The Mystery of Why Jews Fast on Tisha B'Av

The Prophet Zechariah, for one, seems to think we should be celebrating the construction of the Second Temple, not mourning the loss of the first. But that was then.

A painting of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem from 1867.
A painting of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem from 1867. The Yorck Project

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish day of mourning. However, what exactly we are mourning for, and why we're doing so on this date, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, is somewhat mysterious.

The general consensus these days is that we're mourning for the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as a host of other travails that befell the Jewish people over the ages. But how that came to focus on this day is unknown.

What's sure is that sometime in the summer of 587 BCE, Babylonian forces besieged Jerusalem. They eventually breached the great stone walls protecting the city, plundered the First Temple, and set it ablaze. The Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon where famously “we wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).

During the 50 years the Jews stayed before being allowed to return to Jerusalem by King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE, four fast days were established in memory of the First Temple’s destruction. One was in the month of Av. Which day in Av, we don't know.

It seems that unusually, these fast days were established from the “bottom up" – meaning, they began among the people, instead of being handed down from on high by religious authorities. Support for that thesis appears in the Book of Esther. When talking about the grassroots origin of Purim, the author says exactly that about the fast days: “…as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fastings and their cry” (Esther 9:31).

Jewish worshippers pray next to the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, in Jerusalem's Old City August 1, 2017.
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Perhaps that non-centralization of the fasts is why, after the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple, they were at odds as to whether or not to continue mourning rites, with their independence regained and the Temple rebuilt.

Should I weep or be gladdened?

The earliest reference to these four days of fasting is found in the Book of Zechariah, written during these first years of return to Israel. Chapters 7 and 8 are essentially the prophet's answer to the Jew’s question: “Should I weep in the fifth month [Av]?” (Zechariah 7:3)

The closest thing Zechariah gives to an answer – apparently, "No, we should celebrate" – is this: “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts” (Zechariah 8:19).

The Prophet Zechariah, as painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Wikimedia Commons

At this point, it bears mention that the fast day in Av may not have been the 9th. The above quote is the only one we have on the subject and Zechariah only gives the month, not the date.

How people marked the destruction of the First Temple (or its rebuilding) in Av during the time of the Second Temple is not clear. Some evidence indicates they fasted; other evidence indicates precisely the opposite – that they celebrated its rebuilding.

Evidence for mourning appears in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:3, which tells that at the start of the month of Av, messengers would be dispatched from the Temple to inform the Jewish communities when the mourning should commence.

On the other hand, another account (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:5) that during the Second Temple period, the 9th of Av marked a sort of ancient Arbor Day, an agricultural holiday celebrating trees.

The bottom line is that we don't know if the Second Temple Jews celebrated a feast on the 9th of Av and fasted on a completely different day in Av. Possibly Zechariah was bemoaning the insistence on mourning a temple that had already been rebuilt, and wanted Jews to stop doing that right away.

In any case, observant Jews today think Zechariah was referring to the End of Days, which is when the fast days should turn into festive days.

When the Temple was destroyed

As we said, another issue shrouded in mystery is when exactly these four fast days marking the destruction of the First Temple took place.

Today we mark the fast day on the 9th of Av, but that may be because we don't know on what date the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. Biblical accounts of the destruction contradict one another. The Book of Kings says it happened on the “seventh day of the month” (2 Kings 25:8), while the Book of Jeremiah has it “in the tenth day of the month” (Jeremiah 52:12).

The earliest accounts dating the day of mourning for the First Temple to the ninth of Av are after the destruction of the Second Temple. We could surmise that the ninth was chosen because that was the date that the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. But it seems, that was not so. The only contemporaneous account dating the destruction of the Second Temple is that of the Jewish historian Josephus, who says in “The Wars of the Jews" that it happened on the 10th of Av.

This dating problem did not elude the rabbis of the Mishnah: "The law would have it that we would mourn on the 10th, the day the house of our god was burned, but why on the ninth?" They then answer their own question: “On the seventh they entered it, on the eighth they circled it, on the ninth they lit the light and on the tenth it burned."

Rabbi Jochanan remained unconvinced. "Had I lived in that generation [which decided on the date] I wouldn't have set it to the tenth." (Ta'anit 4:9)

False messiah fans the fire

Several generations later, during the period of the Babylonian Talmud, the date of Tisha B'Av was imbued with more disasters, to give it even more gravity. This was apparently due to some laxity in execution during later generations, as attested by an account that Yehuda HaNasi sought to abolishing the fast (Megillah 5b): "On the ninth of Av our ancestors were sentenced to not enter the land [punishment for the doubt of the 12 Spies], and the temple was destroyed for the first and second time, and Beitar was captured [thus ending the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE] and the city [of Jerusalem] was destroyed."

It is in the Talmud that many of the traditions associated with Tisha B’Av to this day were set. Reading the Book of Lamentations, sprinkling ashes on the food you eat before the fast begins, sitting on low stools, eschewing leather shoes, and so on. During post-Talmudic times these mourning rites became more and more vigorously observed and new traditions were added, including draping the Torah scroll in black and lighting the synagogue dimly on that day, as well as the chastisement of the congregation by an elder.

Come the 17th century, the kabbalist Sabbatai Zevi announced that he was the Messiah and gained a huge following by Jews around the world. Among other things, he announced that Tisha B’Av would become a day of celebration as foreseen by Zechariah. When Jews became disillusioned with Sabbatai Zevi after his forced conversion to Islam in 1666, Tisha B’Av was taken up anew with new vigor, with extreme public mourning rites being viewed as a badge of orthodox piety.

During the reform movement in the 19th century, some groups (mostly in Germany) favored reinterpreting Tisha B’Av as a day of celebration - as it was the Temple's destruction that turned the Jews into a people of priests destined to minister to the people of the world. Over time, this set of traditions was abandoned.

The State of Israel marks Tisha B’Av eve by closing businesses. Programming on television and radio turns somber. But in contrast to Yom Kippur, most Israeli Jews do not observe the fast.