Tisha B’Av

July-August Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Tisha B’Av?

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for multiple tragedies in Jewish history. The catastrophes believed to have happened on the ninth ("Tisha" in Hebrew) day of the Jewish month of Av include the destruction of both the first and second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively, and the Roman massacre of the Jews of Betar in 132, which effectively ended the Bar Kochba rebellion.

Throughout the centuries, other persecutions have been accrued to the day, including the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and from England in 1290. In 1942, the Germans chose Tisha B’Av to begin the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

However, Jewish tradition has it that one day, Tisha B'Av will become a day of rejoicing. A midrash (Midrash Eicha Rabba 1:51) states that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, and one prophecy (Zechariah 8:19) says Tisha B’Av will someday be celebratory: “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.”

When is Tisha B’Av?

As its name indicates, Tisha B’Av is commemorated on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av (usually falling in August). As with all Jewish holidays, it begins and ends at sundown.

Tisha B'av 2015 - July 25 to 26

Tisha B'av 2016 - August 13 to 14

Tisha B'av 2017 - July 31 to August 1

Tisha B'av 2018 - July 21 to 22

Tisha B'av 2019 - August 10 to 11

How do we observe Tisha B’Av?

Tisha B’Av is day of mourning observed by abstaining from food and drink from sundown to after sunset the next day.

It is customary to sit on low chairs or on the floor, as in a house of mourning. Other mourning customs include wearing old garments and abstaining from sexual relations, the use of perfumes, and wearing leather shoes. Bathing for pleasure is also forbidden, and only the minimal amount of washing for hygiene is allowed. There are also restrictions on working, and it is considered a bad omen to conduct business deals during the fast. Jews refrain from greeting each other or sending gifts on this day. It is customary to sit on low stools or on the floor until midday, and many will remove a pillow or sleep in a less plush bed, the discomfort reminding them of the Temples lost. Studying Torah and Talmud is limited only to those parts suitable for a nation in mourning.

On the night of Tisha B’Av, the somber Book of Eicha (Lamentations), which mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, is read in synagogues by low light or candlelight. This is followed by the recitation of kinnot, liturgical dirges mourning the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem. Some kinnot also recall other events associated with Tisha B’Av, such as massacres of whole communities during the Crusades and the Holocaust.

In Israel, most businesses close early the eve of Tisha B’Av and programming on television and radio is somber and subdued.

What do we eat on Tisha B’Av?

As Tisha B’Av itself is a fast day, we don’t eat on the day itself. However, there is special mourning fare for the last meal before the fast of Tisha B’Av. Many communities serve dishes with round ingredients, symbolizing the circle of life: lentils and eggs in Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, bagels in the Ashkenazi ones.

Are there religious laws governing Tisha B'Av?

Tisha B’Av is believed to have been established during the 70 years of the Babylonian exile as one of four days commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the loss of sovereignty.  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.

The historical significance of Tisha B’Av is discussed in the Mishna (Ta'anit 4:6) although there was some debate during Second Temple times as to whether the fast should still be observed when the Temple had been rebuilt.  After the destruction of the Second Temple, the fast became firmly established in the national psyche. The Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) discusses the precise laws of mourning, starting with “reducing our joy” from the beginning of the month of Av.

Tisha B'Av Reading