Today is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day in the Hebrew month of Av. It is a national day of mourning, when we remember the destruction of the first and second temples and other big tragedies that happened to the Jewish people on this day in history.
It is one of the two major fast days in the Jewish calendar. The other, more widely known and observed, is Yom Kippur.
On the surface it appears that the only thing these two days have in common is the 25-hour fast and the prohibition from engaging in the five “pleasurable pursuits”:
- no eating/drinking
- no washing bathing
- no wearing leather shoes
- no application of creams or oils
- no sex
The Practical Differences
Yom Kippur is a day of religious observance, when all the prohibitions of the Sabbath apply. For observant Jews, that means no driving, television, or other electricity, among other things.
Those prohibitions don’t apply on Tisha B’Av. In fact, when I was in summer camp we used to watch holocaust-related movies on Tisha B’Av. And the reading of the Book of Lamentations was done by a big bonfire.
The Emotional Differences
Yom Kippur is the day we return to God. A day we return to ourselves. A day we return to home.
Although it’s a fast day, the tone is one of reverence. We are consumed by the prayers of atonement and the awe of the day.
The concept I’ve always felt behind it is that we should be so focused on the day of prayer that we don’t leave space to think of eating or other pleasures.
The pleasure is in coming back home to ourselves and to God. Almost like when you’re so in love or so consumed with your work that you don’t think about food.
Spirit sustains you.
Tisha B’av is a day of grief and loss. We fast on Tisha B’av because we are in pain and mourning.
It’s like when you’re so depressed by a breakup that you can’t eat. You don’t want to engage in your favorite activities. Your focus is on mourning.
Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur Are Related
Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur are part of the same cycle.
I read somewhere that Tisha B’Av is a day when we remember the times God wasn’t there to protect us. I don’t think that’s true.
God is always there. The pain and loss we experience happens FOR us, not TO us.
The destruction of the temple, and the other losses that occurred on Tisha B’Av were great losses to for Jewish people. But there’s a crucial lesson from these events that ties it to the path we take to Yom Kippur.
It is only when we lose what we think is most important that we find what truly matters.
We need Tisha B’av because without destruction and loss, we don’t know what or who we are. And if we don’t identify who we are, then we cannot return to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur.
The process stats with loss and mourning. It ends with love and acceptance, which comes through atonement and forgiveness.
Identity Tied to Place
What might you infer about someone based on where that person lives, or what gym they go to, or where they vacation?
We often tie our identity to a particular place. We define ourselves and others by our neighborhoods or the type of home in which we live, by whether we rent or own.
In the times of the first and second temples, the Jewish people made pilgrimages to the temple for the holidays. They had rituals associated with that place. It’s easy to believe it’s the physical structure of the place that defines you.
To say that God wasn’t there to protect us during the destruction of the temples is to miss the point. God allowed the temples to be destroyed to prove to us that we didn’t need the physical temple to anchor our identity.
What matters most is not the rituals of a place but the rituals of the heart.
Home is not only a physical structure; it is emotional and spiritual.
As the saying goes, Home is where the heart is.
The path of return is a path of opening the heart.
Destroy to Create
On Tisha B’av, we mourn several terrible tragedies that happened to the Jewish people on this day in history. But as terrible as they were, led to a renewed strength among the people.
All creation begins with destruction.
We find light in the darkness, hope in despair, joy in anguish. We have proven over centuries our ability as a people to emerge from the ashes — of the temples and of the gas chambers.
Tisha B’av is not the end. It sometimes requires destruction of the physical structures to find the spiritual rebirth we need for the next chapter.
The only way for us to return to ourselves and return to God is to strip everything else away.
This idea is embedded in the third chapter of Lamentations.
We will search our ways, and investigate, and we will return to God. (3:40)
The Path Starts With Loss
The path of return, the spiritual journey, starts here on Tisha B’Av. We experience the destruction. We mourn the loss. In our grief, we deprive ourselves of food and other basic pleasures.
Two months from now, we will again engage in a day where we deprive ourselves of sensory pleasures, but then it will be because we are consumed by the reconnection of our spirit.
Today’s day of loss and grief is not the end of the journey, it is the beginning.