Unlike other Jewish "holy days," Tisha B'av does not prohibit "working" or doing the various things that are normally prohibited on Shabbat. But it is a day of mourning, fasting and many other prohibitions.
I thought I would write a few of my own reflections on the day and how I observed it this year.
I didn't grow up in a home that observed Tisha B'Av. After my Bar-Mitzvah, I began to take an interest in the various holy days in the Jewish calendar, especially some of the ones that our family did not observe. We had always observed the major holidays - Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and the "minor" holidays of Chanukah and Purim. But we were less observant of others. On a USY trip to Israel in 1982, our group observed Tisha B'Av fully and since then, more or less, I have been observing the holy day, though not necessarily in the strictest and most traditional way.
The holy day, like all Jewish holy days begins the night before, just before sunset. We eat a pre-fast meal before sunset and try to drink a reasonable amount of water. Those who observe Tisha B'Av traditionally do not eat meat (or chicken) for nine days before the holy day other than on Shabbat. So normally, the meal before the fast is vegetarian - often lentil soup, a hard boiled egg, some vegetables and other vegetarian food. Although spicy food is not normally recommended before a fast, we had lots of homemade Indian food left over from Shabbat and most of it was vegetarian. So I wound up having a pre-fast home cooked Indian buffet. It worked out fine. After that, of course, it would be no food or water for about 26 hours.
I debated going to religious services in person in the evening but decided to join my shul's Zoom service. The evening service ("Maariv") includes the reading of the book of Lamentations (Eichah) one of the five Megilloth (scrolls) that are part of the collection of Jewish holy books. After that, we had a study session discussing the classic Jewish commentators' explanation of why the temples were destroyed. Our presenter (thanks Shoshana) selected five different parables from our sources to provide the answer. And the answer, in short, is..."intra-community baseless hatred." Yes, that is the traditional answer to the Jewish question of these horrible tragedies. How do we reconcile the concept of an omni-benevolent, omni-powerful, omi-present and omni-prescient God with such terrible suffering? For the destruction of these two great Temples and the societies that housed them, our sages have concluded that the answer was "baseless hatred" among the Jews - the hatred of one another which destroyed the fabric of our society internally and led to destruction. This internal strife led to our demise, the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and our exile from the land of Israel (for almost 2,000 years) - in short, a very severe punishment.
Yet, I, for one, have never really found this answer satisfying. Can we really blame ourselves for being invaded and conquered by a foreign army, much stronger than us? Is that what consoles us and causes us to renew our faith in God - that essentially, "we deserved it?" I find that hard to take and not very persuasive. Our Rabbis will argue that this answer compels us to try and act more appropriately with one another - that it is a challenge to our behaviour that demands ongoing vigilence and response. That may be something worth striving for, certainly, but it does not seem to explain or excuse these events, certainly not to me. Nevertheless, in the spirit of inquiry, we raise these questions and argue about them over this time period. Jewish holy days are always filled with topics to question, discuss and argue about.
So after the Synagogue study session, we decided to check out some of the Tisha B'Av programming on Israeli TV. Now this is probably not something that many of traditional Tisha B'Av observers would do, even though the use of electricity is not strictly prohibited on Tisha B'Av, but there were some really fantastic programs on that wrestled with many of these issues. Indeed one of the big advantages of being in Israel on any day of importance on the Jewish calendar is releavant and interesting tv programming.
Of the many different choices, we chose a program on Israeli channel 11 called "Question and Answer." The program was an eight-part series - each episode involving a dialogue between two people. In each case, one of the people was a person who was born and raised in a very religious (observant) family and later became secular. These people are known in Israel as people who "returned to a life of questioning" (from the Hebrew "Hozer l'sheilah"). The other person in each episode was a person who was raised secular and later become religious, known in Israel as a person who "returned to the answers" (from the Hebrew "Hozer b'Tshuvah"). The idea was to match people up who would make for interesting conversations with some shared interests - and then to hold animated but respectful conversations of about 45 minutes. In these discussions, the participants wrestled with their life stories, their change from one religious viewpoint to another - and various texts, sources, poems and songs that inspired them, while contrasting the conclusions that they arrived at with those of their co-participant. The series was created as a Tisha B'Av series - to bring people together with different viewpoints but to overcome "baseless hatred" and find some common ground. In many of the episodes, this worked out quite nicely. This is the link to all of the episodes but it is in Hebrew and I am not sure that a translation is available yet. We have watched 6 of the 8 episodes and really enjoyed it.
Some of the participants are very well known. For example, one episode featured the author Yochi Brandeis, who is a Torah and Talmud scholar who grew up in a very observant home but is now no longer a "halachic" Jew. She writes fictional novels based on characters of the Bible. I should say that she sometimes attends our shul Hod VeHadar in Kfar Saba. She was matched up with an author who had grown up secular but was now a member of the Breslev Ultra-Orthodox community. Another episode featured Rabbi Kalman Samuels, who grew up as a secular Jew in Vancouver, Canada. He came to Israel, became observant and eventually founded "Shalva" an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities in Israel. As an educator, Rabbi Samuels was paired up with another educator, the principal of a secular high school in Israel, who had grown up in a very observant family but become secular.
This was not the kind of TV program that one sees every day. It was quite philosophical, with lots of food for thought, even on a fast day where eating is prohibited. After most of the episodes, I thought that I woud really enjoy sitting and chatting with one or both of the participants. Through the various episodes, there was lots of discussion on some of the most challenging theological issues. For example, how do observant Jews deal with and explain tragedy and disaster? Of course no one had any conclusive answers to this question but the exchanges were fascinating. A very relevant question of course, especially on Tisha B'Av.
One episode featured quite a bit of dialogue about the role of women in observant Jewish life, especially Orthodox Judaism versus the secular life that one of the women moved to - and the other abandoned. This was probably one of the common themes, even in episodes that involved discussions between two men - the different approaches to women and women's rights between the "observant" and the "secular" and what effect that had on the lives of each of the participants. No one, ultimately, had any answers to these questions but the discussions were very thought provoking. I will leave this topic for another blog.
Although the series was called "question and answer," I would not say that it set out to provide any "answers." The main purpose was to bring people together, explore differences and watch them leave the discussion room together recognizing that people can have differences but still live together in the same country, work things out and respect each other. A very important lesson these days, not only in Israel with its intense and gaping political chasm but of course in many other countries as well.
Tisha B'Av morning services are a bit different than other Jewish holy day services. Since it is not considered a "Yom Tov," it is a day where observant Jews put on Tefillin and a Tallit. But since it is such a sad day, and we are occupied with mourning, we do not put these on in the morning (like most other days - other than Shabbat and holy days). Instead, we sit on the floor, in the dark and read "kinot" at the morning services, which are essentially sad poems, written throughout the centuries, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in different ways.