This year Jews the world over got into the Tisha B’Av mood several months earlier than usual.

During a typical summer, Jewish families and individuals tear themselves away from family vacations, beach outings, amusement parks and other hot-weather entertainment to enter a period of mourning known as “the Three Weeks” (no weddings, haircuts or shaving, music, etc.), a process that gets more stringent in the nine days leading up to the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av (including no laundry, buying clothes, renovating, swimming, listening to music, exchanging gifts, unnecessary travel, and eating meat or drinking wine outside of Shabbat). It all culminates on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year and the second most serious fast of the Jewish calendar.

Why the mourning?

On this day (beginning on July 29 at sundown), not only were both Jerusalem Temples destroyed (the first by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.), but other tragic events occurred as well. These included the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 133 C.E. that ended in bloody defeat for the Jews, in addition to Isabella and Ferdinand’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. More recently, on eruv Tisha B’Av 1941, Hermann Goring signed “final solution of the Jewish problem,” and one year later—on Tisha B’Av—the first train filled with Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto arrived in Treblinka, a deadly journey that would include some 270,000 Jewish men, women and children over the following seven weeks.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, oil on canvas, by Francesco Hayez. Both the first and second iterations of the “Beit HaMikdash” were razed on Tisha B’Av, hundreds of years apart. Credit: Francesco Hayez.

‘We are able to relate to many things’

For many Jews, this Tisha B’Av (literally the ninth of Av) year will be no different: the mournful spirit, the fasting and special prayers, the reading of Eichah (the book of Lamentations)—in which Jeremiah prophesized the destruction of the First Temple—and sitting on the floor or low stools (like a mourner) till midday, as well as eschewing cosmetics, fancy jewelry and leather, idle chatter and even greeting friends.

But in other ways, this Tisha B’Av is destined to be somewhat different.

On a physical level, synagogue services and group readings of Eichah will be kept to a minimum in most communities and, when they do occur, they will take place outdoors, or at least, socially distant and masked.

In addition, many seniors are being warned that due to their higher risk of contracting COVID-19 (especially for those with pre-existing conditions), going without food and water for an entire day (Tisha B’Av is a major fast in the Jewish year, second only to Yom Kippur) could compromise their immune systems.

And, since Jewish law steadfastly favors pikuach nefesh (safeguarding human life over religious observances), many find themselves consulting both rabbi and doctor to determine if they should fast either fully or partially.

On the emotional and spiritual levels, the Jewish world will mark Tisha B’Av at a time of rapidly shifting realities: a global pandemic with no known expiration date, together with civil unrest and economies struggling to stay afloat amid closures and massive unemployment, adding a host of fears to an already somber day.

“We can rebuild our lives and our people in new ways.”

“Suddenly, we are able to relate to many of the things in our liturgy such as ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ (“Our Father, Our King, withhold the plague from your heritage”), which are suddenly infused with [added] meaning,” says Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, whose books include American Judaism: A History. “Whatever’s happening in our world and in our lives, the beauty of our tradition is that it brings it into sharp focus for us.”

One of the things that this Tisha B’Av is bringing into focus is bitter divisions, adds Sarna. “We know that the Second Temple was destroyed by causeless hatred between Jews, and now we are seeing massive disagreements and an unwillingness to understand each other or compromise,” he explains. “So, yes, Tisha B’Av will resonate in these times as a day to mourn both the temples and the condition we find ourselves in—not just a plague, but society’s deep divisions now.”

‘We are all connected’

Indeed, this day of communal mourning for what the Jewish people have lost over time dovetails with a season of loss, says Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of such books as Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition. “Some of us have lost our jobs and some of us have lost precious friends to this invisible virus that’s brought the whole world to its knees,” he adds, speaking from his home in Boca Raton, Fla., a current coronavirus hot spot. “We’ve learned that we are all connected, and far more fragile and vulnerable than we ever thought.”

Other losses include the Jewish world’s sense of security amid ongoing attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions in countless in North America, Europe and around the world. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States hit a high in 2019.

“Any nation that is still crying over a temple destroyed thousands of years ago is going to survive.”

But one specific human loss most concerns Sarna. “For generations, young people have learned about Tisha B’Av and our history in summer camps. With so many of them closed this year, how many young people will have this opportunity? Missing out on Jewish summer camps, along with Jewish education and Israel trips, are all huge losses from this year—ones that I’m afraid will ripple for decades.”

Another current loss involves the Jewish sense of unity.

“The ‘new normal’ of separating people physically makes us mourn even more for the sense of togetherness and unity of purpose that was the Temple,” says Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, a congregational rabbi and law professor in Maryland before making aliyah. He now teaches at Ohr Somayach and elsewhere in Jerusalem.

To illustrate how remembering the past is crucial to the Jewish future, Breitowitz cites a story about Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s said that when Napoleon overheard the Jews crying in their synagogue the night of Tisha B’Av, he asked why they were sad and was told they were grieving for their lost holy Temple. “How long ago did they lose it?” he wanted to know. “Thousands of years ago,” he was told. “Any nation that is still crying over a temple destroyed thousands of years ago is going to survive,” he is quoted as saying in response. “They haven’t forgotten.”

“And it’s true,” adds Breitowitz. “Jews do not forget.”

‘We are far more resilient than we realized’

But as devastating as the losses throughout the Jews’ 4,000-year journey have been, and as discouraging and unpredictable the current situation, key to the holiday and Jewish history is a steadfast clinging to hope. Not only is it said Moshiach, the messiah, will be (or was already) born on Tisha B’Av, relates Breitowitz, “but that the tears we shed on this day and our yearning for a better world reflect a very Jewish belief in a better future.”

In addition, the novel coronavirus “has taught us that despite all our science, we are not in charge.” By acknowledging that G-d’s in the driver’s seat, he says, “only then can we let go and say, ‘I’ll do my best, but I accept that the ultimate outcome is up to Him, which is actually a relief.’ ”

That’s why Tisha B’Av is at once the saddest day of the year and also the most hopeful, adds the rabbi. “In mourning the temple, we’re really mourning the disconnect between us and G-d. We’re showing G-d how much we yearn to be connected to Him, especially now.”

In fact, Riemer in South Florida wants the Jewish people to consider another lesson to be learned from contemporary challenges—that “we are far more resilient and innovative than we realized.”

“Zoom and the other new technology show us that in these difficult times, we can rebuild our lives and our people in completely new ways,” he says. “Just like after the temples were destroyed we formed new ways of worship, now we are learning Torah and even making shiva calls online. If the virus can travel, so can Jewish life. And if we learn the lessons it’s here to teach, then the pain will not have been in vain.”

Tisha B’Av Online

Since Tisha B’Av is a Jewish holiday when Jewish law (halachah) allows for electricity, a vast menu of related programs can be found online. Note: All classes are free unless otherwise noted, and all offerings take place on Eastern Daylight Time.

A sampling:

Aleph Beta Academy

“Kinot Live” with Rabbi David Fohrman beginning at 10 a.m. Visit here to sign up. This event is included as part of a premium membership ($18 a month). Note: Other Tisha B’Av videos are available at the site, “Tisha B’Av and the Power of Rachel’s Tears” can be found on YouTube.

The Hampton Synagogue

The Westhampton Beach, N.Y. congregation will host a reading of Eichah and a musical “Kumzitz” with the Maccabeats, airing on JBS, the Jewish Broadcasting Service, at numerous times during Tisha B’Av. Connect through this link.

Orthodox Union

An all-day program (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) featuring Rabbi Steve Weil and Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. Sign up here. Note: Israeli viewers can also watch Rabbi Weinreb (who is pre-recording his talk) earlier.

Yeshiva University (YUTorah)

Runs throughout the day with presentations beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending with a 5:15 p.m. musical “Kumzits” featuring Rabbi Mordechai Willig and sons. Note: Earlier programming for those in Israel. All can be found on YouTube.

Torah Anytime

The site and app feature prayer sessions and lectures, including on Tisha B’Av. It also regularly features programs of interest for women and kids. Check out their offerings here.

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