In traditional Judaism, the three weeks leading up to and including the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av are characterized by an increasing severity of mourning for the destruction of the Temples. (The three weeks this year begin on Sunday, July 8.) For me, these three weeks also serve as a sober countdown to the one day of the year when I as a religious Jew feel a bit awkward in Israel.
To be sure, Israel tries to be sensitive to the religiously observant on Tisha B’Av. Israeli law says that 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, “public entertainment” is defined as “plays, movies, concerts, discos, dances, ballet, night clubs, circuses, games or sports, and any entertainment such as these.” It’s still not clear whether coffee houses constitute “public entertainment,” and over the years there has been a lot of legal flip-flopping about this. As opposed to Yom Kippur, when this matter is indeed clear (coffee houses are closed), Israeli society seems to say: It’s okay to eat on Tisha B’Av, but just don’t appear to be having a good time doing it.
The quiet on Tisha B’Av eve (which this year falls out on Saturday night, July 28) may even encourage people to go to synagogue or their local community center to hear the beautiful, poignant chanting of Lamentations. But a huge gap separates an evening listening to Lamentations with observing the 25-hour Tisha B’Av fast. While on Yom Kippur there are some non-observant Israelis who fast out of ethnic identity, I have yet to meet an Israeli who fasts on Tisha B’Av for this reason. Since only the religiously observant fast on Tisha B’Av, fasting pushes me closer to the ultra-Orthodox (a sector with whom I have serious problems) and estranges me from the majority of Israelis who do not fast on this day.
Another problem I have with fasting on Tisha B’Av is that (following Maimonides) I do not hope for a return to animal sacrifice. My feeling is that while it is true that the destruction of the two Temples were national tragedies, the Jewish people have moved beyond animal sacrifice in their worship of God. Yet built into traditional mourning (including fasting) for the Temples’ destruction is the hope for the rebuilding of a Third Temple — and this is usually taken to include animal sacrifice.
There’s no getting around it: Tisha B’Av is a definite obstacle to my religious worldview. Ordinarily, I lead my life as a religious Jew quite happily, honestly feeling that my religious life is the best life for me and not feeling deprived or restricted by my observances. Tisha B’Av breaks my nice cozy bubble. Try as I might, I just cannot manage to make fasting on a hot summer day seem like fun. For a modern religious Jew like myself, therefore, Tisha B’Av forces me to bite the bullet of religious observance. 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.
According to Jewish tradition the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. And the really good news is that once the Messiah arrives, Tisha B’Av will become the first day of a week-long Jewish festival. I assume that this means that I will get to eat and drink then.
Endnote to my traditional readers:
Yes, I know that the first day of the “three week” mourning period is itself another fast day (the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz) and that according to Orthodox Judaism God commands every Jewish adult to also fast on this summer day. Why not bite the shivah-asar b’Tammuz bullet as well? Shway shway, to borrow from an Arabic (and now Israeli) expression; or: little by little.