In traditional Judaism, the three weeks leading up to and including the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which this year begins on Monday evening, are characterized by an increasing severity of mourning for the destruction of the Temples.
For me, these three weeks also serve as a sober countdown to the one day of the year when I find it difficult to be a religious Jew in Israel.
Israel tries its best to be sensitive to the religiously observant on Tisha B’Av. Each municipality may decide whether or not to prohibit “public entertainment” on Tisha B’Av, and in practice the night of Tisha B’Av is pretty quiet. Officially, according to a law passed by the Knesset in 1997, “public entertainment” is defined as “plays, movies, concerts, discos, dances, ballet, night clubs, circuses, games or sports, and any entertainment such as these.” The 1997 law does not mention restaurants, however. Are these “public entertainment” and therefore to be closed, or do these constitute part of the normal fabric of life? If so, would the act of closing them mean that the state is practicing religious coercion?
Though the Knesset passed a legal addendum specifically forbidding restaurants from opening on Tisha B’Av in 2002, in practice some restaurants, especially in the Tel Aviv area, are open for business on this day. Whether or not these restaurants are fined is up to the incumbent interior minister, so each new Knesset term brings its own Tisha B’Av surprises.
The quiet, public spaces on Tisha B’Av may encourage people to go to synagogue to hear the beautiful, poignant chanting of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Indeed, the Israel Association of Community Centers published a booklet to be used that evening at centers all over the country. (Many Israelis are not comfortable going to a synagogue and so the local community centers sometimes host holiday ceremonies.) The booklet includes Hebrew poetry, Lamentations (with modern Hebrew glosses), and other selected readings, traditional and contemporary.
But a huge gap separates an evening spent listening to Lamentations with the most challenging ritual observance of Tisha B’Av: a 25-hour fast. While some non-observant Israelis fast on Yom Kippur out of ethnic identity, I have yet to meet an Israeli who fasts on Tisha B’Av for this reason. I observe Jewish traditions in part because they are the “folkways” of the Jewish people (as Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, referred to them). But a folkway that has been abandoned by the majority of the Jewish people does not seem particularly inviting – and that is all the more true if that folkway involves going without food and water for 25 hours in the middle of the summer.
There is another important reason why fasting on Tisha B’Av is challenging for me, and this has to do with my attitude toward the Temple. True, the Temples were destroyed, and these were national tragedies, but the Jewish people has moved on from there. Yet built into traditional mourning (including fasting) for the Temples’ destruction is the traditional hope for the rebuilding of a third Temple.
Frankly, I tend to shudder rather than rejoice at the prospect of a return to animal sacrifice.
So the bottom line is that I really don’t want to fast on Tisha B’Av, but I have to. I have to because I am a religious Jew. My tradition teaches me that God, through the sages, has commanded me to fast on Tisha B’Av.
I don’t get to make the rules. I am either going to obey or I am not going to obey. I am a religious Jew and I will obey. For compensation, I rely on the following teaching: “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit the future vision of her joy.”