Aug 10, 2016

From Mechon Hadar: Tisha B'Av 5776: Essay and Resources

Tisha B'Av: Essay and Resources

Breaking Through The Facade of Normalcy: Shabbat Tisha B'Av

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Shabbat Tisha B'Av grants us the opportunity to ask ourselves whether our facade of normalcy might be too impervious to events that should shock us, and how to express our shock and dismay without giving up on living our lives.
I wrote my first letter to the editor as a fifteen-year-old in response to a humanist rabbi's call to eradicate Tisha B'Av. In her opinion we should be celebrating, not mourning, the end of the sacrificial rite and Temple politics.  To my mind, she missed the point.  Tisha B'Av is a day for mourning how a society can fall apart.

This year, when Tisha B'Av falls on Shabbat and its observance is pushed off to Sunday, there is a confluence of mixed and even contradictory practices.  The contradictions of Shabbat Tisha B'Av serve as a poignant model of how this day is meant to penetrate our routine and shock us into remembering those realities in life we would rather forget.

The Talmud teaches that none of the prohibitions of Tisha B'Av apply on Shabbat:

דתניא: תשעה באב שחל להיות בשבת, וכן ערב תשעה באב שחל להיות בשבת - אוכל ושותה כל צרכו, ומעלה על שולחנו אפילו כסעודת שלמה בשעתו... (תלמוד בבלי תענית כט:)

"Tisha B'Av that occurs on Shabbat... one eats and drinks all that one needs, and sets a table even the likes of the meal of Shlomo in his time..." (Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 29b)

At its surface, this teaching mandates that the joy of Shabbat overwhelms Tisha B'Av; there is no room for any level of mourning and even the greatest opulence is allowed.  However, the reference to King Shlomo's meal "in his time" is a bit cryptic.  The medieval commentator Rashi points out that the word "in his time" had to be specified because of a different time in Shlomo's life when his meals were not so luxurious.  The Talmud tells a tale of King Shlomo being deposed by Ashmedai , king of the demons, and in that time he was a beggar in the streets.  It is a matter of debate whether he ever fully recovered from this downfall.

On the one hand, this allusion to Shlomo's stint as a beggar shouldn't change our experience of Shabbat Tisha B'Av at all, for the Talmud teaches that we are meant to conjure Shlomo's state of greatness - "the meal of Shlomo in his time."  Yet, this subtle reference does invade the confidence of Shabbat.  When we eat our festive meal on Shabbat Tisha B'Av it is with the knowledge of this "other time."  We become acutely aware of the fragility of our joy, the fact that we can - and did - lose everything.  Shabbat Tisha B'Av has a subtle undertone of loss and even doom.

Indeed, despite the assertion of the Talmud that Shabbat Tisha B'Av is like any other Shabbat, in later traditions some mourning practices do penetrate Shabbat.  For example, Rav Moshe Isserless (the Rema) cites that a couple should refrain from intercourse on Shabbat Tisha B'Av because this is a private mourning practice, and the same rule of private mourning that applies to a mourner during shiva applies on Tisha B'Av.  There is also a tradition to refrain from usual Shabbat study of Pirkei Avot.  These traditions point to an experience of Shabbat Tisha B'Av where, on the outside, everything seems normal, but on the inside it is impossible to actually feel joy.  

There is also a public expression of mourning that emerges on Shabbat Tisha B'Av particularly in relation to adornments, in our own clothing and in the synagogue.  There is an Ashkenazic tradition to change one thing in an individual's Shabbat clothing - such as not wearing a tie.  In a similar vein, the Shabbat parokhet in the synagogue is not used.  The message here is the opposite of the public, normal, private mourning approach.  Here, the idea is specifically to have some kind of outward sign that this is not a Shabbat just like any other.  That private inner mourning finds its way to the surface.

The contradictions of Shabbat Tisha B'Av carry a particular resonance  in our present moment.  In the wake of the recent wave of violence across the country and the globe, do we just continue our daily routine as usual?  How many of us find ourselves outwardly pretending, and desperately wanting to pretend, that everything is normal, but inwardly knowing that we are in fact mourning?   Can we go out on a warm summer evening without thinking of Orlando, Nice, Kabul?  Can we enjoy freedom of movement without being stopped in our tracks thinking of recent events in Minnesota, Istanbul, and Munich?

Shabbat Tisha B'Av grants us the opportunity to ask ourselves whether our facade of normalcy might be too impervious to events that should shock us, and how to express our shock and dismay without giving up on living our lives.  Tisha B'Av is a day when our deepest fears and even a sense of nihilism surface.  God doesn't answer, maybe doesn't even hear our prayers.  In the book of Lamentations the narrator rhetorically asks mah ashveh lach va-anahamekh - how can I comfort you?  There is no comfort for the pain of the world on Tisha B'Av.  Hearing even a faint echo of this terrible voice in the midst of Shabbat urges us to find ways to express these deep fears in public while not disrupting our lives to the point of paralysis.   

Shabbat Tisha B'Av asks us to do two things even while living our lives as normal: to listen to that terrible inner voice of mourning, and to give some kind of public expression to it, no matter how small.  Through this Shabbat Tisha B'Av, may we as a community ensure that we are constantly aware of the fragility of life, the reality of violence, and the importance of doing the work to protect and sustain what matters most.
Additional Readings and Resources

2. The Night Draws Lamentation: Dvar Torah by Dena Weiss 

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