The eve of the 9th of Av -- Tisha B'Av -- is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The day the rabbis called "a day set for misfortune." The Midrash says that God, from the beginning, had marked Tisha B'Av as a day of grief because of the Spies-in-the-Desert episode.
We're in the the wilderness. Moses sends spies to Canaan. They return on the 9th of Av and the majority reports that the land cannot be conquered because the people who live there are GIANTS!
So the Israelites rebel and cry, "Better we should have stayed in Egypt!"
This makes God really mad. "You weep now without cause," He says. "But surely you will have good reason to weep on this day."
And then -- because of their cowardice, ingratitude and lack of trust -- God condemns the people to die in the desert without seeing the Promised Land and ordains the destruction of the Temple in some future year on Tisha B'Av.
It's the 9th of Av, 586 B.C.E., and (just as predicted) Solomon's Temple is taken by the Babylonians. The Jews are sent into exile and Tisha B'Av becomes a day of tears.
Years later, Cyrus lets the Jews return to Jerusalem and allows them to rebuild the Temple. They ask, "Should we continue to fast and mourn the loss of the First Temple as we did while in Babylon?" To which the persuasive prophet Zechariah answers, "These fast days should now be turned into days of joy," whereupon the Fast of the 9th of Av is discontinued for centuries (or so it is generally believed...)
But then comes another calamitous 9th of Av, this one in 70 C.E.
The Romans destroy the Second Temple, force Israel back into exile and Tisha B'Av becomes, once again, a day of mourning and fasting.
The gloom of Tisha B'Av is compounded by these additional tragedies that are said to have happened on the dreadful date:
And so, Tisha B'Av becomes known as the Black Fast -- a symbol of all the persecutions endured by Israel, the day of tears predicted way back in the desert.
* Fasting and Mourning Customs
Like Yom Kippur, Tisha B'Av is a major fast observed from sunset to sunset. The ancient rabbis said, "When Av comes in all merriment goes out." And they meant it. Starting with the first day of Av it's no meat, no wine (except on Shabbat), no clean clothes or celebrations. The meal on the eve of Tisha B'Av is modest -- hard-boiled eggs and noodles (some sprinkle ashes on the food), and the very pious sleep on the floor with a stone for a pillow.
On Tisha B'Av, as on Yom Kippur, you can't eat, drink, bathe, wear perfume or leather shoes or engage in any kind of physical pleasure. It's also customary to abstain from work, since on this unlucky day your labors will probably turn to dross, anyway, so why bother?
Unique to Tisha B'Av is the ban against Torah study (a joyous activity) except for the reading of the Book of Lamentations, Job and certain chapters from Jeremiah.
Another old Tisha B'Av custom is cemetery visits, which probably stems from Jeremiah's trip to the grave of the Patriarchs in hopes he could convince God to let the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
According to legend, all the great men of the past rise from their graves on Tisha B'Av to mourn the lost glory of Israel, and in Polish villages little boys left wooden swords on the graves so the dead, when they arose, could give Israel's enemies a good zetz. (Kids understand these things...)
* Synagogue Customs and Observance
On Tisha B'Av, the synagogue changes from a joyous House of God to a house of mourning. Traditionally, the lights are dimmed, the ark and Torah scrolls are draped in black and the congregation sits on low benches or on the floor. Words of greeting are discouraged, but if someone says "hello" you may respond out of courtesy.
In the evening, the Book of Lamentations (Echah) is chanted. This powerfully written little book laments the loss of the Temple and describes the desolation of Jerusalem and the suffering of the Jewish people. Still, it is customary to end the reading on a positive note by repeating the next-to-last verse, "Turn us unto Thee, Oh Lord, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old!" (Who wrote Lamentations? Many scholars give the nod to Jeremiah and since his birthday is -- you guessed it -- on the 9th of Av, he seems an appropriate choice.)
Sad as Tisha B'Av may be, the month of Av is not only mourning and fasting. After the 9th of Av comes the anticipation of comfort and consolation, reflected in the rabbinic name for the month itself -- Menachem Av -- He who comforts Av.
On the Saturday after Tisha B'Av (Shabbat Nachamu -- the Sabbath of Comfort ), we read the Haftarah from Isaiah that begins, "Comfort ye, My people." Then, the mood changes from despair to hope. In the shtetl, Shabbat Nachamu was a festive time, and many a happy bride and groom tied the knot on that weekend.
The month of Av also brings us Tu B'Av -- 15 Av -- an ancient festival almost totally ignored today.
The festival originally marked the end of the wood-chopping season. Apparently this work-stoppage gave the young men of Israel time to go hunting for wives, and -- ever helpful -- the maidens of Jerusalem (according to the Talmud) dressed themselves in white on the 15th of Av and went to the vineyards, singing and dancing, and the young men followed after them. Result? Tu B'Av became a festival of matrimony, creating new generations ready to sustain Jewish life.
Now, if Tisha B'Av is gloom and destruction, then Tu B'Av is the antidote -- a time of joy and new beginnings. So, on July 24 (Tu B'Av this year) do what Michael Strassfeld suggest in his book, The Jewish Holidays. Go have a good time!
This July, rediscover the month of Av.
Rediscover the truth in the adage that out of sorrow can come joy!