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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The morning of mourning: the roots of Tisha B'Av

Jewish historian Salo W. Baron once observed that fellow historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) had a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Graetz’s monumental 11-volume History of the Jews recounts the flow of Jewish history as a series of tragedies, calamities, exiles, and pogroms, with trauma the core of Jewish political and social experience in history. I wonder how Graetz experienced Tisha B’Av, the yearly day of mourning on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destructions of the First and Second Temples. Living 18 centuries later, what did the events of 70 C.E. mean to him?

The Mishnah and the Gemara of the Yerushalmi provide a window into the period after 70 C.E. when the trauma is still fresh (perhaps surprisingly so for the Mishnah, which was compiled nearly a century and a half later, and even more surprising for the Gemara, which was written more than two centuries later). Practices for Tisha B’Av have not solidified into a standard set of observances, giving us a glimpse of the shaping of a national observance of an historical event. This is interesting in its own right, but particularly so now as our country is working out how to commemorate 9/11 each year.

Let’s listen in on the conversation. Mishnah tells us:

When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes. In the week during which the Ninth of Av occurs, it is prohibited to get a haircut or wash one’s clothing except on Thursday of that week due to the honor of shabbat. On the eve of the Ninth of Av, a person should not eat two cooked dishes, nor eat meat nor drink wine. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: one should make a change. R. Yehudah [says] it is obligatory to overturn one’s bed, but the Sages did not agree with him. (Ta’anit 4:6; in the Bavli Ta’anit 4:7)

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) includes the same mishnah but without the prelude: “When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes.” This simple statement is ironic. It evokes a similar one pertaining to Purim: “When Adar comes, joy increases.” It sets the tone but beyond the accepted full fast, it apparently does not establish the practices around Tisha B’Av.

The Mishnah addresses what restrictions should be in place in the days leading up to Tisha B’Av. Several elements of mourning practice are stipulated, though we are also told that Shabbat trumps Tisha B’Av with regard to clean clothing. What about food, in particular the pre-fast meal? How elaborate should it be? People are inclined to eat a little more, or perhaps a little better, before a 25-hour fast; the Mishnah seeks to limit that, perhaps because doing so could be construed as actual feasting in the run-up to Tisha B’Av. Just how drastic are these observances? They seem reasonably mild. Yet Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel suggests that we stipulate only that a person should make some change. Is he speaking only to the issue of the pre-fast meal? Or is he speaking more broadly and saying that rather than carving practices in stone, we should leave people to make some meaningful change in their lives during the days before Tisha B’Av? We rarely see in the Mishnah the express suggestion that people be encouraged to observe as they see fit. I’m inclined to see R. Shimon’s statement as a general approach, purposefully contrasting with R. Yehudah’s opinion, which is recounted after that of R. Shimon b. Gamliel. Overturning the bed is was a custom in the case of the death. R. Yehudah’s suggestion goes too far. It is one thing to mourn, quite another to follow customs as if one had himself died.

How does a nation commemorate the yahrzeit of a tragedy? Do we set out rites and rituals, or do we encourage people to observe the anniversary in a way that befits them? If we choose the latter, is it likely that in time all commemoration will fade and disappear? Standardizing practice has an upside and a downside. In the plus column, a consistent set of observances helps assure that the communal memory remains alive and vivid, and the community can cohere around the commemoration. In the minus column, it mandates observances that presume emotions people may not feel; this puts them in the position of pretending to sadness and mourning they may not feel.

The Gemara makes it clear that the amorphous nature of practice related to Tisha B’Av continued well into the third century. Two examples will suffice.

The first example concerns the question of how to handle the situation if Tisha B’Av coincides with shabbat. R. Ba bar Kohen reports in the name of R. Abbahu that all restrictions (discussed in the Mishnah) are lifted for the week before and the week after. R. Yochanan and his student R. Shimon b. Lakish offer differing opinions: one says the week afterward is subject to mourning practices; the other says it is not. We then find this curious comment:

R. Chiyya bar Ba instructed the people of Tzippori [that the week after Tisha B’Av is not subject to restrictions, per the opinion of Resh Lakish], but they refused to accept his ruling.

The people made their own decision in Tziporri, against the instructions of R. Chiyya! Not only that but other communities also made their own choices:

The Southerners (Jerusalemites) applied the prohibitions from the new moon of Av onward. The people of Tzippori applied them for the entire month of Av. The Tiberians applied them for the week [in which Tisha B’Av occurs]. The rabbis of Tiberias reverted and applied them as the rabbis of Tzippori did.

We see considerable variation in practice here. It hasn’t yet gelled. But at least we know that we fast on Tisha B’Av, right? After all, Tisha B’Av means “the ninth of Av.” Yes, but not entirely. This brings us to my second example.

R. Yermiah in the name of R. Chiyya bar Ba: According to strict law they should fast on the tenth of the month [of Av], the day on which the Temple was burned. Why then is the fast on the ninth? Because on that day the punishment began. And so it has been taught: On the seventh of Av [the Romans] entered [the Temple]. On the eighth they battered it down. On the ninth they set fire to it. On the tenth it burned down.

And indeed, different sages advocated fasting on different days:

R. Yehoshua b. Levi fasted on the ninth and on the tenth.
R. Avun fasted on the ninth and on the tenth.
R. Levi fasted on the ninth and on the right prior to the tenth.
R. Ba bar Zabeda said in the name of R. Chanina: Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nas] sought to uproot the ninth of Av but others did not permit him. R. Eleazar said to him: I was with you and that is not what was said. Rather, Rabbi sought to uproot the ninth of Av when it coincided with the Sabbath [i.e. not observe it at all] but they did not permit it. He said: Since it has been postponed [due to shabbat] let it be postponed [until next year]. They said to him: Let it be postponed until the next day [i.e. Sunday].

The conversation between R. Ba bar Zabeda and R. Eleazar is particularly fascinating. The date for fasting, it appears, will ultimately hinge on the opinion of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi but we have disparate reports of what he said. How much of our tradition has been determined by the oral reports of rabbis concerning the opinions of other rabbis, which they may not have remembered entirely or correctly? Here we have an early game of Rabbinic Telephone.

What we see here is the progressive evolution of observances assigned to Tisha B’Av. The rabbis have divergent opinions and practices, even two centuries after the event it commemorates. It’s one thing for an individual or family to establish customs for birthdays, Thanksgiving, observing a yahrzeit, and other dates of personal or familial importance, but quite another for a nation to do so, especially a nation without a strong central authority structure and with no political power.

In the end, R. Shimon b. Gamliel’s opinion that we should change something in our routine is interpreted narrowly as applying only to the pre-fast meal (and yes, even when that meal should be taken is under debate). Not surprising.

I began by asking whether Heinrich Graetz (of the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”) would have loved Tisha B’Av. For Graetz, every turn of the road leads to tragedy. Of course I cannot answer that. Today, how many people are truly mourning the loss of the Temple? As a friend noted to me last year: “I observe Tisha B’Av but I don’t fast. I remember, but I don’t mourn.” I can appreciate that perspective. It may be the case that I am not directly affected by the events of 70 C.E. — or at least that I don’t recognize any effect — but the events have dramatically affected the Jewish community then and now. That makes them worthy of recognition. That is why Yom haShoah — commemorated this coming Sunday, April 7, 2013 — is now a fixed date on our calendars, and services of remembrance will take place in communities around the globe.

There is one thing that lingers in my mind. Graetz could have defended his “lachrymose” view of Jewish history by citing the proliferation of fast days on our calendar. In addition to the two full fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, there are the daytime fasts of Esther, Gedalia, the firstborn (preceding Pesach), the 17th of Tammuz, the 7th of Adar, the 10th of Tevet, and for the Kabbalists of Tzfat, Yom Kippur Katan — the day preceding every Rosh Chodesh throughout the year. If I haven’t missed any, that’s 20 fast days in a single year. Perhaps a good diet plan, but is this proliferation of mourning good for us? Here again, I turn to Salo Baron, who observed in 1975, "Suffering is part of the destiny [of the Jew people], but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption." Perhaps it’s time to shift the balance and conflate these fasts into three days: Yom Kippur (our personal spiritual fast), Tisha B’Av (a sea change in our national history), and Yom haShoah (an unprecedented genocide in the history of humankind, and one that still touches us two generations later). I am fully aware that will not happen. Rather, what happens is that many Jews simply do not observe the minor fast days because there are too many of them and the events they commemorate no longer hold meaning for them. That, too, is part of the evolution of national practice. We’re still working it out.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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