Mourning in 2020: Tisha B’Av Spotlights Losses Old and New
JNS.org – This year, Jews the world over got into the Tisha B’Av mood several months earlier than usual.
During a typical summer, Jewish families and individuals tear themselves away from family vacations, beach outings, amusement parks, and other hot-weather entertainment to enter a period of mourning known as “the Three Weeks” (no weddings, haircuts or shaving, music, etc.), a process that gets more stringent in the nine days leading up to the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av (including no laundry, buying clothes, renovating, swimming, listening to music, exchanging gifts, unnecessary travel, and eating meat or drinking wine outside of Shabbat). It all culminates on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year and the second-most serious fast of the Jewish calendar.
Why the mourning?
On this day (beginning on sundown July 29), not only were both Jerusalem Temples destroyed (the first by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE), but other tragic events occurred as well. These included the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 133 CE that ended in bloody defeat for the Jews, in addition to Isabella and Ferdinand’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. More recently, on eruv Tisha B’Av 1941, Hermann Goring signed the “final solution of the Jewish problem,” and one year later — on Tisha B’Av — the first train filled with Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto arrived in Treblinka, a deadly journey that would kill some 270,000 Jewish men, women, and children over the following seven weeks.
For many Jews, this Tisha B’Av (literally the ninth of Av) year will be no different: the mournful spirit, the fasting and special prayers, the reading of Eichah (the book of Lamentations) — in which Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the First Temple — and sitting on the floor or low stools (like a mourner) till midday, as well as eschewing cosmetics; fancy jewelry and leather; idle chatter; and even greeting friends.
But in other ways, this Tisha B’Av is destined to be somewhat different.
On a physical level, synagogue services and group readings of Eichah will be kept to a minimum in most communities; and, when they do occur, they will take place outdoors, or at least, socially distant and masked.
In addition, many seniors are being warned that due to their higher risk of contracting COVID-19 (especially those with preexisting conditions), going without food and water for an entire day (Tisha B’Av is a major fast in the Jewish year, second only to Yom Kippur) could compromise their immune systems.
And since Jewish law steadfastly favors pikuach nefesh (safeguarding human life over religious observances), many find themselves consulting both rabbi and doctor to determine if they should fast either fully or partially.
On the emotional and spiritual levels, the Jewish world will mark Tisha B’Av at a time of rapidly shifting realities: a global pandemic with no known expiration date, together with civil unrest and economies struggling to stay afloat amid closures and massive unemployment, adding a host of fears to an already somber day.
“Suddenly, we are able to relate to many of the things in our liturgy such as ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ (‘Our Father, Our King, withhold the plague from your heritage’), which are suddenly infused with [added] meaning,” says Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, whose books include American Judaism: A History. “Whatever’s happening in our world and in our lives, the beauty of our tradition is that it brings it into sharp focus for us.”
One of the things that this Tisha B’Av is bringing into focus is bitter divisions, adds Sarna. “We know that the Second Temple was destroyed by causeless hatred between Jews, and now we are seeing massive disagreements and an unwillingness to understand each other or compromise,” he explains. “So yes, Tisha B’Av will resonate in these times as a day to mourn both the temples and the condition we find ourselves in — not just a plague, but society’s deep divisions now.”
Indeed, this day of communal mourning for what the Jewish people have lost over time dovetails with a season of loss, says Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of such books as Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone From the Jewish Tradition. “Some of us have lost our jobs and some of us have lost precious friends to this invisible virus that’s brought the whole world to its knees,” he adds, speaking from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, a current coronavirus hot spot. “We’ve learned that we are all connected, and far more fragile and vulnerable than we ever thought.”
Other losses include the Jewish world’s sense of security amid ongoing attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions in North America, Europe, and around the world. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States hit a recent high in 2019.
“The ‘new normal’ of separating people physically makes us mourn even more for the sense of togetherness and unity of purpose that was the Temple,” says Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, who was a congregational rabbi and law professor in Maryland before making aliyah. He now teaches at Ohr Somayach and elsewhere in Jerusalem.
To illustrate how remembering the past is crucial to the Jewish future, Breitowitz cites a story about Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s said that when Napoleon overheard the Jews crying in their synagogue the night of Tisha B’Av, he asked why they were sad and was told they were grieving for their lost holy Temple. “How long ago did they lose it?” he wanted to know. “Thousands of years ago,” he was told. “Any nation that is still crying over a temple destroyed thousands of years ago is going to survive,” he is quoted as saying in response. “They haven’t forgotten.”
“And it’s true,” adds Breitowitz. “Jews do not forget.”
But as devastating as the losses throughout the Jews’ 4,000-year journey have been, and as discouraging and unpredictable the current situation, key to the holiday and Jewish history is a steadfast clinging to hope. Not only is it said that Moshiach, the messiah, will be (or was already) born on Tisha B’Av, relates Breitowitz, “but that the tears we shed on this day and our yearning for a better world reflect a very Jewish belief in a better future.”
In addition, the novel coronavirus “has taught us that despite all our science, we are not in charge.” By acknowledging that God’s in the driver’s seat, he says, “only then can we let go and say, ‘I’ll do my best, but I accept that the ultimate outcome is up to Him, which is actually a relief.’”
That’s why Tisha B’Av is at once the saddest day of the year and also the most hopeful, adds the rabbi.
In fact, Riemer in South Florida wants the Jewish people to consider another lesson to be learned from contemporary challenges — that “we are far more resilient and innovative than we realized.”
“Zoom and the other new technologies show us that in these difficult times, we can rebuild our lives and our people in completely new ways,” he says. “Just like after the temples were destroyed we formed new ways of worship, now we are learning Torah and even making shiva calls online. If the virus can travel, so can Jewish life.”
Deborah Fineblum is a journalist, book author, memoir editor, and Bubbe based in Pardes Hanna, Israel.