Internalizing the tragedy of Tisha B'Av

Should it be a struggle to internalize the reality of the loss of the Temple?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

Making it Real
The sadness one feels from the death of a loved one is a natural and uncontrollable response to a tragedy. Conversely, trying to artificially create a sentiment of loss can be quite challenging . When we look at the various laws and prayers associated with Tisha B’Av, the objective of the Sages appears to be quite clear. The entire day is one characterized by mourning, as we reflect on the destruction of the Temple and its horrific consequences. The Sages were aware, though, that even through the creation of a unique atmosphere, the hurdles involved in internalizing the reality of the destruction of the Temple were and are extremely difficult to overcome. 

The Talmud offers a series statements regarding how a person should or should not relate to Tisha B’Av. The first of these concerns the custom of refraining from work on Tisha B’Av:

“Where it is the custom to do work on the Ninth of Ab we may do work, but where it is not the custom we may not; and everywhere the Scholars refrain from work. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says: [In this respect] a man should always consider himself a scholar. It has been taught likewise: R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says: [In this respect] let a man always consider himself a scholar that he may feel more strongly the fast.”

While the Sages did not outright forbid working on Tisha B’Av, it is fairly clear they do not champion it. The Talmud continues:
 “A [Baraitha] taught: R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says: Anyone who eats or drinks on the Ninth of Ab is as if he ate and drank on the Day of Atonement.”

This comparison is used elsewhere, where the focus is more on an equivalency in halacha between the two days. The above statement does include the “is as if” qualification, implying that the problems of eating and drinking on the two days are not synonymous. 

The Talmud finishes this section with some more serious admonishments: 
“R. Akiba says: Anyone who does work on the Ninth of Ab will never see in his work any sign of blessing. And the Sages say: Anyone who does work on the Ninth of Ab and does not mourn for Jerusalem will not share in her joy, as it is said, Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her.

From this originates what they [the Rabbis] have said: Everyone who mourns for Jerusalem merits to share in her joy, and anyone who does not mourn for her will not share in her joy. It has also been taught likewise: Of him who eats meat and drinks wine on the Ninth of Ab Scripture says: And their iniquities are upon their bones.”

The first step to understanding this sequence is to analyze the issue of melacha, or working, on Tisha B’Av. Melacha at times has a more general meaning of working at one’s job, while other instances refer to a specific structure of activity in halakha (such as the forbidden melachot on Shabbat). In this specific instance, it would appear to be referring to a person working, but the problem of working on Tisha B’Av does share in common a similar philosophical problem as melacha on Shabbat. The abstention from melacha creates a unique vacuum in a person’s daily life, as those activities function in many ways as a distraction.

The creation of such a void in Shabbat/Yom Tov should be filled with learning Torah. Working, in the more conventional sense, partakes of this same concept of distraction. The Sages could not outright forbid working on Tisha B’Av, as the vehicle in halakha to bring this about would require the Torah based formula of melacha; there is no sanctity to the day of Tisha B’Av (unlike Shabbat/Yom Tov), and therefore no framework to create such a prohibition.

They did inject a theme of mourning into the entire day, evidenced by the various prayers recited and mourner-type activities (such as sitting on the ground). One might surmise that these edicts would be sufficient to create the necessary atmosphere required for Tisha B’Av. In other words, if a person acts like a mourner, he will be fulfilling its objectives.

The accent on abstaining from working indicates that there is an important avenue we should take advantage of. There is an opportunity for a person to contemplate and reflect on the tremendous loss the Jewish people suffered, and continue to suffer.

The loss of the Temple meant a paradigm shift in our relationship with God. The various mourner practices assist in creating an environment for this reflection. But the withdrawal from toil will allow the advancement of one’s introspection and create the proper means of focus. The Talmud points to the talmid chacham, the Sage, as the example one should aim for when choosing to forego melacha. The Sage is one who takes advantage of every opportunity to involve himself in study. Tisha B’Av, through abstention from the world of working, allows for such an opportunity for everyone. 

The Talmud then shifts to a seemingly disparate statement, where the activity of eating or drinking on Tisha B’Av is comparable to Yom Kippur. On one level, this would appear to be an attempt to bring home to the Jewish people the severity of the day of Tisha B’Av, as it is “only” a rabbinical decree.

It is possible there is a deeper message. If a person “transforms” himself into a mourner on Tisha B’Av, the focus on the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple would appear to be complete. Fasting might seem to be a superfluous requirement, as it does not add to the aspect of mourning (in fact, there is no requirement in halakha of a mourner abstaining from food). Thus, a person may attempt to view fasting as a secondary aspect, rather than a primary one, of Tisha B’Av. The comparison to Yom Kippur stresses the importance of fasting. Depriving the instincts of gratification through fasting is the ideal venue for repentance. It is the centerpiece of the experience on Yom Kippur. One should therefore understand that repenting is a critical component of Tisha B’Av as well.

Remembering the historical tragedy is essential, and is how Tisha B’Av is thematically so dissimilar to Yom Kippur. Yet one needs to consider that to merely remember and not be inspired to change, to not resist the complacency of the state of sin, would leave an insurmountable obstacle in the objective of the day. Fasting works hand in hand with the other features of the day to hopefully ensure this is the last Tisha B’Av.

We now are beginning to see a theme developing, where the Talmud is focusing on certain warnings concerning how one relates to Tisha B’A. The return back to the issue of working highlights this point. The first statement concerns a person participating in melacha but never seeing a “sign of blessing” from it. This warning is actually used in other rabbinical commandments, such as Purim. One might take the warning literally, implying a Divine response, or lack thereof, to the activity.

A more reasonable approach might be to understand the benefits a person receives when he is involved in working, as it certainly aids in his overall well-being. Working produces a feeling of security which is of paramount importance to a person’s overall perfection. It could be the Talmud here is referring to a person who understands Tisha B’Av as an important day, but seeks out the “escape” of working to avoid its pain. Contemplating the reality of the breach in our relationship with God is not a pleasant activity. There is a tremendous draw to leave that frame of mind, as nobody wants to confront the current reality. This person, then, will not gain the benefits built into melacha. He will be conflicted, and that will prevent the good of melacha impacting him in the correct manner. 

The Talmud now moves to the worst of the attitudes towards the day. An individual chooses to work and does not mourn over the loss of the Temple. Is he just a “bad person”? The reality is that internalizing the extent of the tragedy, both in the destruction of the Temple and the change in our relationship with God, is something that may not ring true to people. The event is ancient history. Jews have been elevated to the highest echelons of power and wealth. Why bother focusing on this event?

The irrelevance of the day, especially looking through the lens of the twenty-first century, is a very tempting viewpoint. For this individual, the tragedy of the Temple is not a current reality to him;, it is a distant historical event that occurred to a different group of people. The choice of working is not an escape for this person. He works because there is nothing different about this day. If a person is unable to recognize the loss of the Temple, then he certainly cannot appreciate what its return means when it is rebuilt. He is excised from the Temple experience entirely, both in a literal and conceptual manner. There is no reality of Temple in his framework, and therefore no understanding of the unique relationship God has with the Jewish people. 

Finally, the Talmud concludes with the individual who consumes meat and wine. The commentaries point out the time of this consumption is the final meal (seuda mafseket) prior to Tisha B’Av. We should also note that the Talmud considers this individual to be comparable to one who does not mourn. The person who does not mourn at all sees no importance in the day. The person who chooses to eat meat and drink wine takes a different view. He understands what the day is, but willingly chooses to give the day a character of happiness. This individual rejects its importance outright, whereas the previous individual ignores its significance. 

Should it be a struggle to internalize the reality of the loss of the Temple? Some have written that in today’s world, with the return of many Jews to Israel and the prominence of Jews in society, that the centrality of the Temple is a thing of the past. Some point to the method of religious worship of the Temple and see no connection to modern sophisticated man. There are those who attend services, listen to Eicha and read through the Kinot, but never actually feel the loss. The inability to internalize the reality of what the loss of the Temple means it itself a tragedy. Every day that goes by, where we tolerate being in a state of sin and acting complacent about our current relationship to God, is calamitous.

The Talmud gives us the insight as to how to overcome any resistances, as well as warning us of the temptation to discard Tisha B’Av. Ultimately, we see from the Talmud how the Sages are beseeching us to take advantage of this opportunity. We must immerse ourselves in the reality of our current state and look beyond the superficial circumstances of the present. Let us unite in a collective cry, acknowledging with clarity where we are and how we are resolved to change and return to God.