How to be sad on Tisha B’av
No one likes to be in pain. But what if we stopped resisting it? Just for one day?
Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, begins Saturday evening. For 25 hours, observant Jews fast and deny themselves certain other comforts to mourn the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, along with myriad other tragedies in Jewish history.
The halachic rules of Tisha B’av are straightforward: don’t eat or drink, bathe or have sex, sit or sleep in comfortable positions, wear leather shoes or put on makeup or lotion.
But too often, many of us follow these strictures yet ignore the larger point.
On Tisha B’av, our tradition offers us a clear path toward experiencing something transcendent. I’ve collected several strategies below that you can use, whether or not you’re a religious person, to get into the right headspace.
The catch is that the process of doing so can be deeply uncomfortable. But this year especially, we owe it to ourselves to try.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we attempt to reconnect with God by going cerebral: the deep soul-searching involves listing out every sin imaginable and recounting the Temple sacrifices in exacting order. On Sukkot, we go all-in on vulnerability, sitting exposed to the elements to remind us how little we actually control in life.
On Tisha B’av, our job is simply to feel sad and be still in our sadness. We lament the tragedies of Jewish history, the harsh realities of today, and our own limiting behaviors — like being unkind to one another — simultaneously.
Spending a day focused on sadness and pain is not easy. But amid a year full of trauma and a lifetime of overintellectualizing, I’ve made an intentional choice to do so.
As a journalist, my primary job is to Think Big Things. Sometimes, I fear I have lost some of my ability to Feel Big Things.
Numbing isn’t always bad: it has helped us survive a year and a half of awfulness. But the coping mechanisms that keep us in survival mode and the Always On, Always Thinking lifestyle prevent us from fully living.
When we hold ourselves back from feeling at all, we live at less than our full capacity. And the very distractions and behaviors that keep us from feeling sad also keep us, in the long run, from feeling good.
For me, unlearning this mode of living over the past few months has been both deeply uncomfortable and exceptionally boring. I read brain health, trauma and relationship books. I made more of an effort to prioritize exercise, sleep and healthy food. I stopped drinking so much. I challenged my thoughts and beliefs. I tried to learn more Torah. I let go of relationships that were no longer healthy and relied on my closest friends more. I went to therapy.
It has been difficult and painful. It has also been rewarding: I feel grounded and whole when I don’t try to hustle my pain along.
When I feel anxious, overwhelmed or sad these days, I try to sit still and listen.
Of course, sometimes it overwhelms me and I go down the TikTok wormhole (or take a Xanax).
But you can’t outrun your pain in the long run. We know intuitively that feeling better requires exploring our heavy feelings, not pushing them away.
Every time I have tried to be less sad or anxious — or just to feel less in general — I have ended up feeling much worse.
On a communal level, this tendency dulls the sensation of our strongest moments — including stripping the power away from the saddest day of the year.
For Tisha B’av, synagogues and camps generally screen Holocaust films or offer lectures and readings about the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. But as a friend of mine recently expressed, it’s disappointing that we’ve turned the holiday into a history lesson instead of a day to feel sad.
Tisha B’av does not arrive abruptly. Observant Jews take on extra obligations during the three weeks, and especially the nine days, leading up to the holiday. Happy occasions like weddings are not allowed and we avoid listening to music, getting our hair cut, or even eating meat and wine (except on Shabbat).
These extra observances were designed to test not our ability to follow rules, but our capacity to feel strongly negative emotion in the face of incomprehensible devastation.
But the reality is that most Jews today are not actually sad that the Temple doesn’t exist (though admitting it can make the observant uncomfortable). Most Jews don’t truly consider ourselves to live in exile, which is the reason we’re supposed to be mourning. Our prioritization of text study over spirituality, our love of debate and analysis and our desire to understand things by intellectualizing them and by picking them apart are not bad traits. But on Tisha B’av especially, they stand in the way of deep connection.
The pain and agony inflicted upon our ancestors was incomprehensible. The scale of loss and devastation that followed was unimaginable. We’re supposed to be acutely and painfully aware of what we’ve lost.
This trauma deserves not a day of powering through, but of processing — ideally, from a place of empathy and understanding.
Our traditional rituals, if we let them, can help us go there.
We’re not supposed to be mired in sadness all the time — there’s a reason Tisha B’av lasts only 25 hours.
But instead of trying to power through it this year, I’m going to aim to process. Sit in the overwhelming pain of Tisha B’av this year and emerge stronger, healthier and more prepared to reconnect — with the divine, with others and with yourself — on the other side.
Here are nine things I’m trying this year as I approach the holiday with more openness.
On Tisha B’av, being uncomfortable is the point.
Intentionally sitting in your sorrow doesn’t make you less happy long-term. Instead, it makes the contrast all the more beautiful when you emerge on the other side.
Try taking on something intentional this year to get a little bit uncomfortable — whether you’re mourning the tragedies of today or 2000 years ago.
Sit on the floor. Without a pillow. Without a book. Just sit. Meditate. Look at the cobwebs. Be still.
Feel where your body is storing tension and don’t try to change it, just notice it.
Observe your thoughts as they come and let them go.
Take a break from distractions.
With the exception of reading the books of Lamentations, Job and Jeremiah, traditional Jewish law prohibits studying Jewish texts on Tisha B’av.
Why? The answer given in the Talmud is that learning Torah generally makes one happy.
Lamentations, Job and Jeremiah are all filled with brutal, unique imagery of devastation and metaphor. They contain layer upon layer of hidden meaning. They are written in difficult, teeth-breaking biblical Hebrew, even for native speakers. They perplexed our wisest sages.
Spending a day watching Holocaust movies just isn’t the same.
The Holocaust was inexplicable and utterly devastating. But in Holocaust movies, there are also clear villains, clear victims and Hollywood-style endings.
The deepest pain is that which one does not understand and from which there seems to be no end.
Let Tisha B’av be a television-, social media- and maybe even book-free day. Engage in the mystery and power of sadness.
Let it be hard.
You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re thirsty. You’re feeling lost.
What if that’s OK?
This too shall pass. Accept that this is where you’re supposed to be right now.
Go somewhere bigger than you are and let yourself empty.
Whether it’s a forest or the Trader Joe’s parking lot, find somewhere you can sit and be still (with your cell phone on silent).
Approach your pain with curiosity.
What are you feeling — and what is that feeling trying to tell you?
Does your pain stem from a particular thought? Is that thought a true reflection of reality — or a reflection of past trauma and an imagined future? Are there changes in daily routine that may have contributed to this feeling? What could you do differently to feel better tomorrow?
What is your biggest fear? What are you doing to avoid it and what are the consequences?
What thoughts inside scare you the most? Are they true? What would you be without them?
What are your biggest regrets or losses? What can you learn and grow from them?
Write it down.
Journaling, especially by hand, can help you process the big things in life and better understand yourself. So write about what enrages you this year, what you’ve lost, what you miss and what makes you feel sad.
Ask why — and accept when you do not and cannot know the answer.
Why did the Holocaust happen? Why do stray bullets kill innocent people? Why did my parents stop loving each other? Why did my friend die so young?
Ask why. And then accept that you don’t have to know why to grow stronger, wiser and more empathetic from the experience itself.
Get mad at God.
Anger is a part of processing pain. The infinite creator of the universe can handle it.
Choose to have a relationship with the divine anyway.
Traditional Jewish sources suggest that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’av. Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, the awesome power of pain is what can emerge after it clears away what wasn’t meant to be there in the first place.
When the temple is restored, we’re told, Tisha B’av will be a day of celebration. But this restoration can only come when we’ve truly processed our pain and trauma, and corrected our mistakes.
The key is to let yourself be moved. Let the sadness transform you into a softer, stronger, kinder person. Just like torn muscles after a hard workout.
Instead of running into my head, this year, I’ll be trying to tune into my heart.
I’ll try, as messy as it is, to truly feel my pain, the world’s pain and the pain of those I love. I’ll try to sit with the complexities and incomprehensible moments rather than trying to fix them.
And when I emerge — tired, hungry and weak — only then will I ask myself what should come next.
Laura E. Adkins is Opinion Editor of the Forward.