Tisha B’Av: A Holiday of Mourning
Today is the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av — literally “the 9th of [the month of] Av.” It is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar; a day of communal mourning.
The day is observed with a 25-hour fast and restrictions on other pleasurable activities that mirror the restrictions on Yom Kippur.
Tisha B’Av is a “historical” holiday; it is said to be the that both the first and second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, as well as a day on which the Jewish people experienced various other catastrophes or defeats throughout history, which created suffering.
These events included:
- Expulsion from England (in 1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492).
- The start of World War I, which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.
- In 1941, Heinrich Himmler formally received approval for “The Final Solution” on the 9th of Av.
- In 1942, this was the date of when the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp began.
Observances on Tisha B’Av
On Tisha B’Av, we’re supposed to sit on a low stool, similar to how a mourner would sit during the shiva period. Most of services are spent reading Kinot, elegies marking various tragedies that befell the Jewish people.
On Tisha B’Av we take the day to fully dive into our grief, mourning for every disaster that ever happened to our people.
What’s With All the Suffering?
Sometimes it can feel like Jewish traditions keep us in the past, stuck in a victim culture propagated by thousands of years of being subject to attacks and attempted destruction.
For example, at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding — what should be the height of celebration — the groom steps on a glass to commemorate the destruction of the temple.
It can seem like we spend too much time focused on the suffering.
But maybe there’s a different meaning to this focus.
Elements of Joy Within the Mourning
Despite the mourning rituals, Scripture refers to Tisha B’Av as a mo’ed, a holiday.
The Book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av, concludes with the verse,
Restore us to you, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.
After the fast, it is a custom to recite the blessing on the moon. This blessing celebrates the rebirth of the moon, and our hope for a national rebirth.
Chabad teaches that the lesson to take from this is that we will eventually look back with the clarity of hindsight to see how all of our suffering was a prelude to happiness and goodness.
Unless we embrace the suffering and sadness, we can’t ever fully appreciate the moments of joy and celebration.
The Illusion of Duality
I think we can go further: our suffering is not just a prelude to happiness, it is a necessary part of the experience.
The duality of anything is an illusion, as we see in other contexts.
Darkness and light are not two separate things; they are part of the same thing. Darkness exists in the light; light exists in the darkness.
Likewise, creation and destruction are intertwined; we cannot have one without the other. To destroy is to create; to create is to destroy.
This theme of creation and destruction shows up in many holidays, and it’s here too, in how we start and end Tisha B’Av.
The pre-fast meal for Tisha B’Av is low in substance but high in symbolism: a hard-boiled egg — a symbol of life — dipped in ashes, a symbol of death.
At the end of the holiday we bless the moon, a symbol of constant rebirth.
Just like we remember the biggest tragedy in the happiest of moments at a wedding, we find symbols of life on the holiday of mourning.
The Oneness of Joy and Suffering
Similarly, there is suffering in joy and joy in suffering. They are one.
As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains,
One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering. This doesn’t mean that we should despair. Suffering can be transformed. As soon as we open our mouth to say “suffering,” we know that the opposite of suffering is already there as well. Where there is suffering, there is happiness.
We cannot have one without the other.
Being in mourning is not about living in the past or descending into victim culture, but about transforming our experience into something positive.
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains,
[T]he art of happiness is also the art of suffering well. When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, a day when we embrace our suffering. Even though we are in grief, we still recognize it as a holiday, because within that suffering we find the seeds of joy.
This is how we can come out of the day with our eye toward a brighter future: the future we seek exists in the present.