Many Jews equate Yom Kippur with Tisha b’Av. The reasons are obvious enough. These are the only two days of the year when we fast from sunset to the following night (25 hours) and abide by the five Torah-derived types of affliction specific to Yom ha-Kippurim. Yet the days seem to represent two opposite states of mind. Atonement, the centerpiece of Yom ha-Kippurim is an act of grace (hesed) that should be experienced as a state of enjoyment or oneg; Tisha b’Av is a day focused on exile, suffering, and mourning.
The similarities ostensibly have textual as well as ritualistic support. In his Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Mourning” 5:7 Maimonides writes, “Tisha b’Av night is like the day [regarding fasting and the five afflictions]. One can eat when it is still day. Dusk [between sunset and darkness] one must refrain from eating like Yom ha-Kippurim. We do not eat meat or drink wine in the meal preceding the fast [of Tisha be-Av].” Curiously, while the similarity to Yom ha-Kippurim is clear, Maimonides undermines the similarity when he describes the meal that precedes the two fasts. In the meal before Yom ha-Kippurim we specifically eat meat and drink wine as this is a festive meal and not a meal of mourning like Tisha b’Av. The similarity between Yom ha-Kippurim and Tisha b’Av exemplified in the fast, suggests that there is a connection between these days through their opposition.
Here is what I mean: Yom ha-Kippurim is described as “shabbat shabbaton” in the Torah. This textual oddity (it never appears again) inspired the sages to legislate that while fasting on Shabbat is normally forbidden, if Yom ha-Kippurim falls on Shabbat we fast; if Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat we postpone its ritual manifestations until Sunday.
The reasons for the prohibition of fasting on Shabbat have to do largely with the rabbinic injunction of “oneg” (enjoyment) required on Shabbat (which is why Jews traditionally saved delicacies for that day). But it may also have to do with mourning. The sages forbid mourning on Shabbat (in part because of the obligation of oneg), thus no shiva on Shabbat. While there is a disagreement about private mourning, the sages all agree that public mourning is forbidden. Since Tisha B’Av epitomizes public, collective, mourning even though it is similar to Yom ha-Kippurim in practice, it is prohibited on Shabbat.
Let’s take this one step further. While Tisha b’Av is about collective mourning, Yom ha-Kippurim has a Gan Eden-like quality to it; it is about atonement that is a reversal of the normal workings of the covenant built on the principle of reward and punishment. Atonement may even obviate the requirement of repentance (which is the centerpiece of Rosh haShana, not Yom ha-Kippurim). For example, there is a talmudic disagreement whether, in fact, Yom ha-Kippurim atones even without repentance (that is, ezem ha-yom me-khaper — the day itself atones). Atonement is a form of erasure or transcendence of the principle of the covenant while also serving as its foundation. It is the day, one day a year, when the admixture of grace (hesed) and judgment (din) is replaced by pure grace. If Shabbat is described as “me-eyn olam ha-bah” (a bit of the next world), how much more so Yom ha-Kippurim, the “sabbath of sabbaths.” Tisha B’Av, on the other hand, is about tragic worldliness. It is about exile, covenantal failure, judgment overpowering grace; it elevates the anxiety of human suffering to a metaphysical plane — God withdrew his protection of Israel.
We can fast on Yom ha-Kippurim when it falls of Shabbat precisely because it epitomizes Shabbat. Fasting is a denial of oneg only when it is about deprivation for the sake of commemorating human loss. But fasting as a preparation for unmitigated grace transcends oneg, which is essentially pleasure derived from this world. On Shabbat we eat delicacies to experience a bit of the next world in this world. On Yom ha-Kippurim, we are taken outside the warp and woof of this world — it should be an experience of the next world without the aid of this world. Atonement is a realm of unmitigated oneg.
The meal that precedes Tisha b’Av prepares us for the day to come. Thus we partake of foods of mourning (lentils, boiled eggs). The meal that precedes Yom ha-Kippurim is a celebration; we eat meat (or the vegetarian equivalent) and drink wine to reap pleasure from this world to prepare ourselves to enter the cloud of atonement where pleasure is defined otherwise. The sages say that Moses did not eat for 40 days while in heaven and returned to this world on Yom ha-Kippurim. And the Israelites celebrated when he returned. We reverse the process. We celebrate with delicacies before and refrain from eating (like Moses) afterward.
While these two full fast days share certain rituals, they are, in fact, opposites, yet opposites that imply and even require one another. While mourning and oneg are ritualized in similar ways, they are opposite states of mind. Yet Jewish tradition seems to be alluding to the fact that these opposites require one another. Without Tisha b’Av, Yom ha-Kippurim is not necessary; without Yom ha-Kippurim, Tisha b’Av is all there is.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University. His teaching focuses on Kabbala, Hasidism, Judaism and gender, Israel/Palestine, and American Jewish thought and culture. He is the author of Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica and Radzin Hasidism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and most recently, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014). He is a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of America and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue.