Tisha B’Av in the Modern Age
Tisha B'AvCommunity

Tisha B’Av in the Modern Age

Holiday evokes memories of Boy Scouts at Camp Blue Star and a historic encounter with Napolean. Meanwhile, the pandemic offers current expression of loss and hope.

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Geffen
Rabbi David Geffen

In the book, “Jewish Passages,” by professor Harvey Goldberg of the Hebrew University, he describes how the Torah itself has the ability to mourn. “In a synagogue in Istanbul, when the sefer is taken from the ‘heichal’ [sanctuary] on the fast of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, it is placed on a chair and read, rather than being put on its normal raised table.”

Then, Goldberg points out a very interesting parallel. “Like the other members of the congregation, who sit on the floor that sad day, the scroll ‘lowers itself’ in an act of mourning.”

Professor Goldberg’s beautiful description personalizing the Torah itself on Tisha B’Av became very much alive for my wife and me in late June.

Scoutmaster Josiah Benator, now 97 chanted several chapters of “Eycha” for Tisha B’Av at Camp Blue Star in North Carolina.

We are blessed that our new granddaughter-in-law is Sephardi, family of Moroccan origin. At the Shabbat hatan [for groom], her father read the Torah beautifully. He was trained by his late father, who was a hazzan. I am in lockdown again, so I cannot hear him read the Torah at Schacharit and Mincha on Tisha B’Av. The scroll, used in his synagogue, will come alive.

I was fortunate that at my Boy Scout camp in Georgia, where most in attendance were Christian, we had a minyan of my fellow Jewish scouts. That was an era in the 50s of boy scouting’s heyday.

Born in Atlanta, Ga., our Scoutmaster, now 97, was Sephardi, a World War II veteran and knowledgeable Jew. He brought the Sephardic Tisha B’Av booklets with him to camp. The night of the fast day we sat on the ground away from the tents in which we slept. Our leader, Mr. Josiah Benator chanted several chapters of “Eycha.”  When a Boy Scout is at camp, each must carry his own weight. Several of us fasted part of Tisha B’Av but we were required to participate fully in the daily scouting programs.

At Camp Blue Star in North Carolina, Jewish and kosher, me, a counselor, and over 200 Jewish boy and girl campers, had our own Tisha B’Av experience.

We were fortunate that at the camp one of the waiters from Jacksonville, Fla., had been in the synagogue choir. He possessed a beautiful voice. An hour before nightfall, we all donned our white clothing. While the sun was setting, we walked together singing until we reached the lakefront.

Leading his troops through a small town in Europe, Napolean passed by a synagogue observing Tisha B’Av and said, “A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and the Temple will surely be rewarded with both land
and the Temple.”

Our waiter-cantor was on the small island in the middle of the lake. We could barely make out a large construction there. We heard him singing through a microphone, “Ani Ma’amin,” “Al Naharot Bavel,” and other mournful kinot [poems].

Various counselors spoke to us, briefly, many were budding Reform and Conservative rabbis.  Then complete silence, and from that little island came the words of “Eycha,” probably only one chapter. Next, flashlights were directed at a replica of the Temple built by our woodworking specialist.

Torches were lit and put to full use. The Temple began to burn. The song “Am Yisrael Chai” arose from us and we concluded with “Hatikvah.”

The anguish of Tisha B’Av has meaning for us year in and year out because we have never stopped mourning. Let me remind you of the famous story about Napoleon’s experience on our fast day.

Leading his troops through a small town in Europe, he passed by a synagogue where everyone was sitting on the floor crying and reading little books by the light of small candles. He asked his aide, “What is this?” He was told that the Jewish people is mourning the destruction of the Temple. “How long ago was that?” “Two thousand years” was the answer.

Napoleon is quoted as saying. “A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and the Temple will surely be rewarded with both land and the Temple.”

At its birth in the 19th century, the Reform movement felt they could eliminate Tisha B’Av because it did not speak to the Jews of the present. An early symbolic change occurred here [Israel] in the 1950s.  As an archeologist of biblical lands, professor Nelson Glueck, president-elect of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was a spy for the USA in the Middle East during World War II.

David Ben Gurion became friendly with Glueck. In the 1950s, Ben Gurion offered him a vacant property on King David Street, the back on which was on the Jordanian border. Glueck took it; first a school and library were built and a kindergarten. Following the Six Day war, an entire campus was constructed in which a balcony on the top floor looks out at the walls of the Jerusalem.

For over half a century, rabbinical students are required to spend their first year of training here in at the Jerusalem school. Clearly there is an impact on the entire movement.  In the 1980s, the CCAR [Central Conference of American Rabbis] press of the movement published a complete Chamesh Megillot in Hebrew and English with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, with “Eycha,” of course. In the current Reform prayerbook in English, there is an entire Tisha B’Av service.

In the movement’s siddur in Hebrew, the fast is given a major focus. A Reform rabbi wrote the following to be read at the beginning of the fast day.

“Today we chant ‘Eycha,’ listen to the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, hear the city weep for the children, Bachu tivkeh ba’layla she weeps literally in the night, her tears are upon her cheeks. We wail and bemoan the world as it is”

For many years in the diaspora countries, Tisha B’Av was only observed by Orthodox Jews. Surprisingly, The New York Times describes a Tisha B’Av observance at the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York City in 1874. “The candles are lit – all those present are sitting on the floor. Lamentations is chanted by the rabbi.”

In the 1940s this all changed. In the United States and other countries, a whole range of Jewish summer camps began to operate, adding to the camps that had been started in the 1920s. No one has studied the impact of summer camps on campers then in regard to Tisha B’Av, but personally I witnessed the fast day being observed in a variety of camps I attended.

For people around the world, they can just take a look at the Holidays Today website to see a description of the observance of Tisha B’Av. “Jews go hungry, do not bathe, do not fight, do not wear leather shoes, refuse to have sex. The many other traditions include refraining from laughing and smiling.” Now a most unusual comment. “Some universities (in the USA) or training centers provide those who comply with Tisha B’Av the opportunity to take exams on other days.”

Here are a few halachot and minhagim [laws and customs] in English on the Ohr Somayach website. “The custom is to eat a final meal after Mincha and before sunset consisting of bread, cold hard-boiled eggs and water.” Ohr Somayach indicates an act of the fast day has already begun. “The meal is eaten while seated on the ground. A portion of the bread should be dipped in ashes and eaten.”

A most interesting insight is offered in regard to a very visible act. “Even shoes made partially of leather are prohibited. Shoes made of cloth, rubber or plastic are permitted. Then a fascinating point is made which I had never heard of: You can wear leather shoes if you might incur the anger of non-Jews but put sand in your shoes to cut down on your comfort.

There are over a hundred directives in the Or Somayach list how to observe Tisha B’Av in a ritually correct manner. On Google there are many other Orthodox listings making it clear how to fill one’s 25 hours in complete compliance of the halacha.

In the Conservative-Masorti movement there is little written about Tisha B’Av until the founding of Camp Ramah by the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the late 1940s.

At Camp Blue Star in North Carolina, Jewish counselors and more than 200 Jewish boy and girl campers had our own Tisha B’Av experience.

Two key features of that camping movement were speaking Hebrew all the time and studying Hebrew and English texts every day even Shabbat. Since I never attended Camp Ramah, I heard from my friends who did how Tisha B’Av was observed. The destruction of the two Temples, all the traumatic events on that same date and the Holocaust were emphasized. Additionally, realizing   the significance of the birth of the state of Israel became a key element in the observance of Tisha B’Av in all the Ramah camps.

For the first time in the history of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal is now the CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

He sent his comments about Tisha B’Av this year: “Tisha B’Av is always about loss and hope. Fasting, hearing the book of Eycha and the somber liturgical poetry mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple are always powerful. The destructions in our past, the massive genocide of our people and the coronavirus calamity, which sadly appears to be ongoing, all invoke within each of us personal grief as we mourn deeply.” He continues, “like all of you, I never expected in my lifetime to experience, every moment of the day, the infection of millions, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the economic dislocation and distress, and of course loneliness like most of us have never felt before.

“As the leader of the Conservative rabbis around the world and the members of all Conservative congregations, I encourage them to infuse Tisha B’Av with a poignant sadness, perhaps greater than any time in our history.” This year there is emotion never felt before. “As tears fill our eyes and as we take deep breaths reciting “Eycha,” this may be our chance to help all peoples of the world recognize that death and destruction can be overcome.

Our deep mourning on Tisha B’Av in the soil of suffering is the prelude to our hopes for a better world, and, this year, a healthier world.”

David Geffen is an Atlanta native and Conservative rabbi living in Jerusalem.  

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