Ask anyone on the spectrum from Kinda Jew-ish to Orthodox what Hanukkah is and you’ll get a tolerably correct answer. “The Jewish Christmas,” some might respond, as they boast about exchanging presents for eight nights and eating greasy potato pancakes. But even if they don’t understand the meaning of the holiday (which is in fact not analogous to what Christmas is for Christians), at least they recognize, perhaps celebrate, and know the holiday nonetheless. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover also have some luck in the Popular Jewish Holidays category. Ask your spectrum of Jews about Tisha B’Av, however, and chances are only a small percentage will be able to shoot back a knowledgeable answer.
How is it that Tisha B’Av, considered the saddest day in Jewish history, goes unobserved and overlooked by so many of us?
I’ll admit that I had to refresh my memory through some Wikipedia-ing before sitting down at my desk today. After nine years of conservative Jewish day-school, I should be ashamed that I had trouble remembering the holiday and exactly how we celebrated it in school. Then it occurred to me what month it is.
Tisha B’Av creeps in right at the end of the summer, just as you’re shaking out sandy towels, smothering aloe on crispy shoulders, and turning the last few pages of that spy-action thriller. Amidst relaxation, vitamin D, and margaritas, the darkest Jewish holiday barges in to rain on your parade. It’s no wonder I couldn’t recall what Tisha B’Av was all about – I was never in school during the ninth of Av, and since my parents didn’t observe the holiday, it went unacknowledged in my childhood.
But it shouldn’t have.
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of Av (in the Hebrew calendar), marks the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, as well as the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. To commemorate the holiday, we are to fast from sundown to sundown, recalling various tragedies in the history of the Jewish people. Along with the destruction of both holy Temples, other calamities that occurred on the eerie ninth of Av include: The First Crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the beginning of mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp in 1942, and the terrorist bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Indeed, it is a dark day of grief and remembrance.
Although Tisha B’Av evokes a somber remembrance of past oppression and suffering, it also allows us to assess the gravity of current threats to the Jewish people. We cannot take our freedom to light Shabbat candles on Friday nights nor the open arms of a Jewish state for granted. The same attempt to erase any Jewish reference to the land of Israel in 586 BCE still exists today among Islamic Jihadists, terrorists, and anti-Israel extremists. Especially as the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of statehood approaches, we must be careful not to merely listen comfortably, but to be adamant supporters of Israel, where Jewish culture, religion, nationhood, and independence is allowed to survive.
It is of course easier to celebrate the joyous Jewish holidays, to welcome a sweet new year in the fall and to sing of our freedom from slavery after drinking four cups of wine in the spring. But though this gloomy summer holiday may take more of an effort to observe, it carries some of the most valuable messages for Judaism.
Candace Mittel is a GTJ summer associate.