesn’t become a shallow celebration,” Strauss said. “They need to understand the tragedy we endured to get to this point, and it’s appropriate to keep it as a somber event. But I don’t think it’s in conflict with Tishah B’Av to also reflect on the strength of the Jewish community and how much we have gone through to get here.” ■

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