When Did Tisha B'Av Become a National Fast Day?

In the past, Tisha B'Av was like the Fast of Gedalia and the Fast of Esther - fast days that only the super-religious observed.

Neri Livneh
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews commemorating Tisha B’Av.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Neri Livneh

 A friend of mine who recently came back to Israel after living in the United States for 30 years asked me if she was correct in her recollection that, before she left, no one had made a very big deal about Tisha B'Av. It's weird, but the truth is that I, too, remember that, many years ago, nobody did make a big deal about it.

The Sephardic half of my family, the part that had spent a few generations here before I was born, would refer to Tisha B'Av as "Tchabob." The elders of their community would reference this date for two reasons: First, it was known that one did not swim in the ocean on this date or the 10 days that preceded it, because the period posed a danger of immediate drowning to anyone who stuck so much as a foot into the water. Second, the expression "Eicha-Tchabob face," was used to describe someone with a face so ugly it disqualified him or her from a shidukh (arranged match ).

The Ashkenazi half of my family - the ones we'd refer to as the "galutis" since they, my father among them, had come from the Diaspora - would go to work on Tisha B'Av as if it were any other day. First, this was to escape the chains of his ultra-Orthodox upbringing, from which he'd emigrated in the first place. Second, it was because Tisha B'Av then was an "optional day" for public service workers - and who in his right mind would choose to take a day off when his wife wouldn't let him take the kids to the beach?

So Tisha B'Av was like the Fast of Gedalia and the Fast of Esther - fast days that only the super-religious observed.

Even during my first 10 years in Jerusalem, I cannot recall Tisha B'Av being a sort of mini-Yom Kippur, but I do remember exactly when that started to change. It was 20-something years ago when then-Mayor Teddy Kollek was caught dining on Tisha B'Av in a luxury, non-kosher restaurant (which means that even restaurants were open then ). He came under heavy fire for not taking the sensitivities of the capital's religious and Haredi population into account.

My heart aches with longing for such a mayor in Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv and Haifa, of course, they continued to eat on Tisha B'Av as usual. So what turned Tisha B'Av into a national day of mourning? Who needed that?

For a few years already, I've come to suspect that the primary reason for the proliferation of holidays and fast days from year to year is to provide material for Jewish enrichment classes in kindergartens and elementary schools, as well as for all the secular batei midrash.

For example, Shavuot has turned into a gold mine for all the secular batei midrash and Reform synagogues, which now hold Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all-night study on Shavuot eve ). Even more annoying is the fact that Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av ), which until 15 years ago no one paid attention to, has been turned into the "holiday of love," the preferred holiday for those who otherwise are careful to observe only one Jewish custom - the custom not to learn Torah on Christmas Eve.

Tu B'Av actually looks more like a clever business initiative launched by all the life coaches, dating websites, matchmakers and other charlatans who make fortunes off the distress of those who have difficulties finding a mate. They, in turn, are in cahoots with all the party organizers, chocolate makers, fashion designers and gift manufacturers - all operating with a sprinkling of divine spirit.

Don't believe me? One of the bigger dating websites is organizing a "speed dating" event at the Western Wall especially for Tu B'Av. Let us pray that on such an evening, even a girl with an Eicha-Tchabob face will be able to find a boyfriend with whom she'll be able to take the "Selihot tours" that will be taking place in the capital two months hence.