General Jewish Spirituality

Finding meaning in Tisha B'Av

The middle of the summer tends to be a bit of dead time in the Jewish year-cycle. Synagogues tend to be emptier, rabbis tend to be on vacation, and this “holiday”, Tisha B’Av, shows up. Tisha B’Av is not so much a holiday as a commemoration–a remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. It is a day of mourning on which Jews traditional fast and read the biblical book of Lamentations. Not a fun, happy, joyous holiday, and often ignored.

Part of the reason so many of us are inclined to ignore Tisha B’Av is that it is mourning something we don’t particularly miss: a Judaism which focused almost exclusively around sacrifices offered at a central Temple in Jerusalem maintained by a hereditary priesthood. This was  a Judaism which was far more carnal than that practiced today. While some of the sacrifices were baskets of fruit or grain, many of them were sheep, goats, birds or cattle. Blood was shed, sprinkled, drained, and depending on the type of the sacrifice, varying amounts of the animal were burned entirely, and in most cases some was assigned as food for the priestly caste, while some amount was returned to the individual offering the sacrifice for a barbeque. This was not a religion built around individual or communal prayers, home rituals and the like, but rather was a big, noisy, messy (though communal) religion. It’s hard to get truly nostalgic for that time and way of doing things, at least for most of us.

So how do we understand Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the end of this style of Judaism, the destruction of the Temples, which is supposed to be mournful, but most of us probably see as a step forward? I want to suggest that we think less about the destruction of the Temple, per se, and instead think of the Jews of that time period, and what it must have felt like to have had their entire religious structure come crashing down upon them. The Jews of the time did not have the option, when the Temple was destroyed, of heading to the temple in the next town to continue their religious practice in more or less the same way. Their entire understanding of what it meant to be a Jew, to worship the Divine, had to undergo a massive transformation.

I cannot imagine what would be a parallel shock to us today. Perhaps if suddenly God were to speak to all of humanity as we are told happened to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai? Sure, we believe in God as a “force of nature,” or perhaps the underlying principle of the universe, or as that entity whose very existence encompasses our existences, but how many of us believe in a Deity that can speak through a mouth of its (or I suppose, in this case I should say “his”) own? What if we were to be told that all those specific rules in the Torah were not metaphors, not humanity’s attempt to interpret their understanding of Divine or natural law, but were rather the literal word of God? What would it mean to us in terms of our understanding of the world? What would it mean in terms of our understanding of Judaism?

I think we would be left without any sense of comfort from the Judaism we had practiced–indeed, I think that Judasim would cease to be workable for us. Everything we had done all of our lives would be wrong. We would need to redefine Judaism from scratch.

Clearly, I don’t believe that this will happen, or that this is the nature of Divinity. I believe that contemporary Judaism is true and valid (though not with an exclusive monopoly on truth). But by imagining what would happen if we were so very wrong, we begin to understand what it must have been like when Judaism changed from a single centralized sacrificial religion to the home and synagogue based religion we practice today.

We begin to have an understanding, perhaps, of the bravery of those individuals who were able to carry on, to envision a new form of Judaism, despite the crushing destruction not only of their worldview, but also of their country and people. We may remember with honor those who picked up the pieces and continued on after the destruction of the Temple. Often we recall those who barricaded themselves in Massada following the destruction of the Temple and chose to die there; Tisha B’Av calls us to remember those who chose the harder path…those who lived through the destruction and created a new way of belief, a new way of life, that allows us to continue to affirm ourselves as Jews 1,935 years later. That is something that I feel called to honor, called to remember.

Let us mourn for the pain of those who lost their religion, their country, and in all too many cases, family members in the destruction, but who have left us a legacy that lets us continue to declare our Judaism in a meaningful way today.

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown on August 2, 2006 and continues until sundown of August 3rd. For more information on Tisha B’Av, see

Edit (8/06/2008): For my post about Tisha B’Av for 2008, see here.

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