Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2012

The Fast Days of Summer

Fasts of mourning are not the most popular of fasts, especially in the middle of the summer. The sun is warm and bright, and the last thing that we want to do is mourn the loss of an ancient Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile.  There is a reason, however, why Judaism has such elaborate rituals for death and morning … funeral customs, shiva, and Yahrtzeit.  Judaism believes that we are not disconnected beings creating and living our lives on our own.  Rather, we are intimately connected with and dependent on those who preceded us.  We inherited a world and a religious tradition from the hundreds and thousands of generations of humanity that came before us.  After our brief time on earth, it is our responsibility to pass along that heritage to those who will follow.  The rituals of death and mourning create the memory link between us and our past, and give us a framework in which to transmit the stories of our past to the next generation.

Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, is the anniversary of the day upon which both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, and Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492.  It is one of two major fast days on the Jewish calendar (the other being Yom Kippur).  Aside from fasting  and refraining from wearing leather and from engaging in intimate relations, it is observed by reading the book of Aicha, Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the Babylonian exile after the first Temple was destroyed.

Three weeks prior to Tisha b’Av, on the 17th of Tammuz, Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Shiva Asar bTammuz is observed as a minor fast day (sunrise to sundown) on Sunday, July 8.  These three weeks are observed as days of semi-mourning, in which weddings and other joyous celebrations should not take place.  During the first nine days of Av, one should not eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat), or cut one’s hair.  Three special Haftarot are chanted, known as the Haftarot of destruction.  The Haftarah the week prior to Tisha b’Av is chanted using the trope of Aicha (Lamentations). The three weeks lead us into the emotional low of the consideration of exile and the destructive nature of anti-semitism, prejudice, racism, and all forms of hatred.  Following Tisha b’Av, a series of 7 Haftarot known as the Haftarot of consolation take us back up to the emotional high of Rosh Hashanah, 7 weeks later.

Tisha B’Av will be observed on Saturday night, July 28, and Sunday, July 29.  Services will be held at the synagogue beginning at 10:00 p.m. on July 28 and 9:30 a.m. July 29.

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Asara B’Tevet – The Fast of the 10th of Tevet

The minor fast day of Asara B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, is observed tomorrow.  Minor fasts are those observed from sunrise to dark, rather than from sunset to dark the next day.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Asara B’Tevet is the shortest fast of the year.  If you wake up before sunrise, you can eat a little breakfast or at least drink some water or coffee (since halakha discourages eating meals before morning prayers), and the fast ends a mere 11 or so hours later.

This year the fast is even about 1/2 hour shorter than normal, because it is observed on a Friday.  It is in fact the only fast day on the Jewish calendar that is observed on a Friday.  All other fast days, when they fall on a Friday, are observed on Thursday instead.  Because we don’t fast on Shabbat (Yes, Yom Kippur is a glaring exception), Asara B’Tevet ends at sunset rather than at full darkness as other fast days.

Asara B’Tevet is one of the three yearly fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  On the 10th of Tevet, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar began his siege against the city, as described in 2 Kings 25:

“And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.”  (2 Kings 25.1–3 JPS)

Judaism is sometimes summarized as a series of celebrations commemorating the following circumstance:  “They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.”  Periodically, however, it is worth stepping back from satiating our bodies to contemplate how the dark moments of our history affect our souls.  The absence of the Temple in Judaism has become a symbol of living in an incomplete and unredeemed world, a world in which we are waiting for a messianic figure to usher the world into a new age of peace and security, in which God’s presence will make itself known and thereby transform every human heart with love.  May it be so.

Why I Do — and Do Not — Fast on Asarah B’Tevet

Today is Asarah B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, the first of three fasts in the Jewish calendar cycle related to the destruction of the Temple(s) in Jerusalem.  2,596 years ago and again 1940 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem, the religious center of Jewish ritual, was destroyed.  Asarah B’Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Ironically, given effect of the flattening of history by the Jewish calendar, the 10th of Tevet is commemorated a mere 7 or 8 days following Hanukkah, the celebration of the rededication and purification of the Temple.

Why I fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • Part of me longs for the restoration of the Temple rituals.  I eat meat, and have always wondered what it would be like to be part of a Temple ritual at which I present the life of the animal to God and watch it be slaughtered, or witness the raw power of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual.  For the vegetarian imagination, how powerful would it be like to present the first fruits from the pear tree in my backyard?
  • Mourning for the loss of the Temple represents the longing for a messianic world in which God’s presence is universally felt, and acts of war and intentional evil and hatred no longer exist.

Why I do not fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • There is something absurd about mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem as if 1948 and 1967 never happened, as if Jerusalem was not a beautiful and vibrant city over 700,000 people.
  • In 1981 and 1985-6, my first trip to Israel and my year studying in Israel, going to the Kotel, the western wall of the Temple, was a spiritual experience.  I felt connected to God through the thousands of years of Jewish history, suffering and triumph, focused on the Temple as mythic center of the world.  Since then, however, the Kotel has become an increasingly politicized tool for the imposition of a narrow set of Hareidi values on the rest of the Jewish world.  The Kotel is no longer a gathering place for the Israeli public for the celebration of national events.  My sense of mourning for the lack of a Temple is overwhelmed by my sense of fear that were such a place to exist, it would be a tool of oppression rather than a means for bringing people together.

In the end, I do fast, for at least part of the day, less in mourning over Jerusalem and the Temple, and more in mourning for a world of pluralism and understanding, in which our sacred places do not belong to one denomination or stream,  but rather are shared within Judaism as well as outside.