A Communal Mourning
Re-enacting the sorrow felt by those who survived the destruction of the Temple
Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.
In classic Jewish style, the fundamental model of Tisha B'Av is a reenactment of that tragic historical orienting event. In going through the four historical fast days, Jews relive the stages of destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as the loss of Jewish sovereignty. (It is interesting, in light of the role that food plays in Jewish culture, that intense grief and guilt are expressed by giving up food!)
While the primary model is reenactment, the halakhah [Jewish law] also draws upon its imagery of grief for a dead member of the immediate family. There is this difference, however, between grief over death of a loved one and mourning an historical tragedy: In the case of a death in the family, the shock of loss sets in motion the sorrow and mourning that come pouring out in the shiva, the seven days of mourning that come after the death and burial. When reliving historical tragedy, one knows the outcome at the outset. Thus, the sense of doom and grief builds up before the day actually arrives. The day of Destruction is a culmination of the grief, but immediately thereafter--since nothing can be done to prevent the tragedy from happening--the psychological balance shifts toward the renewal of life.
The first fast day in the sequence is the 10th day of Tevet, the day on which the siege of Jerusalem began in 586 B.C.E. However, since the day occurs more than six months before the date of the actual Destruction, the pang of recollection on this day has not had so much resonance. The same can be said of the last day in the sequence, the Fast of Gedaliah, occurring the third of Tishri. Coming two months after Tisha B'Av and dwarfed by the propinquity of Yom Kippur, the Fast of Gedaliah has had a limited impact. Both of these fast days begin at dawn, whereas Tisha B'Av starts at sundown on the previous night. On Tisha be-Av, the sorrow is so total that it goes beyond fasting to giving up such other pleasures as washing, cosmetic anointing of the body, and sexual relations. Not so the other three fast days, on which deprivation is limited to fasting.
The primary liturgy of grief for the Destruction is acted out in the three-week period between the 17th day of Tammuz and the ninth of Av. It should be noted that these two days antedate the Talmud. When the Rabbis brought the two days together in a choreography of grief reenactment, the three weeks were gradually filled in, to help the mourners recreate the rising crescendo of destruction. The halakhah structured the entire period into five stages of grief, corresponding to the imminence of catastrophe. The underlying experience that the individual should live through is that of a first-century Jerusalem defender who goes through the siege from inception to becoming a prisoner of the Romans at the climax.