Tisha B’Av and the Mourning and Survival Patterns of Jews


As a modern-day researcher of Jewish thought, I especially love the personal descriptions that Jewish philosophers insert parenthetically into their Jewish philosophical text. These descriptions allow us to learn about central customs in Jewish community life, as well as the educational values and philosophical insights that were etched into the Jewish consciousness of the philosopher in question.

An example of this can be found in Jewish-German philosopher Moses (Moshe) Hess’s (1812-1875) book, Rome and Jerusalem, which was published in Germany in 1862 and served as a significant influence on Socialist Zionism in the Land of Israel. In light of this book’s importance, Hess’s bones were transported to Israel in 1961 and re-interred in the historic Kinneret cemetery, beside the graves of Berl Katznelson, the poetess Rachel Blovstein and other leaders of the Labor Zionist movement.

Before Hess became a nationalist Jew, he was a collaborator of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Communism. But in the second half of his life, Hess experienced a Jewish awakening and became one of the precursors to Zionism. His magnum opus, Rome and Jerusalem (1862), was written as a collection of letters to an anonymous woman friend. In it, he explains the importance of Jewish nationalism for all of the world’s nations.

In revealing the biographical underpinnings of his Jewish-nationalist consciousness, which would later develop into a philosophical Jewish-Zionist and Socialist consciousness, Hess offers this depiction of his grandfather’s religious reverence – the same reverence that he wished to revive in the generation following the 19th century reforms in Germany, which he believed had significantly weakened nationalist consciousness:

“My grandfather was one of those revered scholars and God-fearing men who, though he was ordained as a rabbi, did not wish to use the title and did not earn his living from the Torah. Every single day, after his work was done, he would study Torah from the evening hours through the middle of the night. Only during the ‘nine days’ [E.R. – before the 9th of Av] did he interrupt his study. Then, he would sit with his grandchildren until the middle of the night, reading stories of the destruction of the Temple and the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem. Tears would stream from his eyes down onto his snow-white beard; and even we, the children, could not stop ourselves from crying together with him.  I remember one passage in the story of the destruction that particularly stirred both my grandfather and me. ‘When the children of Israel were chained and led into captivity by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, they passed on their journey the grave of our Mother Rachel. And as they approached the grave, behold – ‘A bitter wailing was heard; it was the sound of Rachel weeping at the fate of her children and refusing to be comforted’.” (Jeremiah 31:15). [1]

A few sentences later, Hess summarizes the philosophical idea which, according to him, emerges from this tradition practiced by his Jewish family in Germany before the emancipation: “From the Jewish family arises a vivid faith in the continuity of the spirit throughout history.” In other words: The Jews’ historical memory is embedded within the Jewish family and passed down through stories around the holidays and over the span of a Jewish person’s life.

The nine days preceding Tisha B’Av  (the 9th of Av) were filled with narratives of the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jewish people to the Diaspora and the hope of the elder generation – parents and grandparents – that the younger generation would return to their homeland. The story of the Jewish people and their hope of returning to sovereignty in their land was not just an abstract idea; it became tangible in this wonderful tradition in which a grandfather, over the course of nine days, would gather all of his grandchildren in his home and retell the stories of destruction that were found in the Talmud. I will add parenthetically that I recommend reviving this tradition. On the one hand, accounts of the destruction are very difficult and not necessarily appropriate for children, but on the other hand, they carry with them important values, such as mutual responsibility and eradicating the phenomenon of senseless hatred which, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple. [2]

From this we see that the historical memory intended to one day be revived can be found within two main sources: In the legends themselves, passed on through the generations, and in the pedagogical methods designed to embed this memory. In the stories told by parents and grandparents to their children, and in the act of instilling hope that they may someday return to their land, lie both sorrow over the past destruction of Jewish sovereignty and anticipation of reinstating it in the future.

Those who wish to understand the great miracle of the Jewish people’s survival over the last few generations will look to the intertwined patterns of mourning and hope on Tisha B’av, a day which, despite its seemingly minor place in the Jewish calendar, is actually very central in our lives.

[1] Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem: And Other Jewish Writings, Translated by Yeshurun Keshet, Foreword by Mordechai M. Buber and Afterword by Michael Gretz, Jerusalem: The Zionist Library of the World Zionist Organization, 1983, p. 41.

[2] For stories of the destruction see: Anat Yisraeli-Taran, The Legends of the Destruction: Traditions of the Destruction in Talmudic Literature, Hillel Ben Haim Library, Published by HaKibbutz Hameuchad, 1997.