The ‘Black Fast’ helps show us our true colors

In Jewish tradition, Tisha Be’av has come to be known as the “Black Fast,” in contrast to Yom Kippur, the “White Fast.

The Western Wall (photo credit: SHLOMO ARAD. 1970)
The Western Wall
(photo credit: SHLOMO ARAD. 1970)
In the summer of 1973 we brought our three children to Israel for six weeks. We had an enjoyable time seeing family and friends and touring the country with a car we had rented, but we made sure that we were in Jerusalem for the Shabbat that was the eve of Tisha Be’av.
We walked from Ramat Eshkol to the Old City. Thankfully it was not too hot.
Arriving at the Western Wall, we were able to feel the spirit of that fast day.
Along with us, Israelis streamed to the Kotel by the thousands. Some sat on the ground in front of the Kotel as we did.
The chanting of Eicha (Lamentations) had a great deal of meaning for us. That ancient melody of the Megila swirled through the crowds and brought a sense of sadness as we mourned for the two Temples and for all the other major tragedies in our history.
How poignant it was to watch Jews from all over the world – young and old, Sephardim and Ashkenazim – streaming to that sacred site, a remnant of the Second Temple destroyed in 70 CE. A re-identification with our faith flowed through us all. Our observance of Tisha Be’av, in the actual site where the tragedies occurred, has left an impact on me that I continue to feel more than 40 years later.
In Jewish tradition, Tisha Be’av has come to be known as the “Black Fast,” in contrast to Yom Kippur, the “White Fast.” The most striking way in which this is emphasized is that in many Sephardi synagogues, a black curtain is placed over the ark containing the Torah scrolls. Normally, white covers are used. Other customs pertaining to Tisha Be’av tend to reemphasize the idea of darkness, sadness and gloom.
The Mishna in Rosh Hashana 1:13 indicates that fasting on Tisha Be’av was observed even in biblical times.
While some rabbis wanted to mark the destruction of the two Temples by instituting total abstinence from drinking and the eating of meat, those who wanted a total fast won out.
Bathing is forbidden, but one may minimally wash the face and hands for cleaning purposes. The use of perfume and other types of fragrance is forbidden.
Two specific signs of mourning on Tisha Be’av are not wearing leather shoes and sitting on the ground or on a low stool to hear Lamentations. There are many people who actually sprinkle their hair with ashes – a reflection of an even more ancient mourning custom.
To create the atmosphere of sadness, the lights in the synagogue are dimmed or turned off completely and candles are lit. I recall my amazement when first I attended the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York. It was Tisha Be’av and that magnificent sanctuary was completely dark except for the candles held by the congregants as they intoned Lamentations in a melody transmitted by generations of Sephardi Jews.
In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I was an intrepid chaplain anxious to provide his Jewish troops a hint of the Tisha Be’av experience. I notified the chief chaplain that I needed a site where we could have an outdoor service. When he questioned me about it, I answered him in this way.
“Chaplain McMahon, I know that you recall the various stories in the New Testament about Jesus being in the Temple courtyard. Annually, we mourn the destruction of both Temples by fasting, at least a few hours, and then returning to training. Also I will be lighting special memorial candles which I had sent up from Dallas. I do not want to take a chance with a fire in our chapel, so we are having the service outdoors with these candles marking the boundaries of our prayer area.”
He got the point and arranged a space for us.
Normally, I crowned the soldiers’ participation in the Shabbat services with corned-beef sandwiches. Of course, I could not do that. With about 20 out of 150 known Jewish soldiers at our post participating, I promised a double portion the following Shabbat. My Torah reader, well-trained in Brooklyn, chanted Lamentations with the exact trope (melody), but I told him to do it quickly. I had made transliterations of some of the verses of the scroll, which were given to them as they arrived.
Following the reading, I said a few words about the meaning of this day. I urged them to protect themselves while they were in Vietnam and to remember the American Jews are patriots, and like the Maccabees of old, fight for our nation.
I also urged them to think about the restoration of our Jewish state, Israel.
What few of us realized then was that the Vietcong were fighting for their country and ultimately threw the mighty American army out.
Since the Middle Ages it has been the practice not to wear tallitot and tefillin during the morning services of Tisha Be’av. Since these ritual objects are traditionally considered to be ornaments for the Jew, he refrains from wearing them at the normal time at shaharit (the morning service) and instead puts them on at minha (the afternoon service), thereby fulfilling the commandment to wear the tallit every day and the tefillin most days (not on Shabbatot, holidays and fast days).
The most poignant part of the service centers around the recitation of the scroll of Lamentations, followed by the many kinot (dirges) specifically composed throughout the centuries for the occasion. Senior members of the congregation normally chant Lamentations, emphasizing with rise and fall in the voice the ancient trauma of the destruction of the Temples and the ghastly experiences of the Jerusalemites in that era.
Picking up the themes of the scroll, the kinot remind us of other tragic moments in Jewish history that occurred in the talmudic period, medieval massacres of entire communities and the touching Sephardic kina that I first recited with my family at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Montreal in the early 1970s. Since then, whether I am at the Kotel on Tisha Be’av – where I have heard it many times – or anywhere else, I chant that kina.
The dirge notes that the Four Questions of the Passover Seder symbolically capture the spirit of our sense of despair: “I will ask some questions of the Holy Congregation.” Then it continues, “Why on Passover do we eat matza and bitter herbs while this night is all bitterness?” The soulful words and melody reverberate through me and all those who recite it – especially at the Kotel.
Tisha Be’av is the only traditional day of observance in our calendar that occurs when Jewish summer camps are operating in the northern hemisphere. Before the establishment of Israel, Tisha Be’av was not only a time of mournful commemoration for thousands of youngsters at camp, but a rallying point for Zionist affirmation with hope for the creation of a Jewish state. Interestingly, in the majority of Jewish camps in the US, the summer yahrzeits of Herzl and Bialik became very important for studying their writings and powerful poetry. Special programming was introduced to make these two significant individuals in modern Jewish history come alive. American Jews in their 60s and 70s know something about these two men because of what they learned in camp.
During the first 19 years of Israel’s existence, with access to the Kotel denied, Tisha Be’av in the camp setting embodied the hope for the ultimate reunification of the city. That is why the 1967 war was so meaningful. The hopes of thousands of American Jews from their 30s to their 60s with a love for the whole of Israel and united Jerusalem had their basis, frequently, in their Tisha Be’av experiences away from home.
Now thankfully we can stand in the Jewish Quarter and view the waves of people on their way to the Kotel. You yourself can join those who are trying so hard to draw near to the Western Wall. In my case, I would like to see a unified service for men and women so that the last words of Lamentations can come true: “Take us back, O Lord, to Thee and let us return; renew our days as of old.”