This Jewish holiday, which falls on the ninth of Av, will be celebrated in 2015 from the evening of Saturday, July 25, through the evening of Sunday, July 26. It is one of those holidays that seems to capture the oppressiveness of summer heat.
It was probably derived from a Babylonian festival, held on the ninth of Av, a day of dread and sorrow, the climax of a month-long celebration focused on torches and firewood. According to Arthur Waskow in Seasons of Our Joy, my favorite book on Jewish holiday customs, the Jews may have chosen this day with its emphasis on fire to commemorate the burning of the Temple. The holiday has come to be associated with other tragedies as well, for instance the massacre of Jews during the Crusades and the Holocaust.
It is a day of deep mourning, the saddest day in the Jewish holiday calendar. Beginning at sundown, the following pleasures are forbidden: eating and drinking, wearing leather, washing, anointing the skin or air with oils or perfume, and making love. These proscriptions remind me of the customs associated with the Dog Days, the hottest days of the year, when men were advised not to have sex as their vital energy could be easily depleted. The Greeks also fast between August 1 and August 15, which would (in the old lunar calendar) occur from the new moon to the full moon of Av.
The synagogue service for Tisha B’Av is conducted like a funeral. The Ark of the Torah is draped in black, or left empty. There are no bright lights, just candles, and in some Sephardic and Eastern congregations, even those are extinguished before the end of the service. The morning service the following day is also solemn, but in the afternoon the mood changes. Women may put on perfume to welcome King Messiah. After sundown, the fast is broken, and Jews wash their faces and go outside to participate in kiddush levana—hallowing the moon.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
Now Available — The Hebrew Illuminations 2016 calendar featuring the intricate artwork of Adam Rhine.