Every year camp leaders confront a dilemma: what content is appropriate for Tisha b’Av when this fast day occurs during the camp season. Should the campers be expected to fast? The leaders? In many cases, commemorating Tisha b’Av is reduced to cancelling swimming or programming an activity related to the rabbinic midrash of Kamtza and BarKamtza on the destruction of the Temple. What indeed is Tisha b’Av’s place in contemporary society?
This is an age-old question. After the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile (518 BCE), the prophet Zechariah declared that Tisha b’Av is a temporary fast which one day will be turned into a day of rejoicing (Zech 8:19). Did Zechariah believe that this would be the case only after the Second Temple would be rebuilt? This is difficult to ascertain. Whether or not Tisha b’Av is intrinsically connected to the rebuilding of the Temple remains an open question.
Some 700 years after the prophet Zechariah, Rabbi Judah HaNasi deliberated as to whether Tisha b’Av should be annulled. According to the gemara, it was decided not to abolish the fast. Nevertheless, Rabbi Judah’s proposal demonstrates that the issue of economic and personal security, perhaps even some form of national sovereignty, was the focus of Tisha b’Av, but clearly not the rebuilding of the Temple.
The era of Rabbi Judah HaNasi passed, the Jewish community in the land of Israel decreased, and Tisha b’Av was transformed into a day marking various calamities which befell the Jewish people. Dirges commemorating the Crusades became integrated into the liturgy, as well as other disasters, and eventually the Holocaust as well.
The status of Tisha b’Av following the establishment of the State of Israel is unresolved. This is due to, among other issues, the difficulty in differentiating between Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. In 1934 Berl Katznelson criticised the disregard of Tisha b’Av at the summer camp of the Labour youth movement in Palestine. In 1997 the National Religious Party passed a law mandating the closure of restaurants on Tisha b’Av due to the fact that many started opening on this day.
The tension between the necessity to acknowledge the blessing of the establishment of the State of Israel and the feeling that one should still relate to persecutions and destructions endured by the Jewish people represents another focus of the debate within religious circles. All Masorti kehillot and some Orthodox kehillot have changed the “Nahem” prayer to eliminate the lines speaking of Jerusalem as “a desolate and vacant city”, laid waste and deserted. The Masorti Movement has even changed the blessing of “rejoicing Zion in her children” so that it reflects the fact that Jerusalem is now a rebuilt city and not a ruin. The Masorti Committee on Jewish Law was divided over the question as to whether it is obligatory to fast on Tisha b’Av. According to one viewpoint, the fast is optional and one only should fast until Mincha (half a day) in order to mark both the destruction and the redemption.
In my opinion, Tisha b’Av must indeed confront this issue: does the return to Zion signify the redemption of the Jewish people and is the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel truly its consolation? I believe that it is only a partial consolation – although a “safe haven” has been established and we can be proud of the country’s numerous achievements, nevertheless, we have not yet clarified the essence of a Jewish state and its basic values. I hope that this year more people in Israel and throughout the Jewish world will examine their aspirations for Israel, and explore how it can genuinely represent the redemption of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch is the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem.