“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”
by Jacques Abourbih, Roger Nash & Scott Goldstein
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres” (137, 1-2).
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (137, 5-7).
“Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your G-d, O Zion!” (147, 12).
This Saturday after the end of Shabbat we start the commemoration of the great tragedy that befell us on Tisha’a B’Av. Our destiny was decreed, our Sages tell us, because of selfishness, disunity and lack of respect for each other.
Yet we are told by our Ne’viim (prophets): “From the ashes of the destroyed temple will raise an incomparably magnificent edifice. Exile will give birth to redemption. It is a tradition that our redeemer will be born on Tisha b’Av. It is a day of anticipation and hope, for “One who mourns Jerusalem will merit seeing her happiness.” From our ashes will come the Redemption for this world.
Raba said: As a reward for our father Abraham having said: I am but dust and ashes, his descendants were worthy to receive two commandments: the ashes of the [Red] Heifer, and the dust [used in the ceremony] of a woman suspected of adultery.
T.B. Maschat Hullin 88b
This selection tells us that because Abraham Avinu’s sublime uttering: “I am but dust and ashes” when he pleaded with G-d on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18: 28-32), G-d gave us the Mitzvot of the ashes (of the Red Heifer) and dust (from the ceremony of the Bitter waters during the trial of the wife suspected of adultery), which will cleans us of our sins.
At issue here is the determination of the great question: “ WHO AM I?” Abraham in a moment of sobering introspection realizes his own death, while pleading to spare the death sentence passed against the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrha. He could have asked G-d instead to spare him, and grant him exemption from “Dust and Ashes. Yet he chose to set aside his own mortality and pleads on behalf of those condemned.” This act of Abraham, thinking of the welfare of others while setting aside one’s own self centered thoughts, elevates the whole of humanity to a higher level. The Guemara tells us that G-d rewarded humanity for Abraham’s act by giving us these two additional Mitzvot from ashes and dust, the two same two elements coming back as a reward that made Abraham’s children worthy of receiving those extra Mitzvot.
From the ashes and the dust from which we have been born, and with all the human weaknesses that plague us as humans, G-d has given us the tools of purity of the self and holiness in our relationship with each other.
Some notes on the history and the customs of Tisha B’Av.
In 66 CE the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire. Four years later, in 70 CE, Roman legions under Titus reconquered and subsequently destroyed much of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The arch of Titus, located in Rome and built to commemorate Titus’s victory in Judea, depicts Roman soldiers carrying off the Menorah from the Temple. Jerusalem itself was razed by the Emperor Hadrian at the end of the Bar Kochba Rebellion in 135 CE.
On Motzei Shabbat this weekend starts the observation of Tisha b’Av. It is a somber time of remembrance, when both our Holy Temples were destroyed, and exile, persecution and spiritual darkness began.
Yet in history Tisha B’Av was a festive time during the period of the Second Commonwealth (the period preceding the destruction of the Second Temple). During this time, the four fast days that commemorate the destruction of the first Bet haMikdash were celebrated as holidays, and the people would eat, drink, and rejoice even on The Ninth of Av itself.
Since the year 70 CE observant Jews fast, and refrain from social amenities such as bathing, putting on perfumes or scents, wearing leather shoes, and from sexual intercourse. It is customary to sit on the floor or on a low seat until after mid-day on the day of Tisha B’Av. You may have noted that these traditions are similar to the ones observed during the week of shiva’ah (mourning). While the study of Torah is prohibited (since studying Torah brings joy), studying the Talmudic tractate Moed Kattan (that deals with the laws of mourning and excommunication), the Book of Job and the Midrash to Megillat Eichah is permitted.
As you recall at Purim there is a public reading of Megillat Esther form a scroll. At Tisha B’Av Megillat Eicha (Lamentations), composed by the prophet Yermiahu (Jeremiah) is also read publicly, but not from a scroll. Our Soferim (scribes) did not customarily write this Megillah, as an expression of the yearning and great anticipation of the time when the Ninth of Av shall be transformed into a day of rejoicing and happiness. Hence, because of the shortage of parchment scrolls, it became customary to read Eichah from a printed book.
The atmosphere at the Synagogue is somber and solemn on erev Tisha B’Av. Only a single light is lit at the pulpit of the synagogue. In my Sephardi Synagogue in Montreal we extinguished all lights in the synagogue and we lit one small lamp. The chazzan would then announce the number of years that have passed since the destruction of the Beit haMikdash.
Observation of Tisha B’Av starts this Saturday evening at 10 pm. Morning prayers start at 9 am, followed by Minchah at about 5:45 pm. For those who wish to observe the fast, it starts at 8:43 pm on Saturday evening and fast ends at 9:15 pm.
I have attached a short piece about the history and traditions about Tisah B’Av you may want to read.
Here is a custom that may be interesting to you. It is a Tish B’Av tradition that in the afternoon – a little after rising from avelut that the women [or men] clean the house in preparation for the arrival of mashiach. Sages have mentioned that the afternoon of Tisha B’Av is one of the times that the mashiach will arrive. Therefore, we prepare for his arrival by cleaning the house, just like we would for [a long overdue] guest
A bedrock matter for discussion, since the formation of the State of Israel, is whether or quite how this Festival should be celebrated today. Differences of opinion sweep the Jewish spectrum, from Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist. Does fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the loss of sovereignty ignore the realty of the founding of the modern State of Israel? This can be a very deep and exercising question, whichever side you come down on; and so one on which discussion should be encouraged in a diverse community, rather than a schedule presented as a fait accompli.
For myself, I generally favour maintaining the fast and Festival. But the giving of reasons is crucial here — and being prepared to see them overturned in debate. My reasons include: the Temple has still not been rebuilt; the time of the Messiah and redemption has still not arrived, and is still to be worked for; under a broad and metaphysical definition of “galut,” we all still live in a state of exile, in living in a hugely imperfect world, whether we live in Israel or Canada; and it is important to memorialize these past tragic events, not least, to minimize the chance of anything like them being repeated.
By the way, what’s your reading of Zechariah 8:19? [This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”]
It speaks of four fasts becoming days of rejoicing. Does this refer to actual practice in the time of the second Temple, or to coming messianic times? Different scholars give different readings, and the debate is still open. On the first reading, if Jews of the Second Commonwealth ceased to observe these fast days, should we?
For me, such questions, such debate, are the life-blood of living as a Jew.
In a questioning spirit, Roger
I am delighted and deeply honored to have this debate, and sincerely hope it will continue to be ongoing. I think it is important to share this exchange with the community, and I have taken the liberty to share the essence of your arguments. Hopefully this will prompt others to challenge you and me and the Rabbis of old!
Indeed how should Tisha B’Av be observed, you ask?
Tisha B’Av historically is the actual divide between the Judaism of the Bible and the Judaism of the Rabbis. We will explore this in the weeks to come G-d willing. But more than for its spiritual value Tisha B’Av also reminds us that we are still living in an unredeemed world.
The ancient Rabbis understood that Tisha B’Av was not only a Jewish-tribal lament, but bore in itself the seed of universal sorrow.
Tisha B’Av, our memorial for the burning of the two Temples, is also a time of reflection about the Burning in our own time: The burning of our earthly sanctuary with Global Warming, AIDS, Nuclear Proliferation, poverty, holocausts, and the list is endless. In our own earthquake era, when the macrocosmic earth itself is in the danger of our burning it, Tisha B’Av is truly the day of Universal Exile, what I call the Galut (exile) of Humanity.
Tisha B’Av may be especially filled with meaning personally AND individually. The somber ritual of Tisha B’Av is also for all the hearts burning with acts of personal and social self-destruction.
But G-d has not left us in utter despair. Starting with Shabbat Nachamu there are 7 Shabbatot of “Comforting”.
I like particularly Rabbi Shefa Gold’s teaching about Shabbat Nachamu. Nachamu is the deep place of comfort that God offers and we seek (see the Isaiah chapter 40 haftarah). “It is comfort so deep that we can live with the pain and discomfort — not live with other people’s pain as if it needed no healing, but live with the discomfort we bring into our own lives if we seek to make healing happen.”
The intense challenge of the Prophetic warning passage from Isaiah chapter 1, “Hazon,” (Vision) leave one with a quivering voice within that screams in despair: “Where then do we find solid footing for our lives?”
The Haftarah from Isaiah chapter 40, “Nachamu,” (Comfort), provides an answer: “The ground beneath our feet is G-d, Hashem, the deeply mysterious design embodied in the cycles of the grass beneath our feet, the cycles of the galaxies above, and the cycles of corruption and cleansing that is even in G-d’s holy city of Jerusalem.”
We can stand on the place of high perspective, says Isaiah’s reading, and see what it means for the hills to be made low and the valleys high, what it means for great empires to fall and the humiliated to arise.
This is the meaning of Tisha B’Av. Self-reflection and discovery is as personal as how each finds the end of the path on this journey of self-discovery. On this day of universal sorrow the rituals of Tisha B’Av only point the way.
The end of Tisha B’Av is drawing to a close. But G-d does not allow this
day of Remembrance to leaves us without the promise of consolation and
the beginning of the sprouting of Redemption. In the Haftarah we read
this afternoon at Mincha the prophet Isaiah says:
This is what the LORD says:
and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
I would like to share with you my thoughts I had last night. We were
alone, Scott and I in the sanctuary of our synagogue, at 10 O’clock.
Only one light was on. Scott began to intone the mournful verses of
In this lugubrious setting I thought of the Parasha we read yesterday
morning, Shabbat Hazon. Parasha Devarim mentions that before joining the
other 11 spies sent by Moses to report on the Land, Caleb took a special
trip to Meorat Ha’Machpelah-the burial place of our Patriarchs and
Matriarchs in Hebron before embarking upon his scouting mission.
There is a powerful message in Caleb’s side trip, relating to observing
Tisha B’av as it has been for centuries – a day of national mourning: we
must return to our places of origin as Caleb did,- our biblical
values-to appreciate the commitment it will take to making the
sacrifices necessary to transform our own torn community, our own abused
world into a place dedicated to righteousness, justice and peace.
Our minds, hearts and souls will always, always be linked to Hebron and
Jerusalem, symbols of our destiny and the sources of our inspirations.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill,
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.”