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Observing an Obscure Holiday

Ellen Levitt

Posted on July 22, 2018 21:04

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Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av, is one of the more obscure holidays in the Jewish calendar. What is this holiday about? Why is it barely known? How does it fit into the modern, secular world?

There are major holidays and obscure, hardly known holidays. Many obscure holidays are meant to promote a particular food or profession or hobby (cheese, librarians, stamp collecting, etc.) Some obscure, lesser known holidays are of a historical nature, for instance, Flag Day in the United States, celebrated on June 14. New York City has the hardly known public school holiday of Anniversary Day (aka Brooklyn-Queens Day, originated in 1829). 

Religions have their obscurer days of observance as well. Roman Catholics acknowledge saints on various days, and some people celebrate on the day of the saint for whom they are named. Muslims observe Laylat al-Qadr, Night of Decree, which is not well-recognized outside of those who of the faith. 

Judaism has hardly known holidays as well, and perhaps the most significant of these is Tisha B'Av, the ninth of the month Av. Classified as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar because it commemorates catastrophes in the history of the Jewish people, it is observed primarily by Orthodox Jews and some less observant Jews as well.

This holiday falls in July or August in the secular calendar, and due to its austere and starkly somber nature, it is not one of the holidays that is best known in the Jewish canon, such as Hanukkah, Passover or Rosh HaShanah. It does not have a "fun" side nor joyful traditions, but it has an emotional impact and a cerebral, pensive message.

This year the holiday was observed on Saturday night, July 21 and Sunday, July 22 during most of the day. (In fact, this year it was actually observed on the Tenth of Av because the Ninth of Av fell on a Saturday.) For this holiday the Book of Lamentations is read aloud in the evening, a five chapter Old Testament book that is usually credited to the prophet Jeremiah. Dirge-like prayers called "kinot" are chanted, and other prayers are added to (and a few left out from) the daily prayer services. There are personal-care prohibitions for the holiday, particularly fasting, not wearing leather shoes or new clothing, not bathing or wearing perfumes and other mournful practices. 

What does the Ninth of Av (or Ab, as written by some) signify? It mourns the destruction of the ancient First and Second Temples, as well as other unhappy events mentioned in the Torah, and others in world history (the First Crusade, expulsions of Jewish people from certain European nations, the start of World War I, etc.). It is not an "easy" holiday, especially in the summer when people typically expect to have light-hearted fun and engage in frivolous activities. Exile, pain and woe are explored in depth on this day; the general feeling is of "Terror and the pit are come upon us, desolation and destruction" (Lamentations 3:47).

The day resonates with today's world of bitter news stories, societal conflict, environmental problems, economic and financial uncertainty, and more. It is a tough reality check in the summertime.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on July 22, 2018 21:04

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