by Dr. Dov Goldflam
The ninth of the Hebrew month of Av is a major fast day in the Jewish calendar, when the people lament the date of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, with the subsequent loss of national sovereignty and exile from the Holy Land.
Tisha Be'av is the culmination of three week period of mourning, the last nine days of which are particularly intense, with observance of many customs similar to those practised after a bereavement in the close family. The "Three Weeks", as they are known, begin on the seventeenth of the month of Tammuz, the date on which the outer walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached during the siege. This is also the date on which Moses broke the first tablets of the Law when he came down from Mt. Sinai after 40 days - to find the people worshipping the Golden Calf.
The Ninth of Av is the date on which the Betar stronghold fell, the date of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, the beginning of Nazi deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto...
The day is marked publicly in the State of Israel by the closure of restaurants, places of entertainment etc. from the previous evening,with food shops opening only for morning hours. The day is interpreted through its religious significance and/or its importance in connection with nationhood and national sovereignty - whether or not individuals choose to fast.
Traditional observance includes the reading of the Book of Lamentations, the Kinot [see below], a 25 hour fast, deprivation of comfort and physical contact. In Jerusalem, thousands of people stream towards the Kotel, the Western and only remaining Wall of the Second Temple to commemorate the destruction and pray for redemption.
Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on a hill in the land of "Moriah", the place known today as the Temple Mount. The binding and redemption of Isaac are inextricably linked with the holiness of this site.
The physical connection of the entire Jewish people to Jerusalem first comes to the fore, obviously, when King David conquered it from the Jebusites, paid for the holy site on the Temple Mount and made the city his capital.
After the destruction of the First Temple, the majority of the Jewish population was swept into exile in Babylon, by whose rivers they swore to weep for Zion, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not place Jerusalem above all my joy."
In the Maccabean era, the very essence of the fight for Jerusalem was to establish the Jewish nature of the city and drive out pagan practices from Temple ritual and Hellenism from public life. Under other circumstances, there would have been no national uprising against Jewish subordination to the Greeks.
The importance of Jerusalem as a national symbol grew with subsequent periods of foreign domination: during the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, coins were minted in memory of Jerusalem.
It is, however, only after the destruction of the Second Temple that the significance of Jerusalem is transformed into that which we know today - a focal point, around which Jewish life turns and towards which the entire Jewish people's national aspirations and messianic hopes are directed.
Thus, we find that not only is this a spiritual connection, but also a physical one: all synagogue interiors around the world are built facing Jerusalem. Indeed, the daily and festival prayers abound in references to Jerusalem- in terms referring to the city and in lengthier text; the liturgy contains five major blessings relating to Jerusalem, while many other community and home rituals also describe and commemorate the Holy City.
Jerusalem is the major topic of pre-modern Hebrew poetry, and the Kinot - the mediaeval and subsequent mourning liturgy of Tisha Be'av - focus time and again on Jerusalem as they lament the trials of the Jewish people throughout its history of exile.
As the inevitable cycle of life continues and repeats, traditions connected with Jerusalem have been enshrined to remind us that even joy is not complete without Jerusalem:
- a plate is broken at the signing of an engagement contract;
- a groom breaks a glass under the bridal canopy after the ceremony;
- one small section of the wall in every new house is left unplastered or unpainted - incomplete
For generations, it was impossible for most Jews to dream of living in Jerusalem themselves, but they participated by supporting those communities which resided there, hosting guests who had travelled from Jerusalem to raise funds. This was more than a form of charity: it brought Jerusalem to everyone and everyone to Jerusalem - a way of life.
Diaspora Jewish life would be incomplete without Jerusalem: the hope for redemption and for the return of the people to Eretz Yisrael has always focused on Jerusalem. It is a longing and a hope which are most poignantly felt and expressed on Tisha Be'av.