Tisha B’Av: History and Customs

History of Tisha B’av

The “ninth day” in the Jewish month of Av, which starts at sundown on the eighth day and concludes at sundown on the ninth day of Av. This is the day when the intensity of the entire three week mourning period reaches its peak.Events that occurred on this day:

  1.  The sin of the spies caused Hashem to decree that Children of Israel who left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel;
  2. The first Temple was destroyed;
  3. The second Temple was destroyed;
  4. Betar, the last fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in the year 135, fell, sealing the fate of the Jewish people.
  5.  One year after the fall of Betar, the Temple area was plowed.
  6.   In 1492, King Ferdinand of Spain issued the expulsion decree, setting Tisha B’Av as the final date by which not a single Jew would be allowed to walk on Spanish soil.
  7. World War I – which began the downward slide to the Holocaust – began on Tisha B’av.

Prohibitions:

The prohibitions on Tisha B’Av itself are similar to those of Yom Kippur. In addition to not eating or drinking, we are not allowed to wash, anoint oneself or wear leather shoes. In a prohibition more stringent than on Yom Kippur, we are only allowed to study certain portions of the Torah and Talmud on Tisha B’Av.

Observances:The observance of Tisha B’Av begins with the Seudah HaMafseket, the last meal before the fast commences.

  • Until Mincha on Tisha B’Av one should try to avoid sitting on a chair or bench. Instead, the custom is to stand or sit on the floor, just like a mourner during the Shiva (traditional seven days of mourning a loved one).
  • Beginning at Mincha sitting on chairs is permitted, and we reduce the intensity of the grief that has pervaded us so far. Also, men put on Tefillin and recite those Tefillot that were omitted at Shacharit.
  • It is forbidden to greet friends or acquaintances on Tisha B’Av. However, if greeted first, one should answer, but in a low tone in order not to arouse resentment.
  • At the evening Ma’ariv service, the entire congregation sits on the floor and recites the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) where the prophet Jeremiah weeps the destruction, and we weep with him.
  • The morning of Tisha B’Av is the saddest part of the day. We recite Kinot, and the men do not don Tefillin at Shacharit, because Tefillin are called “Pe-ar,” “Glory,” and this is definitely not a day of glory for the Jewish People.

For some reflections on these customs:

Tisha B’Av, or the 9th of Av, is a day commemorating many tragic events in the history of Jewish people. We have used these events as an opportunity to reflect and transform ourselves and to think about how to elevate ourselves and our world. As a result, this mid-Summer fast day is the point at which we take our spiritual preparations for the High Holy Days to a new level.

The haunting and beautiful melodies and prayers for Tisha B’Av create an atmosphere unlike any other during the year. On Erev Tisha B’Av we receit prayers, learning, singing, and the chanting of Eichah (Lamentations), which you can read here

Reflections on observances of this day:

The fast of Tisha B’Av begins the night before and the last meal is known as the se’udah mafseket or “boundary meal” between eating and fasting. Historically the meal was compared to that which was served to mourners after a funeral, and so eggs are served. The eggs were often dipped in ashes. When we finally break the fast in our own homes one can try to retain the mood of this holiday by keeping the meal modest and simple.

As a sign of mourning leather shoes are not worn on Tisha B’Av. In accordance with a tradition originating with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215 – 1293) the talit and tefilin are not worn at the morning service. The tefilin are termed pe’er or “ornaments” and are therefore, inappropriate for such a sad moment. However, at Minchah during the afternoon the talit and tefilin are worn. On Tisha B’Av, it is the custom to chant the service in a quiet monotone, avoiding the use of traditional nusah (melody of the service).

Furthermore, friends and family should not greet each other on this day, as that would imply happiness and joy.

Tisha B’Av is subject to the same limitations as Yom Kippur, and thus one should refrain from food, bathing, wearing leather shoes and conjugal relations.

In addition, because of the joy it affords, the Sages forbade all study of sacred literature with the exception of books that fit the mood of the day (such as the Book of Job and parts of the Book of Jeremiah and of the Talmud and midrash that tell of the destruction of Jerusalem). A mourner who is sitting shiva may go to the synagogue both evening and morning.

Just as the weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are marked by a sorrowful mood, so the weeks following encourage a feeling of hope, comfort and consolation.