How Tisha b’Av Turns Into A Holiday


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:10 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Havdalah: 9:17 p.m.
Tisha b’Av: July 15-16 (fast ends 9:05 p.m.)

“The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will (be transformed into) joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore, love truth and peace” [Zechariah 8: 19].

We give credence and added strength to Zechariah’s prophecy by changing and lightening the foreboding character of Tisha b’Av (the ninth day of the 10th month), rising from our shiva stools (we must sit on the ground on Tisha b’Av) at mid-day. Likewise, adult males put on their tefillin at Mincha, after mid-day, despite the fact that tefillin is called an “adornment” (pe’er) by the prophet Ezekiel.

How can we change the character of a day commemorating historical destruction, doom and gloom? In every other instance of a festival, the manner in which we celebrate the kedushat ha’yom (sanctity of the day) is determined by the miracles of God performed on that day. What miracle occurred on Tisha b’Av that enables it to become a festival in the future?

Even more paradoxically, it was specifically in the late afternoon of Tisha b’Av that the actual burning of the Holy Temple commenced, continuing into the next day, the 10th of Av [Ta’anit 21a]. How can we alleviate the heavy atmosphere of our observance of the day precisely at the time when the destructive flames were beginning to envelop the Temple?

Finally, our biblical reading for Tisha b’Av is taken from Va’etchanan, which will also be read next week on Shabbat Nachamu (the Shabbat of Comfort). Indeed, although the passage opens with a brief description of the corruption of the Israelites and the eventual destruction which will occur after they enter the Promised Land, it then speaks of the miracle of Jewish survival and the ultimate beginning of Israel as God’s elected nation Deut. 4:25-40. Would not a reading from either of the two biblical portions of Tochechot (chastisements), Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28, have been more fitting for Tisha b’Av, the day of utter calamity and loss of national sovereignty?

My revered teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, answers these questions — as well as an edifying insight into the significance of Tisha b’Av — in a commentary on one of the Kinot (fast day dirges), “How the Rose of Sharon sat alone,” written by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir. On the words, “The enemy stretched out his hand against the Temple, for we deserved extinction no less than the generation of the flood,” the Rav explained that while the suffering on Tisha b’Av was grievous and horrific, the day also contained an important element of God’s chesed (loving kindness): God chose to express His wrath against the corruption and insensitivity of Israel by destroying the inanimate stones of the Holy Temple. God razed the Temple to the ground, but He allowed His nation Israel to live.

Israel “deserved the punishment of extinction no less than the generation of the flood,” but God instead chose to destroy His earthly throne, the Holy Temple, as a substitute or collateral for Israel. In this manner, God demonstrates the eternal nature of His covenant with Israel: Israel may be punished but we will never be destroyed; Israel remains God’s covenantal nation; Israel will ultimately repent, be redeemed, and will redeem the world.

This is the force of the Biblical reading from Va’etchanan on Tisha b’Av. After the text states that because of Israel’s perverseness and idolatry she “will be destroyed, yes destroyed” [Deut. 4:25], the very next verse lightens the punishment to exile and dispersion, promises that Israel will seek out God and repentance and declares that our God of compassion will never forsake or destroy us, He will never forget the covenant He swore to our fathers. (ibid 4:29-32)

It is this Divine guarantee that emerges from Tisha b’Av that enables the fast day to become a festival (mo’ed) once Israel learns to appreciate the lesson of the day and becomes worthy of the fulfillment of the Covenant.

This is why it is precisely when the flames were devouring and destroying the physical stones of the Temple, but not wiping out the Jewish people, that Jewish law alleviates the somber and burdensome atmosphere of the day by allowing us to rise from sitting on the ground and to adorn ourselves with tefillin.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.