Tisha B’Av literally means “the ninth of Av,” as it falls on the 9th day of Av, which is the eleventh month of the civil year and the fifth month of the ecclesiastical year of the Jewish calendar (approximately July or August in the Gregorian calendar).
In Judaism, Tisha B’Av is an annual fast day on which a large number of disasters is said to have befallen the Jews, mainly the destruction of the two temples – Solomon’s Temple by the Neo-Byzantine Empire and then the Second Temple by the Roman Empire in Jerusalem. These temples were the centers of worship and life for the Jews and thus considered as sacred.
Tisha B’Av is the day where observant Jews deprive themselves, pray and join in communal mourning. Indeed, Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and is meant as a day of tragedy.
The stringent and sober nature of Tisha B’Av is similar to that of Yom Kippur. Like in Yom Kippur, the central activity of Tisha B’Av is fasting. Being the day of tragedy for the Jews, Tisha B’Av is considered a communal day of mourning.
Origins, beliefs and ideas
Although the exact dates of the destruction of both temples (and other tragedies) are unknown, tradition dates the following five calamities to Tisha B’Av:
1) Ten of the Twelve Spies brought a bad report to Moses about the Land of Israel, which caused the Children of Israel to cry and feel panic and despair of ever entering the “Promised Land.” Because of this, God punished this generation by forcing them to wander for forty years and die in the wilderness (Numbers 14).
2) The devastation of the First Temple’s in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the Neo-Byzantine Empire.
3) The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
4) The crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Romans during the 2nd century CE.
5) The plowing of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Turnus Rufus (that followed after the failed Bar Kochba rebellion).
Other calamities and tragedies that also happened on or near the 9th of Av include:
1) The First Crusade on the 24th of Av, AM 4856 (August 15, 1096) resulted in the massacre of 10,000 Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
2) The expulsion of the Jews from England on the 9th of Av, AM 5050 (July 18, 1290).
3) The expulsion of the Jews from Spain on the 7th of AV, AM 5252 (July 31, 1492).
4) The approval of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to annihilate all the Jewish people on the 9th of AV, AM 5701 (August 2, 1941).
5) The mass deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka on the 9th of Av, 5702 (July 23, 1942).
Customs, rituals and practices before and on Tisha B’Av
The tradition formally begins with low-level mourning for a period of three weeks, which leads to Tisha B’Av. Those three weeks commemorate the final siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.
The traditions in Tisha B’Av mirror those of Yom Kippur in many ways. During the three-week mourning period culminating in Tisha B’Av, observant Jews shall abide by the following prohibitions:
1) No eating or drinking;
2) No washing or bathing;
3) No application of oils, perfumes and creams;
4) No wearing of leather shoes;
5) No sexual relations between married partners.
Meals must be taken before sundown, when all the laws of Tisha B’Av take effect.
On Tisha B’Av, joyous celebrations, such as weddings, are also prohibited. While work is permitted on Tisha B’Av, it is discouraged, as Jews should devote this day to mourning and repentance. If one must work, it is preferable to start after midday.
The scroll of Lamentations (Megillat Eicha) and other dirges (kinnot) are read in synagogues.
Like on every fast day, it is customary to donate to charity on Tisha B’Av.
The end of fast
Although the fast ends at nightfall, tradition states that the burning of the First Temple continued throughout the night and until the next day, on the 10th of Av. Therefore, observant Jews should continue with the prohibitions through midday of the following day after Tisha B’Av.