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Fast Times

The fast day of Tisha B’Av, which falls next Tuesday, is not a central day on anyone’s version of the Jewish ritual calendar, but it probably should be. Sad to say, it captures more closely than any other holiday the dominant theme of Jewish communal culture in our age: grief and outrage over the cruelties visited on Jews by their enemies.

The holy day was originally a day of mourning, marking the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Roman troops in the year 70. Over the centuries it’s been expanded into a catch-all remembrance day for all the calamities of Jewish history, from the fall of the First Temple to the Spanish Expulsion and beyond. It’s marked by fasting, reading traditional dirges and retelling the tragic tales.

If it remains unfamiliar to most American Jews, the reasons are complex. American Jews have evolved their own unique folk-culture, built on values of ethical living and ethnic pride and layered with large dollops of family and food. The festivals most widely observed here — Hanukkah, Passover, the New Year and the Day of Atonement — manage to combine all or most of those elements. They leave celebrants feeling cheered, uplifted and, except for Atonement Day, thoroughly stuffed.

Tisha B’Av, by contrast, is marked by unrelieved gloom. You can’t eat. You can’t dress up. There’s no family reunion. You don’t even get a day off.

But there is a deeper reason for the fast day’s dissonance in American Jewish culture. In addition to mourning the calamities of the past, tradition calls on Jews to “afflict their souls” and reflect on the sins that brought on their misfortunes. That’s a deeply subversive thought these days. The common name for it is “blaming the victim.”

A closer look at the fast’s traditions suggests just how subversive the message is. The Talmud teaches that the reason for the Temple’s destruction was sinat hinam, or “pointless hatred.” The reference is to political divisions at the time inside besieged Jerusalem. The city’s leadership, backed by a majority of the population, sought a compromise with the Romans that would leave the Temple intact. But attempts to cut a deal were foiled by the Sicarii or “dagger men,” a band of knife-wielding Jewish zealots who waged a campaign of assassination to stiffen Jewish resolve. Thanks to their militancy, the Jews were persuaded to fight on — to utter ruin.

The real hero of the saga, tradition reminds us, was Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai, a revered sage who snuck out of the city and surrendered to the Romans, in return for permission to found an academy behind enemy lines at Yavneh. It was there that Ben-Zakai and his disciples codified the new rituals of Judaism, based on ethics and prayer rather than Temple sacrifice, that would survive and thrive over the coming millennia, transforming a local cult into a world religion.

The mood on Tisha B’Av is one of mourning, but its real message is hope. Destruction and renewal, death and rebirth, darkness and dawn. That’s something worth embracing.

We wish our readers an easy fast, and a hopeful one.

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