Lewittes

Fasting and praying for 25  hours — many of them sweltering — isn’t anyone’s idea of summer vacation. But that’s not the only reason Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which begins Saturday night at sundown) is among the least observed days on the Jewish calendar, despite its status of a “major” fast day shared only with Yom Kippur. 

On Tisha B’Av we lament the destruction of Jerusalem’s ancient Temples. But in a Jewish world that for nearly 2,000 years has grown accustomed to living without a Temple, many are conflicted over mourning an edifice that the vast majority are not interested in rebuilding. Let’s also not forget that Jerusalem today is a modern, bustling city. While it contends with competing narratives that both animate and agitate its people and politics, it doesn’t lie in ruins. 

The mourning for ancient Jerusalem isn’t confined to this single day of dirges and dehydration. Apart from the extension of mourning practices to “the three weeks” prior to Tisha B’Av — a practice that, according to Professor Daniel Sperber, is based on a flawed reading of rabbinic precedent — there are also three additional “minor” fast days (dawn to nightfall) connected to the hurban (destruction of the Temple). They are the Fast of Gedalia (which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the 10th of Tevet (which lands in the winter) and the 17th of Tammuz (three weeks before Tisha B’Av).

That’s a lot of fasting and mourning for a time most of us are no longer missing. We may recognize the impulse to ask: Must we grieve today for the Jerusalem of yesterday? But few of us have asked whether we are even permitted to do so. Yet it’s hardly a modern question.

The prophet Zecharia declared back in biblical times:

Thus said the LORD of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), the fast of the fifth month (Av), the fast of the seventh month (Tishrei), and the fast of the tenth month (Tevet) shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.

While they agreed that the “major” fast day of Tisha B’Av (the fast of the fifth month) remained compulsory, the Sages were more emboldened about the minor ones:

At times of peace – those days are days of joy and happiness. At times of persecution – they are fast days. If there is neither peace nor persecution – it is people’s choice whether to fast or not to fast.

Mourning the past seems to hinge on the present. If we find ourselves in trying circumstances, ritual mourning of past tragedies is embraced. If we aren’t suffering, the meaning — and necessity — of such rituals are uncertain. But how do we determine the dictates of our time?

Rabbi Haim Ovadia of Torah Veahava unfolds a tapestry of medieval commentary upon this opaque Talmudic directive, trying to illuminate some direction for our generation. Some authorities claimed to live during neither “peace” (often identified with Jewish sovereignty) nor “persecution” (even though some of those times were known to have been turbulent, just not disastrously hostile to Jews and Judaism). With Jewish life essentially stable, they ruled that people could choose for themselves whether a fast day is appropriate. Others limited the authority to make such choices to the beit din, or rabbinical court. Still others, before mandating a fast, required comparing their era’s state of affairs to the historical one before.

Embedded within all these rulings was the recognition that times change and observance often changes along with them.

One authority, the Meiri, goes even further, ruling that in times of peace, when we are not subjugated to other nations, fasting is not even a matter of choice, it is forbidden entirely. Anything less would be a violation of the Torah’s prophecy that these days would turn joyful.

Several thought-provoking insights emerge from these sources:

  • Judaism recognizes that reality isn’t always binary (war or peace) but that there’s fluidity to life and society, and even to halakhah (Jewish law). That indefinite space invites human conscience — individual or rabbinic — into the calculation of how to respond ritually.
  • Uniformity isn’t always the goal of communal observance. There’s considerable tolerance for individualized expression even within single families and communities.
  • Preserving the tradition of the past without accounting for the present might not just violate biblical teachings like Zecharia’s that provide for change, but could distract people from their responsibilities to engage with the needs of their day.

How do we understand the times we’re living in and their ritual implications? How does the existence of the State of Israel impact our ongoing need, or even permission, to mourn for ancient Jerusalem? Should the resurgence of antisemitism shape our practice today?

While the Torah might suggest otherwise, should Tisha B’Av remain the catch-all day of mourning for the Temples, while the minor days evolve into days of joy, or gratitude, for today’s independent and resilient Jewish people?

Or perhaps there is a middle ground today, as some rabbis have created, that invites people to spend the first half of Tisha B’Av in mournful fasting and reflection, and the second engaged in acts of chesed (lovingkindness) and tikkun olam (social repair), rebuilding not a Temple but a world of love?

When to engage with memory and when to disengage are questions that percolate beyond Jewish observance. They inform societal narratives, too. Consider the debate around removing Confederate monuments on one side, or adopting Juneteenth as a national holiday, on the other. Which markers ought to be dismantled and which narratives should be elevated? The answers shape the stories we tell about ourselves as a nation; the stories we bequeath to the next generation.

In our personal lives, too, we wrestle with when to hold fast to the past as a source of comfort or inspiration and when to surrender our emotional replays for the sake of forgiveness and renewal.

Jewish remembrance isn’t only about recalling the past; it’s about building the future. Sometimes history — and destiny — is honored by ritualizing memories, sometimes by letting them go. JN

Adina Lewittes is a rabbi and thought-leader who engages with contemporary questions of ethics, spirituality, identity and belonging. When she's not teaching or writing, she's hiking, skiing or mixing craft cocktails.