Tisha B’Av 5780 / 2020

This week we observe the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av. It is the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.

Without the Temple, Biblical Judaism was impossible. The sacrificial cult was an essential element of Biblical Judaism, and without the Temple standing on that particular bit of real estate, the sacrifices are not valid.

Each destruction remade the Jewish world. After the return from Babylon, Judaism changed: we had a big scroll we called the Torah for public readings, which we had not had before. We had a large body of prophetic writings. Most importantly we knew that though we had a covenant with the God of Israel, it was not a guarantee of safety. We had been beaten, badly. To survive as a people, we developed additional institutions (Torah, synagogue) to maintain our identity even when we did not have access to the Temple.

We needed those institutions, because in 70 CE it happened again: the Romans punished us for insurrection and tore the Temple stone from stone, forbidding us to rebuild. A few years later, after another revolt, they scattered us to the four winds. We remained in exile, in Galut, for almost 2000 years.

In the face of the destruction of our old way of life we used imagination and ingenuity to remake Biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism. The new Judaism was still linked to the Land of Israel, but it could survive anywhere, and survive we did.

We are living today in a time of destruction. The institutions of democracy, which have been mostly very good for the Jewish people are now under attack, not only in the US but in much of the world. A pandemic of Covid-19, a deadly and poorly-understood disease is sweeping the world, killing hundreds of thousands. Some old institutions are dying as well, and the world economies are straining. Climate change is reshaping the planet under our feet.

People are frightened, for good reason. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways, and the “normal” we remember from December is not likely to return. Frightened people are irrational people, and we see evidence of that in public tantrums, irrational decisions by leaders, and in the general level of anxiety in our culture. We are living in a time of cataclysmic change.

This Tisha B’Av I will listen to Lamentations, and I will think about the fact that the Jews of 586 BCE and 70 CE were able to mourn their losses and find enough strength in their hearts to let go of the past (eventually) and move on into the future. They were willing to do what they had to do to keep Judaism alive. I will pray for their strength, for their stubbornness, and for their creative will. I will pray for young leaders with good ideas, and for the humility to accept their leadership.

We are only beginning to deal with the changes ahead of us. I have no idea where we will wind up. I only know that the Jewish people have endured and I am committed to my own small part in our survival.

What to do? I shall keep on living a life of Torah. I will keep what mitzvot I can, and I will teach mitzvot to others. I will keep learning and studying and teaching. That’s what our ancestors before us did, the reason there are still Jews today.

May the day of sad memories stiffen our spines while our hearts stay supple. May the map of Torah bring us safely home.

Rosh Chodesh Av, 2019

Image: The Western Wall, or Kotel.

Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year. It began at sundown last night, August 1, 2019. We call the first day of a new month Rosh Chodesh, meaning “the head of the month.”

Av is often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more scarce than usual and when the sun beats down even in relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat.

What are your associations for this season? How might they fit into the Jewish understanding of this time of year?

What are The Three Weeks?

Image: An imprint of a foot in the sand, just before the surf obliterates it. (Pixabay)

Believe it or not, we are at the barest beginning of a cycle that will bring us to the High Holy Days in the fall.

Sunday marked the beginning of the build-up to the grimmest day in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av. For the next three weeks, the Haftarah (prophetic) readings will warn us that God is angry with Israel, that it is time to repent our selfish ways.

What to do with these? We can go to shul, read or listen to the Haftarah readings, and let them open our hearts. If the Saturday morning services are difficult for you to access, read the readings:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Haftarah for Ashkenazim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 Haftarah for Sephardim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 4:1 – 4:2
  3. Isaiah 1:1-27

How can we make use of these readings to enrich our spiritual lives?

1. We can hear them in the context of the synagogue service -or-

2. We can read and ponder them: “What do the prophets’ words have to do with me?”

3. We can open our hearts to repentance and change.

Traditionally this was a season of sadness, preparing to re-experience or remember the trauma of Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the Temple.

Besides that, it is a reminder that our tradition is to remember and learn from past mistakes. It is another “Never again” – this time not about the Holocaust but about the terrible, terrible damage we do ourselves and others when we indulge in sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

So I will not say “Enjoy” – but I will wish you fruitful reflection and fruitful prayers during this solemn time.

Tisha B’Av, 2018

Image: The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem. (James Emery, Wikimedia)

This post will be a long one. If you aren’t up for a long read, I’ve raised my main points to bold lettering.

Tisha B’Av is coming, and I am already in mourning.

I have said elsewhere on this blog that I am a Zionist. I still identify as a Zionist, because I believe that the Jewish people need a home of our own, somewhere on earth where we will not be persecuted, driven out, or murdered. The logical place for that is our historical home, the place from which the Romans drove us in 135 CE. Only a few Jews were allowed to remain in the holy Land from 135 forward, and that small community was decimated again and again under Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman rule. Others moved in and made it their home. Yet every year since then, Jews prayed daily for a return to our home, and every Passover announced our intention to someday return: “HaShanah haba’ah birushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”

When the Zionist Movement came together in the late 19th century, galvanized by the vision of Teodore Herzl, there was talk in Europe that the historic Land of Israel was “an empty land.” That was not true – as some of our leaders, especially Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginzberg in Ukraine) tried to warn us, there were people presently living on the Land. As the article on him in the YivoEncyclopedia says:

In “Emet me-erets Yisra’el,” [“Truth from the Land of Israel”] Ahad Ha-Am had made the case that the brutal treatment of Arabs as meted out by some Jews could, if not stopped, ruin the prospects of Zionism and rob it of its moral standing and legitimacy.

We should add the name Ahad Ha-Am to the lists of names of the prophets. This week the Knesset, the parliament of the modern State of Israel, passed a bill that chills me to the bone. Titled “The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” it is a radical re-visioning of the Modern State of Israel. (For a complete text of the law, click on the link.) It explicitly states:

1.C The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

And makes clear, as it goes on, that what that means is that the status of Jewish citizens of the State is superior to that of non-Jews. Specifically, it reduces the status of the Arabic language, previously one of two official languages of the State of Israel, to that of “special status.”

Ominously, Section 7 states:

A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

What precisely this means for the Occupied West Bank is murky.

Finally, the word “democratic” appears nowhere in this bill, which purports to define the “Basic principles” of the State. Given the constant talk to outsiders about it being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” that is at best very odd and to my ears, very ominous. Contrast its language with the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which states:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. – Declaration of Independence, 1948

My only consolation is that according to HaAretz, often known as “the New York Times of Israel,” the bill was passed after “stormy debate” with a 62-55 vote and 2 abstentions.

I grew up in the Jim Crow South in the United States. I believe this “Nation-State Bill” is a step in the Jim-Crowing of Israel. Arab citizens (20% of the populace) are still legal citizens of the State of Israel, but their language has been downgraded and the voices of the Arab members of Knesset were drowned out in a hail of right-wing jingoism in the Knesset.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that we outgrew the Temple and its sacrifices long ago, and because of that, I did not mourn the Temple. After 20 plus years of intensive study of Judaism and its traditions, I do believe that residence in the Land of Israel is the only way to fully observe Jewish tradition. Our calendar is set to Israel Time. Our religious laws are rooted in its soil. And there must be a place on earth where Jews are not merely tolerated but welcomed.  For 70 years, the Land and the fact of a Jewish state have been our Temple rebuilt anew.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, gives us license to oppress others in that Land. Just the reverse: our scriptures state unequivocally and repeatedly, that we are to welcome gerim, “strangers” into the Land. Gerim in Biblical parlance refers to non-Jews. (Medieval/Rabbinic Hebrew is a different matter – languages evolve over time.) Granted, first the Arab States and later the Palestinian leadership have done their best to terrorize Jews living in the Land – as I write this, Hamas incites the Palestinians of Gaza to send fire kites and fire falcons to lay siege to the farmlands of southern Israel. Our tradition gives us license to protect ourselves against those would would kill us. It does not give license to a single step beyond what is necessary.

As a person who experienced first hand the bombings of the Second Intifada seventeen years ago, I could defend the decision to build a wall, so that people could not bring in explosives willy-nilly. I could defend the checkpoints that have hurt Palestinians and done God-knows-what to the souls of the Israeli soldiers who work there. I blamed the idealism and naivete of the U.S. Administration at the time for Hamas’ takeover of Gaza after it was returned to the Palestinians; and I felt I could defend the need to defend against attacks from Gaza.

But I cannot defend the Jim-Crowing of the Muslim, Druze, and Christian citizens of the State of Israel. I cannot defend the haredi-fying of the Jewish State, the moves to make one particular expression of Judaism – the ultra-orthodox brand – the sole legitimate form of Judaism. I specifically reject that idea, because in my experience it reflects an outdated understanding of Judaism, one that stifles all but the most sexist, homophobic, and cruel elements of the tradition. Judaism is more than black hats and 16th century Shabbos. Judaism is more than Ashkenazi Judaism, more than Orthodoxy, more than Reform, more than Conservative, more than Sephardic, more than Mizrahi, more than the thousands of converts worldwide. Judaism is all of us and more.

Many of her actions have isolated Israel among the nations, as its enemies are well aware. Even its friends are not really friends, as some of the United States’ most recent moves have served to inflame matters. There is a dark romance between the so-called Christian Zionists and the current Israeli government. On the one hand, a significant number of those so-called Zionists look forward to an end-times scenario that has Israel in flames. On the other hand, the present government of Israel has an arrogant sense that they can accept the Christian support while laughing off their plans.

There is an illusion that Israel can stand against the whole world, as long as it has U.S. support. I believe it is a tragic illusion on a par with the foolishness of the doomed Bar Kokhba Revolt.

I am bereft. The vision of a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East is disappearing under a wave of right wing, haredi influence. Too many of its politicians are corrupt, and it seems that the State no longer even holds the ideal of equality for all its citizens. (If you do not believe that those ideals once guided the state, look at the quote from the Declaration of Independence above. As with the American Declaration of Independence, the ideals did not match the reality, but they were an aspiration.)

I cannot wash my hands and walk away. The vote was 62-55, hardly an overwhelming majority. Half of the world’s Jews, my cousins, live in the State of Israel. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: All Jews are responsible for one another. I cannot wash my hands and walk away. I have vowed to stand with the Jewish People, come what may.

I have responsibilities that make it impossible for me to make aliyah. I cannot vote in Israel.

I can call and write my local Israeli consulate.

I can support the organizations of the left in Israel, like the Israel Religious Action Center.

I can make my opinions clear to my legislators here in the United States.

I can pray, and I can cry “Eicha?” (“How?”)

This is indeed a dark Tisha B’Av, because the Israel I love is in flames.

Is There a Greeting for Tisha B’Av?

Image: Stones of the Western Wall, or Kotel in Jerusalem. (ddouk/pixabay)

It’s a trick question: on Tisha B’Av, Jews observing the day refrain from greeting one another. If someone who does not know the custom greets them, they will either simply incline their heads or answer the greeting very softly, so as not to give offense or hurt feelings. As with Yom Kippur, it is a solemn day and therefore it is inappropriate to say “Happy Tisha B’Av.”

However, there are some Hebrew words it will help to know if you attend services or interact with other Jews that day:

Tisha B’Av (tee-SHAH b’AHV) or (TISH-ah Bahv) – The Ninth of Av, on which we remember the destruction of the Temple and other disasters in Jewish history.

Av (AHV) – The eleventh month of the Jewish year.

Eicha (AY-khah) – A Hebrew word meaning “How?” it is also the name of the Book of Lamentations in the Bible.

Megillat Eicha (meh-gee-LAHT AY-khah) – the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av.

Megillah – a scroll, especially one of the “Five Scrolls” read on certain days of the Jewish Year.

Tzom (TZOHM) – a fast. The fast for Tisha B’Av is from sunset to sunset. Those who keep the fast refrain from eating, drinking, sexual activity, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and studying Torah. It is similar to the fast for Yom Kippur. Just as on that day, children and people who are sick or pregnant should not fast.

Beit Hamikdash  (BAYT ha-mik-DAHSH) – The Holy Temple. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.

The Kotel  (KOH-tel) – The Western Wall, a retaining wall that is all that remains of the Second Temple. Jews do not refer to it as the “wailing wall,” but as the Western Wall or the Kotel.


Sick and Tired

Image:  Four withered roses in a vase without water. (pixabay)

I feel sick at heart this Tisha B’Av.

The Jewish community is horribly divided. We are divided in many ways, and we poke many fingers at one another, scolding.

Some Haredim see the Kotel as their synagogue. From their point of view, whatever they need to do to maintain the sanctity of that place as they define sanctity is justified.

Some other Jews believe that the Kotel belongs to all Jews everywhere and because the Haredim have said and done ugly things, whatever they say about the Haredim is justified.

Some Jews believe the State of Israel is a supreme value and any threat to it is an existential threat, so whatever happens in its defense is justified.

Some Jews believe that the State of Israel has committed crimes in its defense, and that whatever they need to do or say to other Jews to protest is justified.

Some Jews talk about “the Orthodox” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews talk about “the Reform” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews act as if Jews of color don’t even exist.

Some Jews think other Jews don’t “look Jewish enough.”

Some Jews say Jews who became Jewish as adults aren’t really Jews.



I am probably also guilty of some of it.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b





Welcome to the Month of Av.

Image: Photo of the archaeological park beside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Notice the broken pavement at the lower right corner of the photo – that’s where the stones from the Temple were hurled to the pavement below by the Roman soldiers. Structures above are from the Byzantine period or later, but the pavement is from the 1st century CE. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Av is the saddest, unluckiest month of the Jewish year. It has that distinction because it is the month in which the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, falls. That’s the day we remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – twice! – and many other disasters in Jewish history. I have several articles about Tisha B’Av already on this site:

For a more comprehensive take on the observance, try these:

The time between the first and the ninth of Av is a particularly solemn time in the Jewish calendar. I invite you to take the next ten days to learn about the observance of Tisha B’Av and to think about how you might want to observe the day. You might want to make a very traditional fast, and listen to the book of Lamentations at a synagogue, or you might want to take a less traditional approach. It’s up to you.

Whatever you choose, I wish you a growth-full month of Av.

Tales from the Fast

Image: The word pictured is Eicha,the name of the Book of Lamentations. Artwork by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Perhaps you fasted. Perhaps you chose not to fast.

But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the annual observance of Tisha B’Av ran from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, August 13-14, 2016. (We couldn’t fast the day before, because it was Shabbat.)

How was the day for you? What did you do or not do? I’m writing this before the fast and uploading it automatically, so I cannot yet tell you how it went for me but I can tell you my plan. I will leave a comment after sunset at my home to let you know how it went for me.

My plan: I cannot fast from food this year, due to some health problems. Therefore I will eat and drink what is needed for health. I will fast from social media.

I will listen to the Scroll of Lamentations via a recording, because I can’t go to shul (again, a health issue.)

I will study the scroll tonight.

And now the light is fading, and social media is part of my fast, so I must go.

Tzom kal! That means, I wish you an easy fast. I also wish you insight and reflection – I hope that you will share some of those in the comments!

A 21st Century Tisha B’Av

Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.

Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3

In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.

“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.

So let’s try that:

All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.

What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.

In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”

What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34

In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.

The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.

You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.

Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.

The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.

We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.

This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.

It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.


*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.