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A Mournful Day, An Obscure Holiday

Ellen Levitt

Posted on July 19, 2021 01:20

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Today was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av, considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It's probably one of the least well-known holidays; let me explain it to you.

I'll assume if I polled a few thousand Americans with the question "Do you know about the holiday Tisha B'Av?" that the majority of answers would be "Huh?" One reason is there are a few ways to pronounce it. Literally it means "The 9th (Day) of Av," a month in the Hebrew calendar that falls in the summertime.

It is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: a few major disasters occurred, such as the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples. Other awful events fell on that date later on, as far Jewish and secular history (banishment from Spain, expulsion from England, both World Wars began on this date, etc.) The three weeks prior to Tisha B'Av are moderately somber as well, especially the Nine Days just before it.

Not all, but a growing number of Jews do commemorate aspects of this holiday, especially among the Orthodox Jewish cohort. I'm not Orthodox (I consider myself Conservative) but I did follow certain traditions such as not eating meat and not wearing new clothing, which is seen as joyous.

The night of Tisha B'Av (because most Jewish holidays begin at sunset the night before), many Jews do go to synagogue but I didn't feel well. However, I did go in the morning to my synagogue and we chanted the morning prayers, read a shortened Torah portion, and then members of the congregation took turns reading the five chapters of the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) which is considered to have been written by the Prophet Jeremiah. We also sang one of the mournful dirges (kinot) called "Eli Tzion." 

Fasting is another part of the holiday, and on a hot summer day, this is the most difficult aspect for me (and for many other people too).

Marking Tisha B'Av in 2021 has been rather painful: Covid variants are on an uptick; anti-Semitic acts have increased within the United States and many parts of the world; 97 people died and many others were wounded or made homeless from the building collapse in Surfside, Florida -- and many were Jewish. So Tisha B'Av seems to pinpoint or even highlight the grief we are dealing with in so many contemporary ways.

I admit that I was feeling angst about Tisha B'Av, and that contributed to my not feeling well enough until the morning, to attend the synagogue service. But I found it comforting to hear people in my community (men and women) sing the chapter poems of Lamentations, and then we joined together to sing the dirge. And per custom, we didn't sit in the regular synagogue pews, but on the floor and on the lower steps leading up to the main stage of the sanctuary.

It's not an easy holiday at all. It's taxing, but it's also reflective and humane. One can read various essays and lectures on the aspects of the holiday. Religion is not always a fun, light-hearted endeavor. Ethnic communal activities such as this holiday can be difficult. 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on July 19, 2021 01:20

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