Tisha b’Av is my favorite holiday.
Not because I enjoy fasting and depriving myself of everyday comforts such as a clean shave and a hot shower. Rather, as the years have passed and my hair has grayed, I have come to realize the importance of devoting a day to focus on the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people and to appreciate all that we have — specifically, a robust American-Jewish community and, of course, our beloved State of Israel. As for why it is my favorite, Tisha b’Av is a day whose essential meaning — a communal commemoration of our shared history — speaks to every Jew regardless of his or her denomination, political leanings, or cultural background.
First, some history: Tisha b’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) is observed primarily to commemorate the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem — events that occurred on Tisha b’Av and led to the dispersion of the Jewish people and nearly two thousand years of yearning to reclaim the Land of Israel. Following the destruction of the second Temple, our sages declared Tisha b’Av to be a day of mourning, including a full fast replete with restrictions (e.g., no bathing, shaving, wearing leather) to enhance its holiness. Over the centuries, additional calamities were said to have occurred on Tisha b’Av — including the commencement of the First Crusade and the Spanish Inquisition. The holiday has taken on meaning beyond the destruction of the Temples, evolving to symbolize the many horrors, injustices, and tragedies that our people have faced (sadly, there are many and they continue to proliferate). This is not to marginalize the importance of focusing on the destructions of the Temples, which were singularly dramatic and catastrophic events in our people’s history.
Today, with a strong and vibrant State of Israel, there are debates concerning whether Tisha b’Av has lost its relevance. I believe the answer is a resounding “No!” In fact, Tisha b’Av is arguably more relevant than ever.
For the religious Jew, Tisha b’Av has obvious meaning, connecting us to the sacred and mourning the continued absence of a place — the Temple — that we believe to have been divinely ordained and designated for a particular purpose — humbly serving God. Tisha b’Av is a day to mourn that loss and to yearn for a future where the Jewish people return to Zion and live peacefully in our ancestral land. Observing Tisha b’Av highlights the connection between sacred space and the sanctity of a unified Jewish community, which continues to be scattered around the globe and struggling to reunite.
For many American Jews, the majority of whom are not particularly observant, Tisha b’Av can speak to their sense of Jewish identity and community, which I believe runs deep. Tisha b’Av is an opportunity to connect to our common heritage and reflect upon the blessings of life as an American Jew. For the more secular-leaning American Jews, Tisha b’Av opens a window to our 2,000 years of suffering and links the Jewish people as both a community and a religion. While I personally find it difficult to uncouple the two, I recognize that Judaism means different things to different Jews, each of whom must undertake his or her personal journey. Tisha b’Av, traditionally, is an inherently religious experience, but its essence — the commemoration of the destruction of a unified Jewish community and generations of baseless hatred and violence against our people — speaks to the soul of every Jew.
As American Jews, we often lose sight of the perilous existence of Jews around the world. Recent events have reminded us that our families and friends in Israel persevere through daily existential threats with uncommon courage and an endearing sense of humor. Jews living in an increasingly hostile Europe suffer the slings and arrows of an ugly resurgence of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence. Even here, in the comfortable safety of our United States, the Jewish community spends substantial time and money to protect our religious institutions and schools from danger. We are all painfully aware of the recent rise in anti-Semitism in America, from all sides of the political spectrum, and the sobering reality that Jewish lives seem to matter less than many others.
To put it as plainly as possible: we must not lose sight of the truth that while we are more secure than in generations past, Jews continue to be targets wherever we go. Tisha b’Av is a time to reflect upon the fact that this is not a modern phenomenon. It is also a time to appreciate that despite the surge in anti-Semitic attacks (both physical and rhetorical), American Jews are arguably better off than our ancestors have been at any point in modern history in terms of security, wealth, access to government, and overall standing within society. In this respect, Tisha b’Av is a means of appreciating our good fortune and avoiding the fog of complacency.
Many people find it difficult to fast for an entire day, and for those who have yet to observe Tisha b’Av, it may be too large a leap to go from zero to 60 overnight. I am confident, however, that any Jew who learns about Tisha b’Av and focuses on its meaning will want to do something to mark the day — whether pausing to recognize how lucky we are to be living in a free and secure America (as opposed to being chased from our homes by Cossacks, Nazis, or other agents of evil), skipping a meal or snack, or simply teaching our children about Tisha b’Av’s meaning and connecting to our shared heritage.
This year, Tisha b’Av falls on a Sunday — it’s this Sunday, July 18, Let it not be just another summer Sunday. Take a moment to recognize how fortunate we are to be living as Jews at this moment in history. Think about what we can do to ensure that our children have an equal opportunity to do so — by supporting our Jewish communal organizations, fiercely fighting anti-Semitism in every dark corner, standing up for the State of Israel, and perhaps most importantly, treating every Jew as you would your own family. Each of us can make a meaningful difference as we continue to repair our wonderful world.
I wish you all a meaningful Tisha b’Av.
Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.