How Do Reform Jews Understand Tishah B’Av?

Answered by
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D.

The observance of Tishah B’Av (literally the 9th day of the month of Av) poses some interesting questions for Reform Jews. The day is one of fasting and mourning, for the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem is said to have taken place on that day. While other tragic events in Jewish history may have coincided with the ninth of Av, it is the Temple’s destruction (churban habayit) that dominates the day’s ritual and liturgy. Reform theology has not generally looked upon the loss of the Temple and the expulsion of the people of Israel from their land as a catastrophe to be lamented by liberal Jews.

Some Reform prayerbooks do not acknowledge Tishah B’Av altogether; others have gone so far as to transform the day into one of joy as well as sadness, for on the day when the Temple was laid waste and the Jewish people were scattered over the face of the earth, Israel accepted the religious mission to disseminate the knowledge of God to all humankind. Since some Reformers regarded this as the essence of Israel’s eternal religious mission, they saw the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial cult as a progressive and positive moment in our history as a people.

This point of view was never unanimous. Other Reform thinkers emphasized that, however much we feel at home in our western lands and however little we feel the need to pray for a restoration of sacrificial worship, the tragedies and sufferings of Jewish history cannot be erased by the experience of a few years of enlightenment and emancipation. The ninth of Av is a moment of great power in the Jewish calendar, the time when we give voice to our sadness as a people for the calamities that have befallen us.

It is part of the traditional observance of Tishah B’Av to fast from sundown to sundown. In this way, the fast of the ninth of Av is more stringent than any other of the Jewish year save Yom Kippur. It is customary not to hold weddings on Tishah B’Av, since the day is not a proper time for the expression of joy. Even if we do not observe this fast, we avoid conducting weddings on Tishah B’Av out of historical consciousness and respect for K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people.

Source: Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice by Mark Washofsky