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The Observance of Tisha B’Av

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

A period known as The Three Weeks stretches from the minor fast of the 17th day of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av.1 2 Some Jews avoid celebrations (including weddings) and stop shaving, cutting their hair and listening to music during The Three Weeks.3

From the beginning of the month of Av, the period of The Nine Days begins; Tisha B’Av is the ninth day. The Nine Days are the last part of The Three Weeks. Some Jews who do not observe the prohibitions for The Three Weeks (not shaving or cutting their hair, not scheduling weddings or listening to music, and avoiding large parties) observe some or all of those prohibitions during The Nine Days; some Jews also refrain from eating meat and drinking alcoholic beverages (except for Kiddush) during The Nine Days.4 The Three Weeks mark the period of siege before Jerusalem fell and the Second Temple was destroyed. The Nine Days mark the period from the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls until the destruction of the Temple.5 6

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Ḥazon after the opening words of the haftarah from the Book of Isaiah.7 The parasha, the section of Torah read that day, is the opening section of Deuteronomy. The haftarah and Torah portion reflect basically the same theology of divine punishment for sin as that of Eykha described here, and Isaiah warns of physical destruction and human humiliation and decimation. This intensifies the mood as Tisha B’Av approaches.

Tisha B’Av is a 24-hour fast day that begins at sundown. Many of its observances are the same as those of Yom Kippur, which is d’orayta (required by the Torah). Tisha B’Av’s observance is d’rabanan (ordained by the rabbis rather than biblical in origin). While Yom Kippur (known as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths) is traditionally observed for 25 hours, as is Shabbat, Tisha B’Av, which is never observed on Shabbat, lasts only 24 hours.8 Work is prohibited on Yom Kippur, but Tisha B’Av always falls on a weekday, and work is permitted.

Adults traditionally observe the fast on Tisha B’Av; minors, those who are ill and women who are pregnant or nursing are exempt. If the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat, Tisha B’Av is observed immediately after Shabbat. The fast is postponed until then because fasting and mourning are contrary to the spirit of Shabbat, which takes precedence over other observances. When Tisha B’Av is observed on a Sunday, Havdala is not recited at the end of Shabbat; instead, it is recited at the conclusion of Tisha B’Av, since it would be inappropriate for the sweet smell and joyous tone of Havdala to launch Tisha B’Av.9 The fast is preceded by a substantial meal, se’uda mafseket (literally, “meal of pausing,” the last meal before a fast). At the meal before Tisha B’Av, it is customary not to serve alcoholic beverages or elaborate foods, so that the meal has some of the somber tone of Tisha B’Av.10

Once Tisha B’Av begins, some Jews avoid wearing leather, jewelry, belt buckles and other metal objects, which were considered ostentatious and in earlier times were reminiscent of war.11 An effort is made to wear simple, plain clothes. Many Jews also refrain from bathing and showering, wearing perfume and makeup, and having sexual relations. Even though work is permitted on Tisha B’Av, some Jews avoid signing contracts and negotiating agreements because Tisha B’Av is not a day associated with good outcomes. Traditional Jews limit Torah study, a pleasurable activity, to themes of the day, and they avoid sports, movies and other forms of entertainment altogether in order to preserve the day’s somber mood. Some communities strategically place black cloth or ribbon on the bima or pews in the sanctuary to remind their members that this is a day of mourning. Some Sephardic (descendents of Spain and Portugal) congregations put black mantles on their Torah scrolls; some congregations put a black curtain on the front of the ark.

As on Yom Kippur, the evening service usually begins at sundown or soon thereafter.12 It is chanted plaintively with a melodic line different from that of any other ma’ariv (evening) service. Sometimes special kinot (dirges; mournful liturgical poems) are read, or songs on the theme of the day are sung. Eykha is always chanted in a special trop (melody).13 Sometimes five different people each chant one of the five chapters of Eykha; some congregations read all or part of it in English translation. In keeping with the spirit of mourning, many people listen to Eykha while sitting on low stools or on the floor with the lights dimmed, sometimes reading the text by candlelight. This somber atmosphere creates a suitable opportunity for reflecting on the themes of the day. In some communities, a d’var tzedek—a talk focused on justice or righteousness—is given on a contemporary issue demanding action.14 In other communities the service is preceded by a lecture, film or discussion related to the themes of the day. Some communities have the custom of maintaining silence after the service until people are some distance from the building in order to better preserve the mood invoked by the service.

On Tisha B’Av we remember a time when Israel’s prayer utterly failed, and we remember the resulting pain. That is why in both the morning and evening service it is customary to omit the titkabal line from the Kaddish. It asks, “May the prayer and supplication of the whole house of Israel be acceptable to their creator in heaven.” It is not a day to ask that our prayers be accepted.15 

Traditional communities schedule extra time for their early morning service on Tisha B’Av to allow time for reading Eykha once again. Some include kinot as well. Reconstructionists insert a fast-day version of Avinu Malkeynu after the Amida. (See pages 139–143 in Kol Haneshamah: Limot Ḥol.)16 Both the Torah portion (Deuteronomy 4:25–40) and haftarah (Jeremiah 8:13–9:23) speak of the destruction. Additional readings are often added to the service. (See pages 473–477 in Kol Haneshamah: Limot Ḥol.) While most adults wear a tallit for shaḥarit, donning tefillin, normally a morning activity, is usually postponed till minḥa in the afternoon.17 18 19  This disruption is partly because the wearing of tefillin is a source of pleasure that some consider an adornment, and partly because according to the Targum (an Aramaic translation/interpretation of the Bible), tefillin are symbols of God’s glory, and according to the midrash, God’s glory is obscured on Tisha B’Av.

  • 1. In Hebrew, the period of The Three Weeks is called “beyn hametzarim,” “between the narrow places.” —J.G.K.
  • 2. Entering a season that begins with Tisha B’Av (or the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av), extends through the Yamim Nora’im, and concludes with Simchat Torah is a yearly invitation to literally live out the message of Psalm 30—to turn our weeping and mourning into dancing. Our tradition teaches us that there is a time for each of these purposes. These days and practices, meaningful in and of themselves, also coach us on how to embrace times to mourn and times to dance—how to deeply experience the range of human emotions and to confront head on the blessings and the misery of the human condition. Mourning together on Tisha B’Av strengthens us for the other times when we need to mourn as individuals and as a community. Tisha B’Av can serve as a paradigm for how to employ the gifts of ritual and community when calamity befalls us and when life is particularly chaotic. —L.T.P.
  • 3. Sephardic Jews heighten their observance of prohibitions during the week of Tisha B’Av itself rather than from the very beginning of the month of Av. —J.G.K.
  • 4. Exceptions to the restrictions on eating meat and drinking alcoholic beverages include Shabbat and seudot mitzvah (festive meals celebrating a mitzvah, such as a brit ceremony) or when celebrating a siyum (completing the study of a tractate of Talmud). —J.G.K.
  • 5. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that when we approach Tisha B’Av, we go through the same phases of mourning as we do when we have lost a close relative, only in reverse order, with mourning gradually increasing until it peaks at Tisha B’Av. —J.G.K.
  • 6. Just as the Talmud teaches that from the beginning of the month of Adar (when we celebrate Purim) joy increases, it also teaches that from the beginning of the month of Av, joy decreases. Our sages could have taught, “From the beginning of the month of Av, sorrow increases,” but they did not. The standard by which we measure ourselves is joy. —J.G.K.
  • 7.Ḥazon” means “vision.” Here it refers to the prophet’s vision of impending destruction. During The Nine Days or on Shabbat Ḥazon, some congregations foreshadow Tisha B’Av musically by singing Adon Olam or L’kha Dodi to the tune of Eli Tziyon, a common Tisha B’Av kina. —J.G.K.
  • 8. Even though Tisha B’Av is observed for one hour less than Yom Kippur, it often feels longer because sunset falls later in the day than on Yom Kippur. —J.J.S.
  • 9. On ordinary Saturday evenings, many Jews delay Havdala in order to prolong the joy of Shabbat. In the frequent years when the ninth or tenth day of Av begins on a Saturday evening, the striking transition from the joy of Shabbat to the gloom of Tisha B’Av leaves no room for prolonging the spirit of Shabbat into the work week. On those evenings Havdala consists of acknowledging separation in the silent Saturday evening Amida and reciting the blessing over a flame or lamp. The spices are omitted entirely, and the blessings over wine and separation are postponed until Sunday night. —J.G.K.
  • 10. On weekdays, some people include hard-boiled eggs and ashes in the pre-fast meal. —J.G.K.
  • 11. Leather shoes in particular are traditionally not worn on Tisha B’Av. —J.G.K.
  • 12. The two major fast days on our calendar are radically different. Some consider Yom Kippur a joyous fast when we are undistracted by food. On Tisha B’Av we fast because of events so terrible that eating is not possible. —J.G.K.
  • 13. I grew up reciting Tisha B’Av prayers with no melody at all, just reading the words aloud one by one, which I have found to be strikingly different from the chanting on autopilot to which we may be accustomed. —J.G.K.
  • 14. Communities might use The Three Weeks to explore and make a commitment to new areas of tikun olam for the coming year. Tisha B’Av can be a day when people share these discoveries and prioritize their work in the realm of world repair, as well as create a space for service projects. —L.T.P.
  • 15. Tisha B’Av can also be a time to engage questions of theology. If traditional teachings bring up questions of God’s hidden face or of prayer failing our people, we might engage in exploring and writing on where we find God’s face in suffering or on how we bring godliness into tragedy. We might also acknowledge the prayers that are omitted on this day and create new ones that encourage us to bring godliness to each situation and build a world where we all are able to seek and experience God’s presence. —L.T.P.
  • 16. Unlike on the minor fast days, traditional communities do not recite Avinu Malkeynu on Tisha B’Av. Also omitted are the Taḥanunim, supplications after the Amida, perhaps because the mourning humbles us enough or because the word “moed,” “festive season,” is used to describe the day in Lamentations 1:15. There is also a legend that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, and that Tisha B’Av will become a holiday in messianic times. —J.G.K.
  • 17. The Minḥa Amida on Tisha B’Av contains a special fast-day paragraph and an elaborate version of its 14th blessing expressing the hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and comfort for its mourners. The idea of imagining and working toward a real city of peace echoes the social justice themes we see throughout the holiday. —J.G.K.
  • 18. What does it mean to have a prayer “accepted”? Even in the most adverse circumstances, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, when we pray for comfort with an open heart, or for strength or faith or endurance, our prayers are always accepted. When you open your heart, things shift substantially, even when the external outcome does not go your way. —J.J.S.
  • 19. Some hold that until noontime on Tisha B’Av, you should act as one who has lost a close relative before the funeral—one who is in the state of aninut, in which one is exempt from regular work and from putting on tzitzit and tefillin. From midday onward, we transition to avelut, the type of mourning associated with shiva, when we don tzitzit and tefillin. —J.G.K.

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