Friday, July 16, 2010

Oy, is this gonna be a really bad day!

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we explore the saddest day in the Jewish year.

Judaism is a religion of holidays, observances and rituals. A few of the holidays – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover, for instance – are observed by many, ignored by many more. But they remain part of the fabric of the community, special days that continue to bring joy, comfort and meaning to the faithful and a sense of identity to others.

Lesser known holidays – Lag B’Omer, Tu B’shevat, Shmini Atzeret – don’t even register on the spiritual radar of most Jews, many who will fast on Yom Kippur, attend a Seder on Passover and exchange gifts on Hanukkah.

I mention all this to explain why the vast majority of Jews won’t be fasting this Monday and Tuesday, ignoring the Jewish Holiday of Tisha B’Av, arguably the saddest day in Jewish history. Despite its historical significance, the day – which begins at sunset Monday – has become just another tongue-twisting trivia question that offers little meaning in a modern world moving at the speed of light.

At least that’s the view of many. The faithful, meanwhile, continue paying attention to the lessons offered by this memorable day – the name literally means the 9th day (of the Hebrew month) of Av.

Why so bleak? It was on this very day in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews sent into Babylonian exile. Centuries later in 70 CE, once again on the 9th of Av, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, this time scattering the remnants of the Jewish people in many directions – Europe and Asia, others spilling around the southern fringes of the Mediterranean and deep into Africa.

There are other bits of disturbing darkness associated with Tisha B’Av – Simon bar Kokhba, thought by some to be the Messiah and the commander of Jewish troops in revolt against Imperial Rome, was killed on this day in 135 CE; Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av in 1290 and from Spain in 1492; On Aug. 1, 1914 (that’s right, Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew Calendar), Germany declared war on Russia; 27 years later, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Nazis began deporting Jews to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The actual biblical link to the day can be found in the Book of Numbers. Turns out the 12 spies sent by Moses to check out the land of Canaan returned on, yep, Tisha B’Av, ten of them delivering really bad news about the “Promised Land” that was supposed to be dripping with milk and honey.

The Children of Israel panicked and G-d, we’re told, wasn’t amused by their lack of faith. He (forgive my falling into anthropomorphism) decreed that forever more this date would become one of crying and misfortune for their descendants, the Jewish people.

For all these reasons, and many of a less cosmic and more subtle nature, observant Jews today fast on Tisha B’Av – beginning at sunset on the eve of the holiday and continuing for 25 hours. The really observant also don’t bathe, wear any sort of leather – such products are associated with living the good life – and abstain from sexual relations. Additionally, the really, really observant practice a few rituals – sitting on low stools, refraining from work – linked to sitting shiva, the traditional period of mourning for Jews following the death of a close relative.

Services are held in synagogues, somber affairs that feature the reading of the Book of Lamentations, followed by the kinnot, a series of liturgical lamentations. If the day’s darkness has yet to take hold, in Sephardic communities – for those who need to ask, trust me, you don’t need to know – it is also customary to read the book of Job.

Rabbis and others can offer up appropriate texts from the Torah and Talmud to explain the ongoing importance of recalling all this bleakness. I offer only one small thought, an artistic angle on this day of wailing.

To appreciate light, it’s often necessary to focus on darkness. It’s an aesthetic device that artists have understood and used for centuries to highlight their works of art. It’s an idea that also has merit, I think, when considering the nature of life.

MAN OF G-D: The prophet Jeremiah (illustration above), traditionally named as the author of the Book of Lamentations, wails in anguish following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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