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2017-07-28

Tisha B’Av – the saddest day in the Jewish calendar

On 31st of July at sunset begins the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, or literally: “the ninth of Av”. 

“My eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

[Lamentations 3:48]

That day marks the anniversary of the most tragic events in the history of the Jews. According to tradition, the first misfortune that happened on the 9th day of the month of Av was the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. For the Jewish people this was the beginning of Babylonian captivity. Also the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans fell on that day in 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem ended the period of the existence of Jewish state. According to the Talmud Ta’anit 4:6, also on the 9th day of Av in 135 CE the Romans supressed Bar Kochba revolt and killed more than 500,000 Jews. At that time also the site of the temple was destroyed.

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Francesco Hayez, The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, 1867, fot. Accademia of Venice / Wikimedia Commons   

"1870 years ago we lost our country. We lost the ground under our feet. We were torn out, like a tree with roots, from the life-giving soil. The roots hung in the air. But then we have often run out of air. And almost always we have lacked the sun.

We have become a peculiarity of history: a nation without land. We have also become just its object, a thing thrown around by external forces, by all sorts of earthquakes, from one corner to another over the Earth’s globe. Wherever we tried to fasten the tent of our national being, the first blow of bad wind would sweep it off. Wherever we sought respite, and sometimes it seemed that we had found it, that this was a calm, lasting haven, everywhere the storm would shatter these delusions and bring us anxiety and – a walking stick.

It happened then, in the year 70 of normal age, and it is still going on.

[…] And again our generation goes through historical transformations which are changing the face of the world. And «if the cedars are taken by flames, then what the grass can do?» If the granite buildings collapsed, how can the weak tents survive?

The storm of history rushes the boat of our being on the waves of historical cataclysms. Where is it running?

We do not know the direction nor the goal. But who knows, maybe to some shore? Maybe to a calm, lasting haven?

For are we forever destined for the miserable fate of wanderers?”

[H. S., Tisza be’Aw, “Gazeta Żydowska” August 14, 1940, no. 7, page 1].

This text on the occasion of Tisha B’Av was published by “Gazeta Żydowska” on August 14, 1940. The time when this text was written certainly influenced its timbre, but the 9th day of the month of Av has always been commemorated in sadness, in musing over the fate of the Jewish people.

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Tisha B’Av, 1926, photo: NAC   

The day of fast is preceded by a three-week period of penance. During this time, it is forbidden to entertain, to have weddings or even a haircut. The parochet and other ornaments are removed from the Torah ark (aron kodesh), where the scroll is stored. In the evening, before the commencement of commemoration, dinner is eaten – Seudah HaMafseket, whose element is a hardboiled egg sprinkled with ash as a sign of penance. After dinner, shoes must be taken off and one should sit on the floor as a sign of mourning. On the 9th day of the month of Av, Jews should observe strict prohibitions. No eating or drinking. No washing or bathing, no application of creams or oils, no wearing new clothes or leather shoes. Excerpts from the Book of Lamentations (also called: Jeremiah’s Laments) are read in the synagogues, as well as kinnot – dirges or elegies, among which are also texts from the fifth and sixth century CE, and from the times of the first crusade (1096-1099).

On that day, many Jews used to visit the cemeteries. They went there to pour out their hearts, cry at the graves of the loved ones. Here is an excerpt from “Hajnt” newspaper, published in 1932:

“In nearly all the synagogues and prayer houses, during the kinnot, money was collected for the National Fund. [...] The cemetery at Gęsia Street was visited by thousands of people.”

[Tisze be-Aw in Warsze, “Hajnt” August 12, 1932, no. 154A, page 2].

During World War II, another significant date was added to the list of tragic events in Jewish history – 9th of Av 5702 according to the Jewish calendar, or July 23, 1942 according to the Gregorian count of time. On that day, the first transport with the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto left Umschlagplatz. This was the beginning of the Great Deportation Action, during which Germans murdered about 300,000 thousand Jews in the ghetto streets and in the gas chambers of Treblinka II.  

Aleksandra Król

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