Tisha B’Av is said to be the saddest day of the Jewish calendar.
It is a major day of communal mourning for Jewish people. First and foremost, it commemorates the destruction of both the first and second temples that once stood in Jerusalem. They were destroyed in the years 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively. However, Jewish people often use Tisha B’Av to remember other tragic events that have befallen them over the course of history – including the expulsion of the Jewish people from England in 1290 & from Spain in 1492, as well as the mass deportation of Jewish people from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
Tisha B’Av falls each year on the 9th day of Av, the fifth month of the Jewish calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, which we use in the UK, this is usually in July or August. This year Tisha B’Av starts during the evening of 10th August.
A 3-week mourning period precedes Tisha B’Av, during which traditional Jews do not get married or celebrate other joyous events. Nine days prior to Tisha B’Av, a new period of more intense mourning begins. During these 9 days, traditional Jews do not eat meat, cut their hair, or wash their clothes (unless they are to be worn again!). All these actions are considered signs of joy or luxury inappropriate for this time of mourning.
Tisha B’Av itself is a full fast day, so the last meal must be eaten before sunset the day before. This meal marks the boundary between periods of eating and fasting is called the ‘seudah ha-mafseket’. The meal often is comprised of round foods like eggs or lentils, which symbolize mourning in Jewish tradition because they evoke the cycle of life. Some people eat an egg or bread sprinkled with ashes, and some Jews may sit on the ground during the meal. The ‘birkat hamazon’ (grace after meals) is said individually and in silence. As well as fasting from food, Jewish people also abstain from other activities considered as luxuries, including wearing leather shoes, sexual intimacy, and the giving of gifts.
Tisha B’Av evening services are held in synagogue, where the ark has been stripped of its decorative curtain and the lights dimmed. Evening prayers are followed by the chanting of the book of Lamentations with a unique and special melody. Morning and midday prayers are equally solemn; but in the synagogue, the ark’s curtain is restored to its place before the afternoon prayers.
It is customary to give extra charity on Tisha B’Av, as on every Jewish fast day.