Tisha B’Av: What Are We Really Mourning?

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We’re Curious…

Each year on Tisha B’Av (Hebrew for “the Ninth of Av”), Jews around the world read the following words from Eicha, the Book of Lamentations: “My eyes are spent with tears, my heart burns, my being melts away over the ruin of my poor people.” On this day, many Jews also recite the traditional Nahem prayer that describes Jerusalem as “the city that is in ruins, despised and desolate, mourning without her children.”

In our current age of having a modern state of Israel — and especially following the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty in 1967 — these statements can feel like a far cry from reality. So why do many Jews continue to recite these words and to commemorate the Ninth of Av through fasting and other mourning rituals, even as almost half of the world’s Jews now live in their ancient homeland and have sovereignty over their holiest city?

The 9th of Av: A Day of Disasters Over Jewish History

The answer to that question starts with understanding why Jews have commemorated the Ninth of Av as a day of mourning in the first place. According to Mishna Taanit 4:6, the Jewish people suffered many tragic events on this day throughout our long history, beginning in Biblical times. Tradition has it that on the 9th of Av, the generation of Israelites leaving Egypt learned that they would not be permitted to enter into the Land of Israel. On the 9th of Av 586 B.C.E., the First Temple that King Solomon built was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia. On the same day in 70 C.E., the Second Temple that had been built by the returning exiles — and rebuilt by King Herod — was destroyed by the Romans. 

The day continued to prove inauspicious for the Jewish people in post-Temple times. On the 9th of Av in 135 C.E., Betar, the last fortress of Shimon Bar Kochba and his Jewish army, fell to the Romans. One year later, Hadrian, the Roman emperor and ruler of Jerusalem, plowed the area where the Temple had stood and established his own pagan temple. King Edward I of England signed the Edict of the Expulsion of the Jews from his country on this day in 1290, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain would take place on this date in 1492.

Based on the Talmudic idea of “huchpilu kol hatzorot” — that all tragedies that befall the Jewish people should be subsumed under the tragedy of the destruction of the two Temples — the rabbis designated the Ninth of Av as the day that Jews would remember these sad events. The Talmud says, “When the month of Av enters, one should decrease in joy.” After a three-week period leading up to Tisha B’Av, the day itself is traditionally one of intense mourning. Many observant Jews fast on this day and, as with other fast days, engage in heshbon hanefesh (literally, “an accounting of the soul”), with a special focus on lessons that we as a Jewish community might learn from our past.

Sinat Hinam and the Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

Among those communally-oriented lessons that Jews might reflect on during Tisha B’Av, perhaps the most well-known relates to the Talmudic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which is found in Gittin 55b – 56a. The relevance of this famous tale to Tisha B’Av is made clear by the fact that it opens with the words, “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.”

If you’re not familiar with this story, after an invitation to a party is mistakenly delivered to Bar Kamtza, instead of Kamtza, its intended recipient, Bar Kamtza shows up at the party, deeply unwanted by the host. The host declares in front of all of his other guests (which included many sages) that Bar Kamtza is his enemy before callously escorting him to the door. After suffering this public humiliation, and in an effort to punish the perpetrators, Bar Kamtza goes to the Roman king and accuses the Jews of rebelling against the Roman authorities. According to the Talmud, this ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem.

The sixteenth-century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (also known as the Maharal of Prague), argued that this story illustrates the Talmudic idea of sinat hinam (baseless hatred). For him, the problematic social dynamics between Kamtza, Bar Kamtza, and the host of the party were representative of the divisiveness and enmity that characterized the entire Jewish community at the time. The Maharal’s understanding corresponds to the well-known Talmudic assertion that sinat hinam, “baseless hatred” among Jews, caused the destruction of the Second Temple.

What is “baseless hatred”? On the surface, the phrase seems to imply that there are both legitimate and illegitimate causes for hatred. In fact, according to the Talmud, Rambam and others, the prohibition of “Do not hate (lo tisna) your brother in your heart” has some exceptions, including when there is a need to distance oneself from a harmful influence, which can sometimes be expressed as hatred. (Even so, these instances of “permitted hatred” are intended to be severely limited. Some authorities contend that it is possible to both hate and love an individual at the same time: “Hatred due to the evil within them and love due to that aspect of good that is buried within them,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote.)

According to Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman, Director of HESBER, a Jewish educational organization, hatred is considered to be unjustified and fall into the category of sinat hinam when it arises from jealousy, arrogance, or when substantive disagreements grow to become personal and uncivil. Racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and other forms of arbitrary hatred directed at groups also fall under the category of sinat hinam. The medieval Spanish rabbi Bachya Ben Asher asserted that baseless hatred “is a grave sickness and is the cause of all the sins mentioned in the Torah,” and urged achdut Yisrael (unity among Jews), noting that “unity is the essential cause of peace.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (more commonly known as Rav Kook) wrote, “If we were destroyed and the world with us due to sinat hinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves and the world with ahavat sinam (baseless love).

Zechariah’s Prophecy: What Are We Really Mourning?

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the Talmud’s assertion that the Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, raises the question of what we are truly mourning on this somber day. 

Should our focus be the loss of the Temple, or should our attention instead be aimed at the cause of the loss of the Temple? And at what point will fasting and other mourning practices on Tisha B’Av no longer be necessary?

These questions play out in the Book of Zechariah, particularly in Chapters 7 and 8. Although Zechariah lived during the period of shivat Tzion (or “the return to Zion”) that followed 70 years of the Babylonian exile, his prophecies are no less relevant today than they were over two thousand years ago. Critically, Zechariah prophesies that Tisha B’Av, along with three other minor fasts, “will become days of joy and gladness, happy festivals, but you must love the truth and peace.” In the Talmud, Rav Pappa (Rosh Hashanah 18b) breaks this down into three different sets of circumstances:

  • If we are living in a time of “peace,” we are required to rejoice on these fast days. 
  • If it is a time of “persecution” for the Jewish people, we are required to fast.
  • If there is “neither persecution nor peace,” then we are required to fast on Tisha B’Av, but the other three fasts are optional.

Halakhic authorities are split over what constitutes a time of “peace” for the purpose of knowing whether and how to observe this day. The famous commentator Rashi minimally defined the requirement as the removal of non-Jewish rule over the Jewish people. Others point out that Zechariah’s famous prophecy that “the streets of [Jerusalem] shall be filled with boys and girls playing” has indeed come to fruition. From these perspectives, the age of “peace” may have begun in 1948. 

However, the majority of halakhic authorities interpret a time of “peace” to include the rebuilding of the Temple. Seemingly, rabbinic authorities across denominational lines are on the same page here. President of the Schechter Institute and a leader of the Masorti movement in Israel, Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin, argues pointedly in his responsum on this subject from 2010, “We have a State, but have we enjoyed one moment of real peace since its establishment? We have fought seven wars in the course of 62 years and we continue to fight terrorists in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon.” Finally, with antisemitism on the rise in recent weeks and years, the Jewish people are certainly not free from persecution and troubles. From these perspectives, the age of “peace” is not yet upon us and Tisha B’Av should remain a day of mourning.

Interestingly, in his commentary to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Rambam writes that Jews fasted on Tisha B’Av even during the time of the Second Temple due to the many tragic events that happened on that date. This suggests that Tisha B’Av is not solely about mourning the destruction of the Temple. In the Mishnah Torah, Rambam also states that we fast on Tisha B’Av to remind ourselves of our misdeeds – as well as the misdeeds of our ancestors – that led to the tragic events that occurred, and to repent.

The Debate Over Fasting and the Nahem Prayer

Following the establishment of the state of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty in 1967, questions emerged about whether this should affect the observance of the day. While the Orthodox community and the rabbinate continue to affirm the necessity of fasting, arguing that it is binding until the rebuilding of the Temple, an issue that is still debated is the Nahem (“comfort us”) prayer, which is traditionally recited by Ashkenazi Jews at the afternoon service and by Sephardic Jews at all of the services on Tisha B’Av. The traditional version of the prayer refers to Jerusalem as “the city that is in ruins, despised and desolate, mourning without her children.” 

The late Rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, believed that to describe Jerusalem this way would constitute a lie when he considered that city to be thriving, with hundreds of thousands of Jews living there. Believing that this signified the beginning of a redemptive period, HaLevi was also in favor of reducing the sorrowful kinot (elegies) that are traditionally chanted and read. Since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, various attempts have been made to create new versions of the Nahem prayer to better reflect the current political reality. 

Outside of the Orthodox world, Israel’s Masorti Movement is divided over the issue of fasting. Rabbi Tuvia Friedman wrote in a responsum that one should only fast for half the day in light of the reunification of Jerusalem. In a counter-opinion, Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin wrote that Jews should continue to fast all day on Tisha B’Av, in part because “there is not yet true peace in the land of Israel.” And regarding the Nahem prayer, non-Orthodox movements have altered the text to a plea for Rahem (compassion) for Jerusalem, “which is being rebuilt upon its ruins, restored upon its ravage, and resettled upon its desolation.” The Orthodox Movement has not accepted these changes, believing them to be inappropriate so long as the Temple remains destroyed and being opposed to making liturgical modifications in general.

The Bottom Line

We should all count our blessings that Jerusalem is not desolate and abandoned (as articulated in traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy) and be thankful that there is a modern state of Israel with Jewish sovereignty. Regardless of one’s politics, the Jewish people having access to our holiest sites and autonomy in the holiest city is a sui generis feat. 

However, this does not render Tisha B’Av and its traditional mourning practices obsolete. In addition to remembering the destruction of the two Temples, along with other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many Jews continue to commemorate this day in recognition of the fact that Israel is not yet at peace, and that sinat hinam and division continues to persist in the Jewish community.