Wednesday, 29 July 2020

A day to recall the Holocaust
and disasters in Jewish history

A Holocaust memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin … Tisha B’Av, beginning this evening, recalls major disasters in Jewish history, including the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This evening (29 July) marks the beginning of Tisha B'Av (תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב), literally the ‘Ninth of Av,’ the annual fast day in the Jewish calendar recalling many disasters in the course of Jewish history, mainly the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.

Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and it is associated with many other disasters in Jewish history.

Traditionally, the day is observed through five prohibitions, including a 25-hour fast. The Book of Lamentations, which is read in synagogues, mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the recitation of kinot or liturgical dirges that lament the loss of the Temples and of Jerusalem and recall events such as the murder of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans, massacres of mediaeval Jewish communities during the Crusades, the expulsions of Jews from Spain by the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4: 6), five events occurred on the Ninth of Av that are recalled in the traditional fasting.

The First Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, and the people of Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. The destruction of the Temple destruction began on the 7th of Av (II Kings 25: 8) and continued until the 10th (Jeremiah 52: 12).

According to the Talmud, the actual destruction began on the Ninth of Av and it continued to burn throughout the Tenth of Av.

The Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, scattering the people of Judea and commencing the exile of the Jewish people. The Romans later crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and killed over 500,000 people, and then razed the site of the Temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding area in 135 CE.

Over time, Tisha B’Av has come to be a day of mourning not only for these events, but also for later tragedies, including:

● The First Crusade began on 15 August 1096 (24 Av), and 10,000 Jews were slaughtered in its first month in France and the Rhineland.
● The Jews were expelled from England on 18 July 1290 (9 Av).
● The Jews were expelled from France on 22 July 1306 (10 Av).
● The Jews were expelled from Spain on 31 July 1492 (7 Av).
● Germany entered World War I on 1-2 August 1914 (9-10 Av).
● Himmler formally received approval from the Nazis for the ‘Final Solution’ on 2 August 1941 (9 Av).
● The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 23 July 1942 (9 Av).
● A bomb attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires killed 85 people on 18 July 1994 (10 Av).

Many religious communities mourn the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av, adding the recitation of special kinot related to the Holocaust.

The fast on Tisha B’Av lasts about 25 hours, beginning at sunset on the preceding evening lasting until nightfall the next day. The five traditional prohibitions on Tisha B’Av are:

● eating or drinking;
● washing or bathing;
● application of creams or oils;
● wearing (leather) shoes;
● marital or sexual relations.

If possible, work is avoided during this period. Ritual washing up to the knuckles is allowed, as is washing to remove dirt or mud from one’s body.

Torah study is forbidden as it is considered a spiritually enjoyable activity, although one may study texts such as the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, portions of Jeremiah and chapters of the Talmud that discuss mourning and the destruction of the Temple.

Before the evening services begin in synagogues, the parochet covering the Torah Ark is removed or drawn aside, lasting until the Mincha prayer service. Old prayer-books and Torah scrolls are often buried on this day.

Plaza de Juda Levi in Córdoba … recalling Judah Halevi, who wrote kinot for Tisha B’Av (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The scroll of Eicha (Lamentations) is read in synagogues in the evening, and in many Sephardic congregations the Book of Job is read in the morning. The morning is spent chanting or reading kinot mourning the loss of the Temples and the subsequent persecutions, often referring to post-exilic disasters.

The most popular kinot were written by the eighth-century liturgical poet Elazar Hakallir, Judah Halevi (1085- 1145), the Spanish philosopher regarded by many as the greatest post-biblical poet, and Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058).

Other kinot were written in response to tragedies in Jewish history, including the public burning of the Torah in Paris, the massacres of Jews during the first Crusade, the slaughter of the Jews of York, and the annihilation of European Jewry in the Holocaust.

In western Sephardi Tisha B’Av services, there is a tendency to emphasise hope for ultimate redemption and national and spiritual restoration, as part of the recalled collective grief.

This is reflected in one the most celebrated compositions by Judah ha-Levi often heard in synagogues on Tisha B’Av:

Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace’s wing
Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace
Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding?
Lo! west and east and north and south – worldwide
All those from far and near, without surcease
Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side.




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