Tisha Be’av in the modern age

THE ANGUISH of Tisha Be’av has meaning for us year in and year out because we have never stopped mourning.

'I was fortunate that at my Boy Scout camp in Georgia, we had a minyan of my fellow Jewish scouts.' (photo credit: RICHARD SPRAGUE/FLICKR)
'I was fortunate that at my Boy Scout camp in Georgia, we had a minyan of my fellow Jewish scouts.'
In his book Jewish Passages, Prof. Harvey Goldberg of the Hebrew University describes how the Torah itself has the ability to mourn.
“In a synagogue in Istanbul, when the sefer is taken from the heichal on the fast of Tisha Be’av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, it is placed on a chair and read, rather than being put on its normal raised table.”
Then Goldberg points out an interesting parallel.
“Like the other members of the congregation, who sit on the floor that sad day, the scroll ‘lowers itself’ in an act of mourning.” Prof. Goldberg’s beautiful description personalizing the Torah on Tisha Be’av became very much alive for my wife and me in late June.
We are blessed that our new granddaughter-in-law is Sephardi, from a family of Moroccan origin. At the Shabbat Hatan, her father read the Torah beautifully. He was trained by his late father, who was a hazan. I am in lockdown again, so I cannot hear him read the Torah at shacharit and mincha on Tisha Be’av. The scroll used in his synagogue will come alive.
I WAS fortunate that at my Boy Scout camp in Georgia, where while most in attendance were Christian, we had a minyan of my fellow Jewish scouts. That was an era of Boy Scouting’s heyday in the 1950s. Born in Atlanta Georgia, our Scoutmaster, now 97, was Sephardi, WW2 veteran, and knowledgeable Jew. He brought the Sephardic Tisha Be’av booklets with him to camp. The night of the fast day, we sat on the ground away from the tents in which we slept. Our leader, Josiah Benator, chanted several chapters of “Eicha.” A Boy Scout at camp must carry his own weight. Several of us fasted part of Tisha Be’av, but we were required to participate fully in the daily scouting programs.
At Camp Blue Star in North Carolina, Jewish and kosher, I, a counselor, and over 200 Jewish boy and girl campers, had our own Tisha Be’av experience. We were fortunate at the camp that one of the waiters from Jacksonville, Florida had been in the synagogue choir. He possessed a beautiful voice. An hour before nightfall, we all donned our white clothing. While the sun was setting, we walked together singing until we reached the lakefront.
Our waiter-cantor was on the small island in the middle of the lake. We could barely make out a large construction there. We heard him singing, through a microphone, “Ani Maamin,” “Al Naharot Bavel” and other mournful kinot. Various counselors spoke to us briefly – many were budding Reform and Conservative rabbis. Then complete silence and from that little island came the words of Eicha - probably only one chapter. Next, flashlights were directed at a replica of the Temple built by our woodworking specialist. Torches were lit and put to full use. The Temple began to burn. The song, “Am Yisrael Chai,” arose from us and we concluded with “Hatikvah.”
THE ANGUISH of Tisha Be’av has meaning for us year in and year out because we have never stopped mourning. Let me remind you of the famous story about Napoleon’s experience on our fast day. Leading his troops through a small town in Europe, he passed by a synagogue where everyone was sitting on the floor crying and reading little books by the light of small candles. He asked his aide what was going on. He was told that the Jewish people is mourning the destruction of the Temple.
“How long ago was that?”
“Almost 2,000 years ago.”
Napoleon is quoted as saying, “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and the Temple will surely be rewarded with both its land and the Temple.”
At its birth in the 19th century, the Reform movement felt they could eliminate Tisha Be’av because it did not speak to the Jews of the present. An early symbolic change occurred here in the 1950s. As an archeologist of Biblical lands, Prof. Nelson Glueck, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was a spy for the USA in the Middle East during World War II. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion became friendly with Glueck and offered him a vacant property on King David Street, the back of which was on the Jordanian border. Glueck took it. First a school and library were built there and a kindergarten.
Following the Six Day War, an entire campus was constructed there, with a balcony on the top floor that overlooks the Old City walls. For over a half a century, rabbinical students have been required to spend their first year of training here in at the Jerusalem school. Clearly there is an impact on the entire movement. In the 1980s, the movement’s CCAR Press published a complete Chamesh Megillot in Hebrew and English with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, with Eicha, of course. In the current Reform prayerbook in English and Hebrew, there is an entire Tisha Be’av service.
The movement’s Hebrew siddur gives Tisha Be’av a major focus. A Reform rabbi wrote the following to be read at the beginning of the Fast Day. “Today we chant Eycha, listen to the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, hear the city weep for the children. “Bachu tivkeh ba layla” – she weeps literally in the night. Her tears are upon her cheeks. We wail and bemoan the world as it is.”
For many years in Diaspora countries, Tisha Be’av was observed only by Orthodox Jews. I found that, surprisingly, the New York Times describes a Tisha Be’av observance at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York City in 1874. “The candles are lit – all those present are sitting on the floor. Lamentations is chanted by the rabbi.”
In the 1940s, this all changed. In the United States and other countries, a broad range of Jewish summer camps began to operate, adding to the camps that had been started in the 1920s. No one has studied the impact of summer camps on campers then in regard to Tisha Be’av, but personally I witnessed the fast day being observed in a variety of camps I attended.
The “Holidays Today” website describes the observance of Tisha Be’av:
“Jews go hungry, do not bathe, do not fight, do not wear leather shoes, refuse to have sex. The many other traditions include refraining from laughing and smiling.”
Now a most unusual comment:
“Some universities (in the USA) and training centers provide those who comply with Tisha Be’Av the opportunity to take exams on other days.”
Here are a few halachot and minhagim in English on the Ohr Sameach website:
“The custom is to eat a final meal after mincha and before sunset consisting of bread, cold hard boiled eggs and water.”
Ohr Sameach indicates an act of the fast day has already begun.
“The meal is eaten while seated on the ground. A portion of the bread should be dipped in ashes and eaten.”
A most interesting insight is offered in regard to a very visible act.
“Even shoes made partially of leather are prohibited. Shoes made of cloth, rubber or plastic are permitted. Then a fascinating point is made that I had never heard of.
“You can wear leather shoes if you might incur the anger of non-Jews... put sand in your shoes to cut down on your comfort.”
There are over a hundred directives in Or Sameach list how to observe Tisha Be’av in a ritually correct manner. On Google there are many other Orthodox listings making it clear how to fill one’s 25 hours in complete compliance with Halacha.
IN THE Conservative-Masorti movement there is little written about Tisha Be’av until the founding of Camp Ramah by the Teacher’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the late 1940s. Two key features of that camping movement were speaking Hebrew all the time and studying Hebrew and English texts every day, even Shabbat. I never attended Camp Ramah, but I heard from my friends, who did, how Tisha Be’av was observed. The destruction of the two Temples, all the traumatic events on that same date and the Holocaust were emphasized. Additionally, the significance of the birth of the State of Israel became a key element in the observance of Tisha Be’av in all the Ramah camps.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, sent his comments about Tisha Be’av this year.
“Tisha Be’av is always about loss and hope. Fasting, hearing the book of Eicha, and the somber liturgical poetry mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple are always powerful. The destructions in our past, the massive genocide of our people and the coronavirus calamity, which sadly appears to be ongoing, all invoke within each of us personal grief as we mourn deeply. Like all of you, I never expected in my lifetime to experience, every moment of the day, the infection of millions, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the economic dislocation and distress, and of course loneliness like most of us have never felt before.
“As the leader of the Conservative rabbis around the world and the members of all Conservative congregations, I encourage them to infuse Tisha Be’av with a poignant sadness, perhaps greater than any time in our history.” This year there is emotion never felt before. “As tears fill our eyes and as we take deep breaths reciting Eicha, this may be our chance to help all peoples of the world recognize that death and destruction can be overcome.
“Our deep mourning on Tisha Be’av in the soil of suffering is the prelude to our hopes for a better world, and, this year, a healthier world.”