Av 9, 5781
July 17-18, 2021
Begins after sundown July 17, ends after sundown July 18.
Book of Lamentations
Jeremiah 8:13 – 9:23
Exodus 32:11-14, 34:1-10
Isaiah 55:6 – 56:8
Thus saith the L-RD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah for joy and for gladness, and for appointed times of good things; therefore love the truth and peace.
The Three Weeks: 17th Tammuz to 9th Av
In the Jewish calendar, there are certain times of the year which carry a specific ‘theme’. In the summer months of Tammuz and Av (the fourth and fifth months in the Hebrew calendar), there is a three-week period during which the predominant theme is mourning and sorrow. The customs of mourning are of ancient origin, and are mentioned as current and proper practices in the Bible (Zech. 7-8).
The period of the Three Weeks begins with the fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (which falls this year on June 27). From sun-up to sundown, no eating or drinking takes place. (Exceptions to this: if you are a pregnant or nursing mother, or if you have a medical need to eat, you should not fast. Children below the age of thirteen should not fast.) The reason for the fast is a series of calamities which have come upon the Jewish people through the centuries on the 17th of Tammuz:
• It was on the 17th of Tammuz that the sin of the golden calf took place at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the first set of stone tablets were destroyed as a result (Exodus 19:1, 24:16,18, 32:1-35).
• On the 17th of Tammuz, according to tradition, a graven image was placed in the Sanctuary of the First Temple (this likely occurred during the reign of a wicked king).
• During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (c. 586 BCE), the city walls were breached on the 9th of the month of Tammuz (Jer. 39:2), and the daily continual-offering ceased on the 17th. Centuries later, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem (c. 70 CE), the walls were breached on the 17th of Tammuz itself.
• On the 17th of Tammuz, according to tradition, a Torah scroll was publicly burned by the Roman general Apostamos, just prior to the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple.
Aside from these, there have been other disasters which have befallen the Jewish people on the 17th of Tammuz or during the three weeks that follow it. We refer to this period of the year as a time when we are “between the straits” (Lamentations 1:3), or in more modern-day parlance, “in a tight spot”. G-d has historically chosen to bring troubles upon us during these times, and in our fasting we recognize that through our sins we continue to sow the seeds of future calamities. We beg for His mercy in extricating us from our difficult position, and we keep in mind the sufferings of other members of our people around the world. It is customary for Torah-observant Jews to remember the victims of the Holocaust during this time.
During the Three Weeks, certain mourning practices are observed: celebrations are postponed if possible, no weddings are held, we do not listen to music, and we do not cut our hair or shave.
The Ninth of Av
As the Three Weeks approaches its lowest point, beginning with the 1st of Av (this year, July 10), additional mourning practices are added: we refrain from eating meat or drinking wine (except on Shabbos, when all mourning restrictions are lifted), and we refrain from washing and wearing new clothing (except in preparation for Shabbos, to properly honor it). Although bathing or showering for purposes of hygiene is permitted, washing for pleasure is prohibited.
The mourning reaches its deepest on Tisha b’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av (this year, July 18). The saddest day in the year, Tisha b’Av is the day on which many, many disasters took place over the centuries, including the following:
• On Tisha b’Av, the ten spies convinced the nation to reject the Land of Israel (Numbers 13), which doomed the generation of the Exodus to die in the wilderness over the next forty years. According to G-d’s Word (Ezekiel 20:23, Psalm 106:24-27), this set the template for future expulsions and exiles from the Land.
• On Tisha b’Av, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed (586 BCE and 70 CE), and G-d’s visible Presence was withdrawn from the midst of mankind.
• The last stand of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 CE) ended on Tisha b’Av with the fall of the stronghold of Beitar and the annihilation of its inhabitants. It is estimated that between 100,000 and half a million were slaughtered. Their bodies were left unburied by Roman decree for the next eighteen years.
• On Tisha b’Av the following year (136 CE), the Roman emperor Hadrian ordered the Temple Mount to be plowed under, and all surviving Jews to be expelled from Jerusalem, which was then rebuilt as a Roman city (Aeolia Capitolina) with a pagan temple on the site of the Temple of G-d. The very name of Judah was erased from Roman maps, and the name ‘Palestine’ was put in its place as a reference to the Philistines, the Jews’ extinct, ancient oppressors.
• On Tisha b’Av in 1290, all Jews were expelled from England, forced to flee while their possessions were confiscated by King Edward I. England would remain ‘Jew-free’ for the next 500 years.
• In 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition, all Jews were expelled from Spain and their non-movable possessions were confiscated by the crown. The final day on which the Jews had to be gone from the country was on Tisha b’Av. (On that very same day, an explorer named Columbus set out on a sea voyage, financed for the most part by confiscated Jewish wealth. The New World he found would become a haven for Jews fleeing persecution.)
• On Tisha b’Av in 1914, the Great War (World War I) began, uprooting Jewish communities across Europe, forcing assimilated Jews (reformers) from different nations to fight one another in the service of ‘their country’, and setting in motion a chain of events which eventually culminated in World War II and the Holocaust.
• On Tisha b’Av in 1942, the Nazis (y’mach sh’mei) began the deportation of the tens of thousands of Jews who had been herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. Their destination was the extermination camps.
• On Tisha b’Av in 2005, approximately 9,500 Jews were expelled from the fertile farming region around Gaza, and their lands and synagogues were given by the Israeli government to the Arabs as a ‘gesture of goodwill’. After the Jews withdrew, their synagogues were desecrated and destroyed, their farmlands fell into disrepair as the new inhabitants chose to launch rockets at neighboring Israeli towns instead of working to produce food, and the majority of the expelled Jews remain homeless to this day.
This list is by no means comprehensive. Each year, Jews around the world brace ourselves as we wait to see if another catastrophe will be added to the count.
Tisha b’Av is the only fast day (aside from Yom Kippur) to take place from sundown to sundown (24 hrs), rather than from sunup to sundown. Other prohibitions on Tisha b’Av include washing, wearing leather, or engaging in marital relations. Business activities are restricted to a bare minimum, and leisure activities are avoided, along with all inconsequential (trivial) conversation.
The primary focus of Tisha b’Av is the destruction of the Temple and the removal of G-d’s Presence from our midst. The prevailing mood is one of shock and grief. We sit only on the floor or on low stools. We limit our study to sorrowful Biblical passages, and we read the Book of Eichah (Lamentations), written by the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the First Temple.
Hope for the Future
During these three weeks of mourning, our focus should be on introspection and repentance. It is a saying of our rabbis that "repentance, tzedakah (giving to others) and performing acts of goodness all turn aside the harmful decree." While these days are currently times of grief, they will not always be so. In the future, the prophet Zechariah says that these days of mourning will be turned into days of feasting, rejoicing and gladness (8:19). Let us “weep with those that weep”, so that we may in due time “rejoice with those that rejoice” (Romans 12:15).