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


All Talmudic references come from the Vilna edition of the Yerushalmi, Ta'anit 25b-26a

I recall when, as a young rabbi, I first encountered a college student who did not remember the assassination of President Kennedy. For that student November 22, 1963 was just another day. For me it was a pivotal event in American history. How could anyone be oblivious to it? I remember expressing my incredulity to a friend, a slightly older woman who worked as an administrator on campus. She said she often feels the same shock when she realizes the person she is speaking with cannot recall the end of the Korean War, a day which shaped her in her youth. I had received my comeuppance and my answer. Time moves on. One generation remembers and reacts differently that the one before.

It is true even of cataclysmic events. Consider Pearl Harbor or even 9/11. As events move from our experience into memory, perhaps into ritual and finally into history, their significance changes.

Our passage in Yerushalmi Ta'anit reflects this inevitable movement. How does one continue to observe the 9th of Av, 70 CE, the date on which the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? Then, as now, the 9th of Av was an important fast day and none of the Sages question that status. Their questions seem to be on more inconsequential matters, but we shall see that their responses in the text reflect different ways in which the memory finds expression in ritual.

The first instance concerns a young man asking a woman to marry him.
Rabbi Ba bar Kohen said before Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Jacob bar Idi: It is forbidden to betroth a woman of Friday.
The concern is that the celebration of the engagement will spill over into Shabbat, though if you knew it could be contained there was no prohibition of asking such a question on Friday.
Samuel said: Even on the 9th of Av one should betroth a woman, so that someone else will not marry her first.
Yes, there is a solemn fast going on to mark the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. But for Samuel, who lived in 4th century Babylonia, it takes second place in the unlikely event that you have a sudden and urgent need to ask a woman for her hand in marriage. You would not want someone else to swoop in and ask her first. He assumes that the couple's happiness would not soil the communal sorrow.

The gemara moves on to discuss the Mishnah's prohibition on washing clothes or getting a haircut during the week that includes the 9th of Av. The exception is Thursday when you may wash clothes and get a haircut in preparation for Shabbat. (M. Ta'anit 4:6) These signs of personal mourning migrated into the communal mourning for the Temple. The implicit question concerns how many days are impacted by the observance of the fast for the 9th of Av.

Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish, who both lived in the Land of Israel during the 2nd and 3rd century CE, debate whether the week following the 9th of Av is subject to these same restrictions. Yohanan says yes; ben Laquish, no. They do not question the position taken by the Mishnah that the terrible events of the 9th of Av are such that one prepares in advance for the fast, but they want to know if the restrictions extend into a second week after the event. Just how large does this loom in our lives?

Unsure how to resolve this stand-off the gemara asks what Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish did.
R. Isaac b. Eleazar, “When the ninth of Ab had ended, he made an announcement. and they opened the barber shops, and whoever wanted went and got a haircut.”
Apparently it all happened smoothly. People just got on with their life.

Or not.

The gemara records a division of the house, as it were.
The Southerners (I presume those in Jerusalem) applied the prohibitions from the new moon of Ab onward.
The Sepphoreans applied them for the entire month of Ab.
The Tiberians applied them for the week [in which the ninth of Ab occurred].
The rabbis of Tiberias reverted and applied them as did the rabbis of Sepphoris.
Different communities behaved differently. We are offered no insight into the process that resulted in these differences. Was one community more intimately impacted by the events than the other? But surely the Southerners, even if I am wrong about identifying them with Jerusalem, were closest to the destruction. Were their social or political implications? Were they just trying to be more pious than one another? There is no way to know. What is clear is that more than a century after the destruction, communities were still trying to figure out how deep an impact the destruction of the Temple should have on their observance.

The divisions went even deeper. Individual sages differed on how long the fast should last. The division grew from the traditions about the destruction of the Temple.
On the seventh of Ab they entered it. On the eighth they battered it down, on the ninth they set fire to it, and on the tenth it burned down.
Rabbi Jeremiah taught that the fast should actually be on the 10th, the day the destruction was complete. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Abun observed both the 9th and the 10th. Rabbi Levi observed the 9th and the evening of the 10th. Here we gain a slight insight into the reasons behind the divisions – do we mark the beginning of the conflagration that destroyed the Temple, the day when the destruction was final or some combination of both. But we might wish for more.

The Talmud preserves the differences, but it does not dictate which point of view wins. We learn that between communities and between sages there was a difference of opinion about how to move forward and preserve this memory for the generations to come.

Why should we care? After all, we know the outcome. The rituals of Tisha B'Av are well established on our day. I believe the lesson is more subtle. It is not about the outcome, nor even about the process. If we knew all of the reasoning behind each opinion it might not illuminate the final result.

I believe it is about mourning. Grand public losses stir us in different ways. The death of President Kennedy (and, yes, the end of the Korean War) made deep impressions on the people who experienced those moments. We still feel those effects decades later. Similarly we feel the destruction of the Holy Temple still, despite the centuries that have passed. The remaining wall of the Temple retains its holiness. But mourning takes its place alongside other events in our lives. The intensity of the moment finds its expression not as a singular event, but as one of many in the life of a person, or the life of a people.

The full effect of a trauma – personal or national – takes time to settle in, to find its level. In the meantime there will be differences in the ways people register their sadness, their grief. One can only hope for patience as the process works its way out.