POLIN Conference Centre

Tisha B’Av

Polichromia synagogi w Rymanowie
Fot. Krzysztof Bielawski/Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich

Tisha B’Av, an annual fast commemorating the destruction of both the First Temple and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, will begin Wednesday, 26 July, 2023, after sunset. The holiday marks the high point of the “Three Weeks” of mourning, beginning with the minor fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz (Shiva Asar B’Tammuz).

The ninth of Av is the most tragic day in the whole Jewish calendar. According to tradition, it is on that day that envoys returned from the land of Israel, reporting that the Jewish people would not be able to reconquer the Promised Land (Numbers 13-15). As the Bible reports, God became angry and decided that the whole generation that had come out of Egypt would not enter the land of Israel. This marked the beginning of a series of tragic events – all of them precipitating on the ninth of Av – of which the most tragic was the destruction of the I and II Temples. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the Second by the Romans in 70 AD.

Due to the enormous impact of the fall of the Temple on Judaism, rabbis established Tisha B’Av as an absolute fast. It is also on that day that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and that the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp in Treblinka began in 1942.

Tisha B’Av is observed by fasting and reading the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), and by reciting kinot – elegies, also those written as a reflection on the Holocaust. Five prohibitions are in force: eating and drinking, washing or bathing, using cosmetics, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations. It is also prohibited to study the Torah, since it is held to be “sweetness unto the soul.” The last meal is consumed before nightfall. In the Ashkenazi tradition, it customarily includes a hard-boiled egg sprinkled with ashes as a sign of mourning. Following the meal one is required to remove one’s shoes and sit down on the floor. Sitting in chairs or armchairs is prohibited until the following afternoon – those observing the fast typically sit either on the ground or on seats that do not provide comfort, such as low stools or benches.

During the morning service, atonement prayers – kinot – are chanted, and the Book of Lamentations is read once more. The men do not put on tallitot or tefillin until the end of the fast. The lights in the synagogue are dimmed and the hazzan chants prayers in a muted and mournful voice.

As the fast draws to an end, practices that reflect mourning yield to elements of hope and renewal. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, taking its name from the haftarah (a reading from the books of the Prophets) for that day, which begins with the words: “Console, console my people,” which is taken to denote faith in God’s grace and mercy to the people of Israel. According to tradition, Tisha B’Av is also the day on which the Messiah shall be born – a reflection of the Jewish faith that even the worst of calamities contain a germ of hope and of better times.