7/21/14

Should we abolish fasting on Tisha B'Av?

Yes. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av (falling on August 5 in 2014).

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

I wrote this op-ed for the Jerusalem Post in 1986 where I summed up many of my thoughts about Israel in our day, and of Jerusalem in particular. The article appeared in the Post on the day before Tisha B'Av:
I shall be fasting this week from sundown Wednesday until sundown Thursday. But this year, more than ever before, I feel silly mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem. I really do not know what to do when it comes time to listen to and to recite for myself the classical laments for the fast of Tisha B'Av.
Much of what we say about Jerusalem in the synagogue is just not true any more.

It is obvious to anyone and everyone that Jerusalem does not lay in ruins. On the contrary, this is my fourth extended visit to Jerusalem in the last seven years. [They say: your not in galut if you commute.] Over the last seven years I have watched as buildings spread out from the center of town to the new neighborhoods. Now Jerusalem sprawls across the hills of Judea, south and north from Gilo to Ramot and beyond.

On the ninth day of Av this year the observant Jews of Jerusalem will congregate in synagogues throughout the city to mourn and lament. What they say inside these halls will not reflect the reality immediately outside them.

And so this year I have resolved to add some few paragraphs for myself, silently, to my prayers. Then when I leave the synagogue and step out into the rebuilt city of our people, I will feel that I have been candid in my meditations and forthright in my worship. I shall say something like this:

"Jerusalem is not desolate. It stands glorious above our Land. Our capital looks down on the miracle of the modern state of our people, rebuilt by the sweat and labor of our brethren and sisters. A thousand settlements testify to our return and we our homeless no more.

"The inhabitants of Jerusalem are not homeless. Beautiful buildings abound. Apartments, condominiums, villas, large and small. Hotels and hostels, old and new. Whosoever wishes may come and live here. Whosoever is hungry shall find sustenance here.

"Enemies do not govern our land. The Kenesset building, the site of our self-government, stands at the center of our new metropolis, a vibrant testimony to our freedom. Independent and sovereign we struggle with each other, and with the states of the world, and somehow we manage to live in harmony among ourselves, and to survive in the swirling community of nations.
"Yes, the Temple was destroyed. But we have built other edifices in its stead. Long ago, in another age, our national center was taken from us by forces we could not resist. But now we have built new structures where we symbolize and express our spirit, our minds and our creative energies, and most of all, our freedom.

"A great synagogue and many more stand in our capital. They serve as the many beating hearts of our spiritual organs. In dozens of Yeshivot teachers build the religious minds of our youth. Schools abound. When school is in session, wherever you turn their are children on their way to classes from kindergartens to high schools, soaking up the knowledge of our world.

"A great Hebrew University answers to the essence of our wider educational appetites, right here in the capital of our nation. In its laboratories, classrooms and libraries, students try to unravel the mysteries of nature and society and strive to construct a new and better order.

"The Israel Museum, the Bezalel School, the Jerusalem Theater and other institutions small and large, cater to our cultural needs. In Jerusalem today we display our past and our present. We sing and dance and we mourn no more. We paint and draw and sculpt and adorn the urban hub of our people, the crown of our Land.

"As we watch, day-by-day, luxury hotels go up and up. Lush green gardens bloom before us. We repose in parks and swimming pools. We find our needs in supermarkets, bakeries, and department stores. And we indulge our extravagances in shops and markets, elegant restaurants and offbeat cafes.

"The city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt. Still, the work is never done. And the struggle will not end. But our city is not desolate. How can we mourn? We must, yes, we are obliged, indeed, it is the highest duty, for us to celebrate. For with God's help, but in accord with our own will and with our own hands we have raised Jerusalem beyond its highest heights. Never before in all of our history has this city attained such glory.

And so that is what I shall add as I conclude my lamentations on Tisha B'Av this year. I shall be cheerful this year, and I will not mourn. But I shall do so silently because this is my own private devotion. Will others join me?
In a public lecture in Minneapolis in October 1986 I read this editorial and expanded upon it:
The personal response I received to this article was enormous. More people read this than any other piece I have written and almost all agreed with its sentiments. Only a few Orthodox friends hesitated in their praise because they interpreted my words as a call to abolish Tisha B'Av. Not at all, I told them. And they had better be more careful in what they read lest they make a mistake in interpretation when they consult the shulchan aruch. More than a month later I am still hearing good words about my reflections on the rebuilding of our holy city.

I could say much more, though the Jerusalem Post is not the only forum for criticism and discussion of the impact of modern Israel on the future of Judaism.

I felt strongly and for the first time without equivocation that we in the galut do not adequately appreciate the achievements of those who built the modern state. Never, even in the greatest ages of our people's history, in the kingdoms of David and Solomon, after the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah, or in the era of Herod the Great, never did our people achieve so much in the building of our land. Israel today is a true marvel. Its streets and infrastructures in all of its settlements, its political system, and of course, its military might, make it one of the great countries in the world.

And this accomplishment is even greater in light of the destruction and devastation which preceded it in Jewish history. Yet does the average American Jew understand or appreciate the modern state? I often doubt it.
[edit and repost from 2007]

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

First, thank you for publishing your thoughts.

I am not a rabbi. I am a layman x2 so please excuse my simplification and/or errors.

The destruction of the first and second Temples and Jerusalem I equate to G-d fundamentally changing our relationship to him so that we no longer have the direct feedback we had before while the Temples still stood. Maybe the rebuilding of Jerusalem signifies beginning of the rebuilding of that relationship.

So maybe instead of abolishing the fast, one should shorten it by 8 hours (dividing the day into approximately equal bits)?

Anonymous said...

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
As it is now tisha b'av I am at a loss as what to really do in terms of fasting. We have Yerushalayim. Israel is currently battling the SATAN (hamas) and Israel is winning. In that vein, how can I sit and and weep about Yerushalayim in ruins when its not.

I was really looking for someone who already said what I was thinking and you've done it and done it well.

Because the shul for which I was a founding member, Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, refused to let me in for Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur a few years ago due to lack of funds on my part, I will just stay home and daven.

At least I don't feel alone in my thinking.

Warm regards from Canada.
Be well and thank you for writing this very informative posting.