A Communal Mourning
Re-enacting the sorrow felt by those who survived the destruction of the Temple
17 Tammuz: The wall of Jerusalem has been penetrated by the Romans, a clear signal that the end is coming. Jews, feeling the shock of forthcoming destruction, do not eat from sunrise to sunset. Penitential prayers are recited, summoning up the many terrible occurrences on this day.
After this day, the intensity drops as people settle in for the terminal state of siege. The final part of the siege is reenacted during we three weeks between the two terminal days (17 Tammuz to 9 Av). While the city of Jerusalem is gradually reduced, Jews correspondingly intensify their grief and anxiety. Weddings are prohibited because the joy of marriage is incompatible with the mood of sorrow. Engagements are permitted for fear that by postponement they may be lost, though engagement parties are not held.
There are other grief rituals during the three weeks: taking no hair-cuts (in ancient times, letting hair grow long was a sign of mourning) and performing no acts that would inspire a blessing of Sheheheyanu (the blessing for something new and joyful), such as buying new clothes, a new home, a new car, or eating a new fruit for the first time in a year. (If the fruit will no longer be available after Tisha B'Av, this restriction is waived on Shabbat because on the Sabbath the fantasy of a perfect world still operates).
The symbolic statement in these self-denials is: Who has the faith to go out and buy new things or plan for the future? Who has the heart to try to look good when the end is clearly drawing near?
Throughout the three weeks, prophetic portions that proclaim Israel's sin and the forthcoming destruction are read in the synagogue. The last of these prophetic phillipics, Hazon Yeshayahu, the Vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 1), is a devastating critique of the sin and corruption of Israel. In anticipation of sorrow, the portion is sung in the melody of Eichah, the Lamentations of Tisha B'Av. Chazon is always read on the Shabbat preceding the ninth of Av; that Shabbat has become known as Shabbat Hazon (vision).
From the beginning of the month of Av, there is a countdown of nine days to Destruction. The grief intensifies. In the initial Talmudic phase, the most intense mourning rituals were observed during the week in which Tisha B'Av itself occurred. Over the years, however, the entire nine days have become a unit of mourning among Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews generally restrict these deprivations to the immediate week in which Tisha B'Av occurs.
A folk saying goes, "When Av begins, cut back joy." Home construction or painting is held off (with exile imminent, who would build or improve his home?). Orthodox practice prohibits the eating of meat and the drinking of wine. (Symbolically, "The anxiety is crippling my capacity for enjoying life"; "I'm losing my appetite.")
Interestingly, these deprivations are also rituals of an onen (that is, one who has lost an immediate family member but has not yet buried him.). It is as if people know the Temple is doomed but have not yet reached the full acceptance symbolized by burial.
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