Tears and laughter

Tisha Be’av is often termed “the black fast,” as opposed to Yom Kippur which is “the white fast.” Indeed, the only thing they share in common is the fasting.

‘THE DESTRUCTION of the Temple of Jerusalem,’ Francesco Hayez, 1867 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE DESTRUCTION of the Temple of Jerusalem,’ Francesco Hayez, 1867
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Friday begins the period of “nine days” that concludes with Tisha Be’av, the most important of the days of mourning observed by fasting in the traditional Jewish calendar.
Tisha Be’av is often termed “the black fast,” as opposed to Yom Kippur which is “the white fast.” Indeed, the only thing they share in common is the fasting. But fasting on Yom Kippur is meant to lead to a feeling of otherworldliness, of spiritual uplift, of cleansing and renewal. Fasting on Tisha Be’av is intended to lead to greater sadness, deep mourning and a sense of identification with suffering.
It must be admitted, however, that, at least in Israel, two modern days of mourning are observed with greater pathos and solemnity than Tisha Be’av – Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars. Today, when we have returned to our own land, achieved independence and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, for many the mourning on Tisha Be’av is less than total.
On the eve of Tisha Be’av I usually attend a service sponsored by Congregation Moreshet Avraham held at the Promenade in East Talpiot overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. The view is spectacular. Hundreds of people come from all over – some from overseas – to read Lamentations, sing sad songs and hear readings connected to the destruction of the Temple or a similar theme.
It is appropriately solemn, but the atmosphere after the service is more that of a gathering of old friends than a time of deep mourning. It is nothing like Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars or Holocaust Remembrance Day. And I understand that. Not only is that because 9 Av commemorates something in the far distant past, with which we have less connection and certainly no personal connection, but also because of the resurrection of Zion and Jerusalem, which has created a new situation, recreating what was destroyed and changing the situation from mourning to rejoicing. It is the realization of the prophetic verses “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zechariah 8:4-5). That is the reality of Jewish life here today.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the ancient words of the special “Nahem” prayer recited on Tisha Be’av “...the city that is in ruins, despised and desolate… without her children...” are no longer true. As a matter of fact, they seem to be a denial of reality. How can we say them? No wonder the liturgy of the Masorti Movement has changed that prayer to read: “...Your city, Jerusalem, rebuilt from destruction and restored from desolation. Adonai, who causes Zion to rejoice at her children’s return, may all who love Jerusalem exult in her; may all who mourn Jerusalem of old rejoice with her now.” That seems much more appropriate.
ONE OF my favorite stories from the Midrash tells of the visit that several Sages, one of whom was Rabbi Akiva, made to the ruins of the Second Temple sometime at the close of the first century or the beginning of the second century CE.
At that time there were still actual remnants of the Temple, including the Western Wall of the Holy of Holies (not the Western Wall of the Temple Mount known today) that the Romans had left standing as a tangible symbol of the destruction they had wrought.
The rabbis all tore their garments as a sign of mourning when they came to those ruins. And when they saw a fox emerge from the ruins of the Holy of Holies, all the Sages began to wail and weep – except for Akiva, who began to laugh.
The others were shocked and asked him, “Akiva, why do you laugh?”
He replied, “Why do you weep?”
They replied that they wept to see foxes roaming about in the most sacred place in the world.
Akiva’s answer was that that was the very reason he laughed. There were two prophecies, he explained, concerning this place: one, that the Temple would be destroyed and animals would roam about in it; the other, that it would be restored. He then quoted those magnificent verses cited above from Zechariah and continued, “Before the first prophecy came true, I was afraid the second would never come to be. Now that it has, I am certain that the second will come to pass.”
“Akiva,” they said, “you have comforted us!” (Sifre Deuteronomy 43).
Akiva may have been premature in his optimism, but ultimately he was proved correct. The Temple itself may not have been rebuilt, but the city has been, and – most importantly – the Jews as a people and as a nation have reestablished their sovereignty, their freedom and their independence. For that, should we not laugh? Perhaps this is the time spoken of by the prophet – “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the 10th month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah....” (Zechariah 8:19).
IN 1986 Rabbi Theodore Tuvia Friedman, who was then head of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, wrote a responsum concerning stopping fasting on Tisha Be’av after Minha. After examining all the sources, his conclusion was, “Since in our times there has been a great redemption for the people of Israel in that we are not ruled over by others, live in our own land and enjoy sovereignty, in view of this drastic change in our situation this historical fact should be recognized by not completing our fast on Tisha Be’av but concluding it after Minha.”
I endorsed his view then, and I support it even more strongly today.
It is vital that we remember the past, that we not forget the tragedies that occurred on this day, but it is even more important that we acknowledge the miraculous salvation that we have experienced. We must not forget the past, but neither should we ignore the present and forget to acknowledge the wonders that have come about. Happy is the people that has experienced salvation.■
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the Jewish Book Award whose latest book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), has recently been published in Hebrew by Yediot Press and the Schechter Institute.