Is the Ninth of Av a Relevant Fast Today?
BY RABBI HESHIE AND ROOKIE BILLET
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, followed by the dramatic reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, does it really make sense to observe a fast that commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Holy Temples?
It is certainly true that the Beit HaMikdash has not been rebuilt. But despite the complications surrounding it, Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount is a fact; the power to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash is in our hands. Why then must we suffer through a 25-hour fast on the Ninth of Av during the hottest days of the summer?
Over the years, we observed several special Tisha B’Av experiences in wonderful summer camps – Camps Galila, Morasha, and Munk. These camps ran meaningful programs centered around creative services with explanations of the kinot, the lamentations of Tisha B’Av, that we recited while sitting on the ground like mourners. However, these programs and rituals could have all been done much more comfortably and just as meaningfully with food and water in our bodies!
The answer to the question lies in a deeper understanding of Tisha B’Av in the context of the bigger picture of Jewish history. One of the kinot we recite on Tisha B’Av begins with מִי יִתֵּן רֹאשִׁי מַיִם, “Who will turn my face into water…” It was written by Kalonymus ben Yehuda of Mainz about the destruction and massacre of the Jewish communities of Speyer, Mainz, and Worms in Iyar and Sivan of 1096 during the First Crusade.
In the kinah, the author states that although the death of the victims of the Crusades are worthy of separate days of mourning on the days of their respective destructions, just as we mourn our destroyed Jerusalem Temples, “we should not add a festival of grief, and we should delay our grief for later”. Rabbi Isaac Herzog explains this to mean that we should not mourn the victims of the 1096 Crusade on Shavuot which is proximate to the calamity, but should wait until after Shavuot to commemorate the tragedy (Pesakim U’ketavim 2:99).
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, however, explained the kinah differently. According to the Rav, Kalonymus ben Yehuda is telling us that the tragedies at the time of the Crusades derive from the destruction of the Temples which we mourn on Tisha B’Av. For this reason, all national Jewish tragedies should be observed on Tisha B’Av, which is the national day of Jewish mourning for all calamities that have befallen our collective nation (Kinot, 1970).
Following the Rav’s reasoning, some segments of the Jewish community have questioned the propriety of designating 27th Nissan as Yom HaShoah, arguing that the Holocaust should be included in our Tisha B’Av liturgy, just as the York massacre of 1190 is mourned on Tisha B’Av. Nevertheless, it is fair to note that Yom HaShoah was never designated as a fast day! Rather, it was set aside as a day to reflect about and remember the Holocaust, its millions of victims, its survivors and its heroes.
In order for our people to protect and defend ourselves and to fulfill our ultimate destiny, we must always be cognizant of the past. As long as we have enemies that seek to destroy us, we must be prepared to defend ourselves. By remembering that our enemies have tried to destroy us throughout our history, we renew our dedication to self-defense. Remembering the past is the key to being prepared for the future! And though we could certainly remember the persecutions of the past on Tisha B’Av while hydrated and nourished, the drama, strain and tension of the 25-hour midsummer fast brings the memory of past events to life.
Zechariah prophesied that one day in the future, Tisha B’Av will indeed be transformed to a happy day: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months will become happy days and festivals for the household of Israel” (Zechariah 8:19). Tisha B’Av, the fast of the fifth month, will one day be a Yom Tov! By remembering the past and mourning what we have lost, we prepare the way for a time when there will be no more mourning, when Am Yisrael will celebrate the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash – speedily in our days!
Rabbi Heshie and Rookie Billet recently made Aliyah after long and distinguished careers in Jewish community work in the United States. Rabbi Billet is Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. Rookie Billet recently retired after a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul Rebbetzin, and yoetzet halachah, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.