Written by Elisheva Baskin
Tisha b’Av, the ninth day in the Hebrew calendar month of Av, is Judaism’s “dark day.” Ironically, it comes in mid- to end of the summer, when the days are long and the sun shines bright. This makes the matter of fasting, not drinking liquids, and not bathing as especially difficult (3 out of 5 of the traditional restrictions of the day). But when we say “dark day,” it refers not the season but to the emotional implications of the day.
Judaism has multiple fast days, but Tisha b’Av occupies an odd place in the spectrum. It is not a holiday of introspective reverence and self-reflection that we reserve for Yom Kippur; and it is not a minor fast day that only requires abstaining from food or drink like the Fast of Esther. What accounts for its strange, in-between status? What did the rabbis intend for the day to mean when they established its rules?
In Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lord is Righteous in all His Ways: Reflections on the Tisha b’Av Kinot, he says, “Tisha b’Av is a retrospective re-experience and reliving of events it commemorates, appreciating its meaning in Jewish history and particularly the consequences and results of the catastrophe that struck us so many years ago that it commemorates.” Tisha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, among other tragic events in Jewish history. But, this explanation does not account for why it is traditionally more restrictive than most other fasts.
Ok, I understand not eating or drinking—although it is rough in the summer heat—but not bathing, engaging in sexual relations, or wearing leather shoes are extra restrictions not found in any other fast day except Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur.
The reason we abstain from those last three restrictions is because they are signs of mourning. When someone loses a family member or spouse, Jewish tradition states that during the week of shiva, a mourner abstains from these practices as a way of withdrawing from society.
Tisha b’Av is a day of communal mourning. We mourn the loss of a central place to gather, worship and express ourselves. We are not withdrawing from society, but rather mourning the loss of what we once had as a society. Since the centrality of the Temple worship is no longer the focus of Jewish practice, we are in a sense mourning the presence of a central, communal institution which none of us have ever experienced ourselves.
Tonight and tomorrow, we gather again to mourn on Tisha b’Av, sitting low on the ground and listening to Lamentations being read. Like mourners, we cannot bathe, and so an immersion into a Mikveh is not for this day. Perhaps the day after Tisha b’Av, in the afternoon, a dip in the Mikveh could serve as a transition from reliving the pain and communal suffering into a new path of Jewish experiences, hopefully ones which bring us out of the dark day of Judaism and into a more unified and brighter future.
Elisheva Baskin is an intern this summer with Mayyim Hayyim. Last May, she completed a B.A. in Sociology and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) from Brandeis University. Next fall, she will continue her studies at Brandeis by pursuing a Master’s degree in NEJS.