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Tishah B'Av: What's in a Name?

Tishah B'Av: What's in a Name?

William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?” The holiday of Tishah B’Av, which literally translates to the “Ninth of (the month of) Av” is so named to remember the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem (in 586 BCE and 70 CE) said to have occurred on that day. Reform practice of this occasion varies, but in many Jewish communities, the day is traditionally one of introspection and mourning. This year and next, though, something curious happens: Tishah B’Av will be observed on the tenth – not the ninth – of the month of Av.

Why is this occasion observed this year on the tenth of Av if it’s named after the ninth of Av? Because this year, the ninth of Av falls on Shabbat, and Shabbat is a time that calls for rejoicing, not mourning. For example, fasting is part of the traditional observance of Tishah B’Av, but fasting typically does not take place on Shabbat (with the exception of Yom Kippur).

The oddity of this date of observance this year made me curious to consider what other insights the calendar could reveal about this occasion. Perhaps there may be some hidden meaning or midrash to be discovered? Lo and behold, upon counting the weeks from one Jewish observance to another, a pattern emerged.

In counting the Omer beginning on the second day of Passover, we know that there are seven weeks between the two festival holidays, Pesach and Shavuot. By coincidence, we can count a little over seven weeks between Tishah B’Av and Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), arguably the most holy, awe-inspiring days on our calendar. Then, as we count the weeks between the festival holiday Shavuot and Tishah B’Av we get nine – nearly the same number (nine and a half) as the timeframe between Tishah B’Av and Sukkot, another festival holiday. In short, Tishah B’Av appears as a midpoint between the spring festivals and the fall holy days – the High Holidays and Sukkot.

What does that tell us? Tishah B’Av can serve as the wake-up call we need to pay attention to the demands – and the opportunities – of the coming High Holiday season. In the lazy summer months, when school is out and many of us go on vacation, we take a break from the usual routine. We can use this in-between time to refresh our spirits and experience the performance of mitzvot in a new light. But we also can be lulled into complacency, tempted to “veg out” to excess thinking that it’s just too hot to do anything constructive or participate in any meaningful way. Tishah B’Av comes as a convenient reminder that the High Holidays are not far away.

Along with its position in the calendar, the liturgy surrounding Tishah B’Av helps to ground us in spiritual work. The preceding weekly Torah portion (Parashat D’varim) and haftarah portion (Isaiah 1:1-27) contain the plaintive word aichah, “how,” which acts as an irritant that catches our attention. On Shabbat, in the peak of summer, as we despair of the seasonal heat, we read Moses’ words full of sadness and exasperation: Aichah esa…, “How can I bear…?” (Deuteronomy 1:12; see also, Isaiah 1:21). And on Tishah B’Av, some congregations hear that same chah sound as the Book of Lamentations is chanted. Aichah is a sticking point, a sound with such distinctiveness that it can make one stop, listen, and wonder: How? How can we improve our lives and behavior?

In short, whether we observe the holiday on the ninth or the tenth of the month, Tishah B’Av gives us the time to mourn both ancient and modern losses in Jewish history while also serving as a signpost for the spiritual work that lies ahead in the fall.

Audrey Merwin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s communication team. She edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah, sings in the United Synagogue of Hoboken choir, leads services, and teaches in the synagogue’s learning center. 

Audrey Merwin
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