‘When tears come, they clear up the picture” wrote Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz. The Talmud presents the Ninth of Av as a major day of mourning because of the calamities that occurred on this day throughout Jewish history. Most horrendous were the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the sacking of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Bialik’s description of this fateful day paints the picture for us in graphic detail: “The Temple Mount still smoked. Piles of ash, mounds of cinders, smoldering brands lay all in heaps; hissing embers tumbled together, glowing like stacks of carbuncle and jacinth in the silence of dawn....
“he angels knew what G-d had done to them and they were shocked. They trembled, together with all the morning stars; and they covered their faces with their wings for they feared to look on the sorrow of G-d....
“Their song that morning was a hushed lament, the murmur of a still, small voice.
Silently they turned away and wept, each angel alone, and all the world wept with them in the silence.”
Other tragedies that occurred on this same black date were the expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I in 1290 and their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 following the Inquisition.
On Tisha Be’av, the fortress of Betar fell and Bar Kochba and his men were massacred in 135 CE. Exactly a year later, the Roman Emperor Hadrian established a heathen temple on the site of the Temple and rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city which the Jews were forbidden to enter.
But all these events took place long ago, so why do we continue to fast and weep today, especially since the State of Israel was established 65 years ago? The Talmud explicitly states: “He who eats and drinks on Tisha Be’av will not live to see the crowning glory of Jerusalem.”
The value of fasting lies not only in remembering the past and applying its lessons to the present, but also in recognizing the unity of our people, the root of its existence and the prophetic destiny which still awaits fulfillment.
So, all over the Jewish world, we fast from sunset to sunset.
We sit on low stools or on the floor, wearing slippers instead of leather shoes. Lights are dimmed. The Holy Ark is draped in black, crowns with tinkling bells are removed from Torah scrolls, and dolefully we chant Lamentations (Eicha) and dirges (Kinot).
In Jerusalem, we flock by the thousands to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple where many stay all night, reading by the light of the moon.
It is by voluntarily afflicting ourselves on Tisha Be’av that we identify with the totality of Jewish history, just as “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1).
Throughout history there have always been, and tragically probably always will be, Jews persecuted because of their faith. By keeping alive these bitter memories of our exile, and teaching them to our children, we hope both to prevent their recurrence and to recognize the miraculous continuity of our existence.
The writer is the author of 13 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, now a movie under the title of The Golden Pomegranate, and her latest memoir, My Long Journey Home.