The darkest day of the year on the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av – is dedicated to commemorating loss and devastation. The occasion marks the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples, as well as other tragedies that have been suffered by the Jewish people. Traditionally, it’s a time to remember and mourn those events, observed by abstinence, fasting, and lament.
On this day in Jewish history, the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second temple destroyed by Romans in 70 C.E., each time wiping out the Jewish state. Tisha B’Av came to be the Jewish day of mourning, a day many believed destined for tragedy. In centuries to follow, other calamities occurred in connection with this date, including the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in 1942.*
Still, it is not a day without aspiration. For many Jewish leaders, scholars and practitioners, there is a glimmer of hope in the observation of Tisha B’Av.
Dr. Irving Greenberg, former president of the National Jewish Resource Center, writing for The Jewish Exponent in 1982** noted the spirit of faith and perseverance also encompassed on the day of mourning:
Yet what an incredible statement of Jewish life Tisha B’Av is.
Most people blot out their defeats and celebrate their victories. No one likes to remember disaster. But on this day, for 1900 years, Jews gathered in synagogues, took off the curtain of the Ark, dimmed the lights, sat on the floor, told the story of destruction and wept bitterly and inconsolably. Those bitter tears kept alive the memory of Paradise Lost – Israel.
No matter what pleasure or acceptance the local people or culture offered, Jews relived the loss of Jerusalem and stayed in exile psychologically. Yet they never yielded to despair – “On Tisha B’Av, the Messiah is born,” taught the rabbis. The day of greatest tragedy will be the day of greatest joy...
In this day is the secret of Jewish survival – faithfulness beyond death, refusal to accommodate beyond reason, hope beyond normalcy. If one day made possible the incredible miracle of Israel reborn, it was this day – and for this reason alone – it should be treasured and observed.
When the first Jews in Warsaw ghettos were transported to extermination camps in 1942, renowned Jewish writer and editor Harold Ribalow shared his thoughts in The Jewish Exponent** on Tisha B’Av:
...This Tisha B’Av is fraught with tension, packed with fear, bundled in hope. Jews the world over remember that there is a date in Jewish history which – through some perverse destiny – always turns up the black card of fate. What shall be the fate of the Jews this year? The potentialities are known to all who read the headlines and study the details of warfare which has burst out in flame along the coasts of the lands of the world. There is little need to harp on the possibilities. Let us revive the ancient archives and see what can be learned...
When the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years and then sent spies into Canaan, men who came back and wailed that the land could not be conquered by the Jews, the news was brought by the spies on the ninth day of Av (the date of Tisha B’av in the Jewish calendar). In 1492, when the Spaniards decided to expel the Jews, the edict of expulsion came about on Tisha B’Av.
And so the Jewish people, beaten from all corners, took to one of the ancient customs. They instituted a fast. To this day, Tisha B’Av is marked by Orthodox Jews as a fast day. The custom is said by some to be disappearing. The spirit is however strong in Jewish hearts...
The day of defeats, recognized and acknowledged, must not be harped on. The future must not have any more events to fit into the Tisha B’Av’s pattern of lamentation...
...[A] new world beckons and it is to be hoped that Lamentations and the stories of ineffectuality and cruelty which commemorate Tisha B’Av become less potent and less alive in the Jewish mind. For with the forcing down of sad days, bright years shall yet appear.
* Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of 53,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies.
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** Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.