Two Israels on Tisha B’Av

Published on Haaretz

While Israel’s Orthodox community plunges into mourning tonight and tomorrow for the Jewish fast day of the 9th of Av, the country’s secular majority doesn’t relate to what’s seen as an irrelevant, vestigial commemoration.

Tisha B’Av, like every other issue in Israel, has taken a back seat to the fighting in Gaza. This year it is colored by our sadness over the personal hurban, or devastation, for the families of soldiers and civilians killed in our war with Hamas. But most years, the secular public and Orthodox and traditional Israeli Jews live in parallel universes for the three-week period of semi-mourning leading from the 17th of Tammuz, 70 CE when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, to the 9th of Av , when both the first (in 587 BCE) and second Temples (in 70 CE) were destroyed.

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In the Orthodox world, the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av, is not just another historical commemoration; its remembrance takes significant form in terms of everyday life. Religious radio stations and the weekly Shabbat newsletters distributed at synagogues debate the destruction and reconstruction of the Temple, the meaning of the three weeks, the nine days, and the Ninth of Av itself. Eating meat is forsaken during the last nine days, except on Shabbat, and music is avoided for the entire three weeks since both are considered signs of celebration. No weddings are scheduled, and men don’t shave, one of Judaism’s more visible mourning customs, and will continue to refrain for an extra 15 hours past Tisha B’Av, because the Temple burned until noon of the day after its destruction. Kinot – prayers of lamentation written over the centuries – are included in the daily service.

Immediately after Tisha B’Av, many yeshivas go on break until the end of the month, and Orthodox Israelis schedule their summer vacations to begin after Tisha B’Av.
On Tisha B’Av itself, young religious men camp out at the Western Wall, huddled in small circles in the inner concourse adjacent to the Wall; they sit on the ground, another mourning custom, and read of the first Temple’s destruction, or study Aggadot Hahurban, the section of the Talmudic tractate Gittin, which deals with the Temple’s demise. Some stay all night, dozing in their sleeping bags, as if guarding the Temple’s last supporting wall against another Tisha B’Av disaster.

In the parallel Israeli reality, most non-Orthodox or non-traditional Israeli Jews do not mark Tisha B’Av in any way. Those more engaged with Judaism might read a newspaper column, or watch a panel of rabbis or secular culture mavens on television discussing the meaning of the day for our time, but most will do nothing. Kosher restaurants and cafes shut their doors, but there are plenty of others that stay open, and they fill up just as on every other stifling summer evening.

I cannot say how many Orthodox Jews cry for the Temples, but its loss is on their minds in a way that does not register for the secular public. To most secular Israelis I know, Tisha B’Av seems a vestigial organ; it may have had a function in an earlier stage of our evolution, but today seems irrelevant. The claim that so many tragedies coincidentally fell on the same day of the year – the negative report back from the Biblical spies about the land of Canaan, the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome in Betar in 132 CE, the start of the First Crusade, the expulsions from Spain, England and France – invites ridicule (although the outbreak of World War I on Tisha B’Av exactly 100 years ago is well documented). But most secular Israelis don’t get broken up because of the end of the Temple period and of sacrificing live animals to God, or because Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel two millennia ago or expelled from Spain 500 years ago. It hardly seems worth a killer fast during the worst heat of the year, not to mention three weeks of graduated deprivation.

In part, the rejection of Tisha B’Av comes from a confusion of categories. The telescoping of multiple calamities into one day is not meant to express journalistic or historical accuracy; the rabbis did not necessarily believe that every event commemorated really took place on the ninth of Av (although the literal-minded may dispute this). It likely was intended to prevent Jews from wallowing too much in what historian Max Dimont termed “the vale of tears of anti-Semitism” by confining public mourning to one solemn day, and to reverse the proliferation of commemoration days for tragic attacks on Jewish communities spreading throughout the year.

So perhaps one reason for secular Israelis’ estrangement from Tisha B’Av is not so distant from rabbinic thinking; with Holocaust Day and Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, many non-Orthodox Jews feel there is enough officially mandated sadness in our calendar.

The connection to the Jewish calendar for many secular Jews is so rooted in Israeli school instruction and its calendar that Tisha B’Av falling during the long summer break partly explains its absence from the secular mindset. Menachem Begin’s proposal to collapse Yom HaShoah into Tisha B’Av was abandoned for this very reason; schools would not be available to buttress Holocaust instruction. We see the counter-example in the U.S.; as the only special Jewish day that takes place during the summer, Tisha B’Av has become a valued platform for educators in Jewish and Zionist summer camps.

Even after the decades I have lived here, I still find the alienation of so many Israelis from Tisha B’Av striking, considering how many secular Israelis know first-hand or from family stories the hardest aspects of the experience of the Jewish people in the diaspora. How we mark Tisha B’Av needs to adjust to the new historical era following the establishment of Israel and the end of exile – but between secular indifference and Orthodox conformity means any agreed or official or even grassroots change seems unlikely.

Israel’s chief rabbis have ruled that soldiers in the field are exempt from fasting this year, enabling thousands of Orthodox and traditional soldiers to be at their most alert as they battle both a brutal enemy and the August heat. Jewish solidarity in Israel and abroad seems remarkably strong now during this time of war, largely free of the usual “sinat hinam,” the baseless hatred among different Jewish factions which the rabbis put forward as one of the causes of the destruction of the Temples. Let us hope we can maintain this sense of unity after our fighting and mourning come to an end.

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