Branches of Judaism observe Tisha B'Av in variety of ways

Thursday, August 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Rabbi Yossi Feintuch, right, leads a small service on Wednesday to mark Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. Irwin Kaye, center, and David Wilkerson, left, are members of the Congregation Beth Shalom who attended the service.

COLUMBIA — Although it is one of the most mournful days observed in the Hebrew calendar, Tisha B'Av is given varied recognition among the different branches of Judaism. This year the day fell on Wednesday.

Numerous calamities in Jewish history happened on this one day in Av, a month in the Hebrew calendar. Tisha B'Av, which means “the Ninth of Av,” is remembered primarily as the day that both the First and Second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. It also marks numerous times when Jews were exiled from various countries.

Tisha B'Av Timeline

Rabbi Feintuch recalled the history of Tisha B'Av:

  • 586 BCE: The destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the First Temple, led by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians
  • unknown date: The return of 12 scouts who were dispatched by Moses to bring reports about the land of Israel to which Hebrews were returning after centuries of slavery
  • 70 CE: The destruction of King Herod’s Temple, the Second Temple, led by General Titus and the Romans, beginning the Jewish exile from the Israel 
  • 1290: Jews of England expelled
  • 1306: Jews of France expelled
  • 1492: Jews of Spain expelled
  • 1670: Jews of Austria expelled
  • 1941: Jews of Poland forced into Warsaw ghetto
  • 1942: Jews in Warsaw ghettos moved to concentration camps

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Congregation Beth Shalom, in Columbia, identifies with Reform Judaism, which treats the day less formally than more traditional Judaism. Orthodox Jews observe the day sternly, often giving up eating, bathing, sexual intercourse and applying creams or oils during a period of fasting.  

But the observance of Tisha B'Av at Congregation Beth Shalom risks being overlooked, Rabbi Yossi Feintuch said, because Reform Judaism historically does not await the eventual restoration of the destroyed temples.

Feintuch said he has not wanted to exclude remembrance of this day from the synagogue's events and that he has tried to be creative with designing services in the past.

The service at Congregation Beth Shalom included brief readings, and a History Channel film on Solomon’s Temple followed. David Wilkerson, 19, said Wednesday’s service and film supplemented his understanding. “Since I’m currently reading 'History of the Jews', which is about the past fall of Jerusalem, this day was present in my mind,” Wilkerson said.

During the service at Congregation Beth Shalom, attendees did not have to sit on the floor, take off their shoes or dim the lights — some elements of a more traditional service.

Irwin Kaye, Religious Practice Committee chairman, has previously organized services for the day. In the past, his services have included the typical portions of a mourning service, which includes a call to worship and a standing prayer. The book of Lamentations is read in Hebrew using a mournful melody that Kaye said is “slow and halting.”  The services often end with several other prayers and a mourner’s Kaddish.  Kaye said it speaks of neither life nor death, but praise to God. He planned to have his grandson read about Tisha B'Av later that night and report back to the family.

Phoebe Goodman, a Columbia resident, has been attending Congregation Beth Shalom for nearly 15 years. She had attended this service once before but believed this one was more extensive. She said the History Channel films were a new addition to the synagogue’s Tisha B'Av service.

“It was an eye-opener. Growing up, my parents were orthodox and conservative. They pointed it out, but we didn’t observe it,” Goodman said. “I am planning on fasting. It’s important to remember.”

A member of the congregation, Rebecca Smith, said her son Isaac introduced her to the solemnity of Tisha B'Av.

“As a child, and until a few years ago, I didn’t even know about this day. You’re not supposed to have fun — it’s very somber," she said. "Now that I know about it, I try to observe it.”

Feintuch, Kaye and Smith all fasted following the Wednesday service until sundown on the next day.

Smith said that people may choose whether they want to join in the fast, an aspect of Reform Judaism that differs from Orthodox Judaism, where it is expected.

Smith said the fast wasn’t too difficult for her. She went to Flat Branch Pub & Brewing after it ended and ordered artichokes and dip in a round bowl. “Round” food is significant in the Jewish faith because it represents the continuity of life. A similar Jewish practice involves eating a hard-boiled egg after Shivah.

Children at the synagogue are often not informed about the event because it always falls in late July during vacation periods. Still, Congregation Beth Shalom has offered services in the past. Three years ago, the rabbi led a group in a reading of the Talmud; two years ago they discussed the Jews’ 1942 expulsion from Spain; and last year the demise of Masada, which involved a Jewish mass suicide in response to the Roman takeover in the year 70.

“Tisha B'Av is quite mystical; it’s quite mysterious. But it perpetuates itself, this ignorance,” Feintuch said. He said he did not observe the event growing up.

The Ninth of Av in the Hebrew calendar is notable because it has hosted numerous important events in Jewish history, spanning centuries. Precursors to the Holocaust and a new take on Reform Judaism are tied to the date in some fashion.

Kaye said Tisha B'Av marks the beginning of the expulsion of the Jews from different countries over several centuries. Particularly, the 1942 Tisha B'Av marks the beginning of the transportation of Jews from the ghettos in Warsaw, Poland, to the Treblinka camp during the Holocaust.

Another legacy of the sacred day is its involvement in Reform Jews' transition to more Zionist theologies. The Zionist movement aspires to return exiled Jews to Israel and restore the temple. Since Reform Judaism’s inception nearly two centuries ago, the faith had often dismissed the movement, Feintuch said. Rather, European Reform Jews were concerned with rights in their respective countries.

“This remained a powerful reform tenet until the 1930s when events in Europe proved that there was no emancipation. There were no equal rights. The situation of the Jews only worsened off and proved that Zionism was actually correct,” Feintuch said.

With the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe, Reform Judaism repositioned itself as very Zionistic, embracing the state of Israel and calling upon its members to visit the land and to send their children there for high school, Feintuch said.

While Congregation Beth Shalom allows for more freedom in choosing how to observe days such as Tisha B'Av, other communities in Missouri devote even more time to remember the day.

“In Columbia, the organized Jewish community is not very traditional, but you just need to venture to St. Louis or Kansas City, where you have such traditional communities,” Feintuch said. “But the day is not totally overlooked in Reform Judaism. You cannot just leave it untouched.”

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