These words will reach you during the nine days that lead to the fast on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples and many other tragedies of Jewish history. It is traditionally a complete fast—from sunset until sunset—with Yom Kippur the only other such fast day in the Jewish calendar. There is a Hasidic teaching that no halakhah concerning fasting on these days is needed, for “on the black fast of Tish’ah Be’Av, who could eat, and on the white fast of Yom Kippur, who needs to eat?”
The rituals of Tish’ah Be’Av guide us not merely into an understanding of destruction and mourning, but into a living emotional encounter and experience. The book of Lamentations opens with the onomatopoeic word “Eicha!”—a primal sound of utter despair and grief. It is the sound uttered by David as he hears of the death of his beloved Jonathan and Jonathan’s father, King Saul: “Eich! Naflu gibborim” (Aaach! How have the mighty fallen; II Sam. 1:27). The melodies of Tish’ah Be’Av are primal and haunting: the melodies of tears and desolation, the sounds of yearning for a world destroyed that will not return, and melodies that give soul to the kinot, the poems of lamentation and grief.
Tish’ah Be’Av recalls events that are historical, but it is not a day of history. Tish’ah Be’Av is an encounter with our history. We are increasingly conscious that Jewish history is far from an unfolding series of tragedies: there are many epochs of security and substance, with great flowerings of Jewish culture and learning. So perhaps it is fitting to invest this day each year with the memories of destruction. We recall not only the destruction of the Temples, but also the exile from Spain, and there are those (including my teacher Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs [z”l]) who suggest that the Shoah might be most fittingly commemorated on this day.
The poem Eli Tsiyon (Weep O Zion) is well known throughout Ashkenazi communities, and has a melody that has become the leitmotif for Tish’ah Be’Av. The liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese communities includes a haunting poem called Aleichem Eidah Kedoshah (To you O holy Congregation I would ask these questions) with a refrain that echoes a different time: “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot”(Why is this night different from all other nights?). There is a poignant irony in this question of the lavishness of seder night being reprised on the night of the black fast. And yet, Tish’ah Be’Av is a powerful night, a time of learning and yearning, a time to ask questions.
May our journey into the memories of sorrow deepen the breadth of our lives, our understanding of our history, and our commitment to the future.
A lovely setting of Eli Tsiyon can be heard here. The text of the Iberian poem can be found in Hebrew here, and can be heard here, chanted by Hazzan Halfon Bengarroch of London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue.