Tisha B’Av: What is it all about?

jerusalem cityscape with the dome of the rock israel
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Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. Both these days are fast days. On both these days Jews beat their chests, cry over their sins committed and pray for forgiveness from God. What, however, is the difference between these days and what can this difference mean to each of us as we observe them?

Yom Kippur is that day when we spend all those hours in synagogue, fasting, and recalling our sins as individuals. Even though that endless list of sins in the famous Al Chayt prayer are recited in the plural, “For the sin we have committed against You,” the introspection called for by each sin stated is for each of us as individuals within a community. We are required to critique ourselves to see which sins we have committed and then to repair them by Teshuvah, repentance. Aside from the fact that it would be extremely inappropriate, on Yom Kippur we do not beat each other’s chest but only our own. This ritual act supports that idea that we are confessing our own sins while supported within a community.

Tisha B’Av, however, is different. On Tisha B’Av the opening words of Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, are woefully chanted by the community beginning with the opening verses: “ How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.”

 On this day, Kinot, laments over the destruction of the First and Second Temples, are communally recited: “Remember, LORD, what has occurred to us, Alas! Look and see our disgrace. Alas! what has occurred to us. Our property has been handed over to strangers, Alas! Our homes to foreigners. Alas! what has occurred to us. We have become orphans without a father. Alas! Our mothers mourn in the month of Av. Alas! what has occurred to us…. Let my laments circle like vapor up to heaven. Asking heaven to join in with my sorrow. For today is a day that it was destroyed twice. As we proclaim “Oh, that my head were water”.” These solemn words express the sadness that we as a community of Israel express over the terrible events in our long history that occurred on this day.

On Tisha B’Av, we as a community mourn. We sit on the floor, put ashes on our foreheads, and yes, beat our chests. Sitting on the floor is a sign that we are mourning what we as a Jewish community have lost. We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us of the walls of the Holy Temple burned to ashes by the Babylonians and then the Romans. We, however, beat our chests because the understanding by our tradition for these tragic events is that they occurred due to our sins for which we must repent for them not to be repeated.

Repentance is the similarity Tisha B’Av has with Yom Kippur but the difference between the two days still holds. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins as individuals but on Tisha B’Av we confess our sins as a People of Israel. We as a people turned to other gods, which brought on the destruction of the first Temple in 587 B.C.E. We as a people continually spoke against each other, and by words and actions divided the Jewish community pitting Jew against Jew, which brought on the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.

With this understanding of the purpose of Tisha B’Av, and how it differs from Yom Kippur, you can now properly observe Tish B’Av this Saturday night and Sunday. Regardless of the level and intensity of your observance, you can still do Teshuvah, repent of our communal sins of turning away from God and speaking out against our fellow Jews. You can turn to God with faith and trust, and you can reach out with the arms of acceptance to all Jews regardless of their level of practice and observance.

You can work at mending your ways so that not only will you as an individual Jew be stronger but also so that the People of Israel will be stronger as well. May this be so! Amen.

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