A Communal Mourning

Re-enacting the sorrow felt by those who survived the destruction of the Temple

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Fresh clothes are a source of pleasure, so laundering and dry cleaning are postponed (diapers are exempted). Total bathing is given up except for Shabbat, hence there is no swimming in that period, according to the Orthodox tradition. Symbolically, the noise of the Roman armies approaching disrupts the ease and order of daily life.

Stage Four

The last meal on the day before Tisha B'Av--the Seudah Mafseket, the meal that separates eating from fasting--is highly restricted. It is as if Jews already feel the grief of the survivor or the severe loss of appetite felt by a war prisoner. Since people want to be able to fast well, lunch is generally a full meal, but in the late afternoon, a simple meal is eaten without multiple courses. In many families people even eat separately to avoid the festive aspect of a mezuman (a trio for grace). Some people eat eggs and/or beans (the food of mourners because their circularity evokes the idea of the wheel of fate and of silent mourning). Some eat only bread and water, even dipping a piece of bread in ashes before eating.

In Jewish ritual, mourners give up wearing leather shoes because they are comfortable. Besides, those who have just experienced the powerful loss of death do not want to wear something manufactured from animal skin, that is, something derived from death of another. Therefore, shoes are exchanged for canvas sneakers or sandals before sundown (unless the day preceding Tisha B'Av is Shabbat, in which case public display of mourning is inappropriate; in such a case, sneakers are not put on until after Shabbat ends).

Stage Five

For approximately 24 hours (adding on as is usual with Jewish sacred time), Jews act out total grief on Tisha B'Av. The symbolic acts draw from the rituals of a mourner sitting shiva, but the powerful paradigm is that of an overwhelmed defender of Jerusalem, now a Roman prisoner of war. From sundown to sundown, traditional Jews neither eat nor drink nor wash nor anoint themselves (recall the scenes of Jews in the Holocaust, kept sitting in the open squares all day without food or water). In the same spirit, they give up sexual relations that night. The story of the Destruction is retold vividly by reading the Book of Lamentations. Unshaven, unwashed, hungry, people re-experience the tragedy of the Destruction. 

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).