Tisha B’Av Quick Facts
- Meaning of Name: “The Ninth of Av” (Av is one of the months on the Jewish calendar)
- English Name: The 9th of Av
- Western Calendar Month: July/August
- Jewish Calendar Date: Av 9
- Duration: One day
- Established: Tisha B’Av corresponded to the fast of the fifth month and became mandatory by the end of the first century A.D., earlier than the other fasts.
Purpose of Tisha B’Av
To commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (586 B.C. and A.D. 70, respectively), as well as other tragedies in Jewish history. Tisha B’Av has overshadowed all other fast days in Jewish tradition and become synonymous with mourning and tragedy. Characterized by various prohibitions, Tisha B’Av “has been designated as a fast day throughout the ages, and, indeed, it is considered the saddest day in our calendar.”
Origin of Tisha B’Av
Tisha B’Av originated in the first century A.D. as a fast day to mourn five tragedies in Jewish history. The first is the Israelites’ rebelliousness in the Torah and subsequent punishment: wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. In the Torah we read about the ten bad spies who spread falsehoods about the Promised Land. Their false report led the Israelites to cry out in despair and threaten Joshua, Caleb, Moses and Aaron when they attempted to reason with them. Because of their lack of faith, God condemned the Israelites of that generation to wander in the wilderness for 40 years and die there (see Numbers 14). We read that “the people were overcome with grief” after Moses delivered the Lord’s message of punishment (Numbers 14:39).
The second and third subsequent catastrophes are said to have taken place on Tisha B’Av, the most important of these being Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. (Historically, the destruction of the Temples more likely took place close to, but not on, the ninth.) By the first century A.D. Tisha B’Av was an accepted fast day. The fourth and fifth tragedies occurred later with the annihilation of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion and Roman general Turnus Rufus’ plowing of the Temple area in Jerusalem. Other catastrophes of Jewish history that are said to have taken place on Tisha B’Av and are commemorated were the atrocities of the Crusades and of the Holocaust.
How Tisha B’Av Is Observed
Tisha B’Av is observed with fasting and other prohibitions. The Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud) sets out various prohibitions for the week preceding Tisha B’Av:
“During the week of Tisha B’Av, it is forbidden to cut hair and wash… On the afternoon before Tisha B’Av [when having the last meal before the fast] a person may not eat two cooked foods… nor may he eat meat, or drink wine” (Ta’anit 4).
Nowadays, many religious Jews observe the holiday by fasting, and some will keep all of these prohibitions. According to rabbinic tradition, Jews are also not to engage in study of the Torah on Tisha B’Av. The Torah gladdens our hearts and is a source of pleasure; therefore, it is forbidden on a day of mourning.
As Jews who believe in Jesus, we join our Jewish brethren in believing that the study of Torah, and the entire Scripture, is a source of joy and gladness, because it is full of God’s promises to His people and instructions for living a life that is pleasing to the Lord. At one level we can understand prohibition against studying God’s Word on this day of mourning; on another level, we find that turning to the Scripture helps us in processing tragedy.
Special Synagogue Readings for Tisha B’Av
- The Book of Lamentations, one of the “five scrolls” or megillot, is read on the eve of Tisha B’Av.
- Torah portion: Deuteronomy 4:24–40
- Haftarah portion: Jeremiah 8:13–9:23
- Torah portion: Exodus 32:11–14, 34:1–10
- Haftarah portion in Ashkenazic (East/North European) ritual: Isaiah 55:6–56:8
- Haftarah portion in Sephardic (Spanish/Mediterranean) ritual: Hosea 14:2–9
Traditional Customs and Folklore of Tisha B’Av
According to tradition, on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish people were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. In recent history, Nazi atrocities were deliberately orchestrated to take place on Tisha B’Av. Perhaps as a counterpoint to the gloom of this day, a tradition arose that the Messiah would be born on this very day (Deuteronomy Rabbah 13).
On the eve of Tisha B’Av just before the fast, it is traditional to eat bagels along with eggs sprinkled with ashes. Hardboiled eggs and lentils are commonly eaten the afternoon before the fast because they are “mouthless” or “speechless,” just like a mourner.
Other customs include sitting on low stools or on the floor (as a sign of humility) and visiting cemeteries (as an observance of grief). Sephardim also wash and whitewash their homes on Tisha B’Av, perhaps because they themselves are denied the privilege of washing.
Tisha B’Av in the New Testament
There is no mention of Tisha B’Av in the New Testament. However, as we are reminded of the first tragedy of the Israelites lack of faith in the desert, Paul admonishes Jewish believers:
“…Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness… Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God… lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin”.
Spiritual Application of Tisha B’Av
Tisha B’Av can be an occasion to identify with the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in history. Some may wonder why, if Jewish believers see no need for a Temple because Messiah Yeshua is the final sacrifice for sin, would they still find value in Tisha B’Av. The answer is to identify with the sufferings of our people even as Yeshua did, and it is right to commiserate with our fellow Jews in their mourning, in accordance with Romans 12:15 which says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” And given the tradition that the Messiah would be born on Tisha B’Av, we can contemplate that God is willing to meet us in our sorrow at any time through Yeshua (see Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 4:15-16).
Moreover, Tisha B’Av invites us to consider the evil deeds people commit in this world, from which we need redemption, and that redemption is offered by God through Yeshua (I John 1:9).
Non-Jews or those who have not personally participated in tragic events can still identify with Jewish people who mourn on this special occasion.