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    Tishah B’Av – A Guide to the Service

    By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD
    Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

    In times gone by, one hardly needed to be able to translate the words of the Tishah B’Av services. To join in the melancholy chanting of the prayers whilst sitting on low benches or on the floor in a dismally-lit synagogue stripped of its finery, adequately conveyed the mood of the day to a Jew who was used to a life of tragedy.

    Fortunately, we now live in a new era. But Tishah B’Av has not yet outlived its usefulness, and the purpose of these notes is to make the services and the observances of the day more meaningful to the Jews of today.


    The prophet Zechariah (8:19) speaks of four fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple: 17 Tammuz, when the first breach was made in the wall of Jerusalem; 9 Av, when both first and second Temples were destroyed (the first in 586 BCE by Babylon, and the second in 70 CE by Rome); 3 Tishri, commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah, governor of Palestine, with whose death Jewish independence was lost; and 10 Tevet, when the siege of Jerusalem began.

    The other fasts last from sunrise to sunset, but Tishah B’Av, like Yom Kippur, lasts 25 hours from sunset to nightfall.

    It is not only the destruction of the Temples that the day recalls. Co-incidence or association of ideas multiplied the tragedies which it commemorates. The Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) states that five disasters happened on it:
    1. It was decreed that the rebellious Israelites should die in the wilderness and not enter Israel.
    2. The first Temple was destroyed.
    3. The second Temple was destroyed.
    4. Betar, the last fortress in the revolt against the Romans, was defeated.
    5. Jerusalem was ploughed over at the command of Hadrian.

    In addition, the exile of Jews from France (end of 14m century) and Spain (1492), and the outbreak of the First World War (1914), together with massacres and martyrdom in every age, are all associated with Tishah B’Av.


    All the traditional customs of mourning are followed on Tishah B’Av, since we are all in mourning for the Temple and our martyrs. Leather shoes are not worn, worshippers sit on the floor or on low seats, the lights are dimmed and no greetings are uttered. The Ark curtain and the reading desk covers are removed, tallit and tefillin are not put on for the morning service, and the prayers are chanted in a low, sorrowful voice. The only study allowed is of sad literature such as the books of Lamentations and Job.


    Av, the month of tragedy, will be a month of special joy when the Messiah comes, say the rabbis. Tishah B’Av and the other historical fasts will then be “to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons” (Zechariah 8:19). The month will become Menachem Av – Av, the comforter – and “all who have mourned over Jerusalem will merit to behold its joy” (Ta’anit 30b). Indeed, the Messiah will be born on 9 Av.


    Since the re-establishment of Israel in 1948 it has been repeatedly asked whether Tishah B’Av ought not to be abandoned. How can we realistically bemoan “the city that sits solitary” when we see Jerusalem as a pulsating, united capital?

    The answer is threefold. Firstly, the Temple has not been rebuilt, and the security of the land is still not guaranteed.

    Secondly, Tishah B’Av is a day of mourning for many tragedies which have left lasting effects on Jewish life, culminating in the Holocaust.

    Finally, Tishah B’Av is concerned not only with a physical exile but also with a spiritual one. The return to the land is only the beginning of the messianic age.

    It would be naive, and false to our history, if Tishah B’Av were to be erased from our calendar.


    The Book of Lamentations, read on the evening of Tishah B’Av, is called in Hebrew Echah after its opening word. Its five short chapters contain graphic, poignant, eyewitness descriptions of the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE:

    “The theme is repeated in each of the five distinct elegies which make up the Book; for each of the chapters is to be considered a poem complete in itself and it is fruitless to attempt to find logical coherence or development between one chapter and the next. Even within each of the separate poems there is an absence of plan or structure; instead the thought moves this way and that, as indeed might be expected in poems which are the spontaneous outpourings of a grief-stricken heart” (S Goldman).

    Echah is chanted to a haunting mournful melody. No blessing is recited over it when it is not read from a Scroll.

    Chapter 1 contains 22 verses, each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It describes the distress of the city and of its people, contrasted with the arrogance of the enemy;

    “For these things I weep;
    My eye, my eye runs down with water;
    Because the comforter is far from me,
    He that will refresh my soul;
    My children are desolate,
    Because the enemy has prevailed” (verse 16).

    The chapter concludes with a plea that the enemy, the willing instrument of evil, should not escape its own punishment.

    Chapter 2 also has 22 verses and is alphabetical. It elaborates on the theme of the desolation:

    “The youth and the old man lie
    On the ground in the streets;
    My young women and young men
    Have fallen by the sword;
    You slew them in the day of Your anger;
    You slaughtered unsparingly” (verse 21).

    Chapter 3, with 66 verses constructed according to a triple alphabet, gives expression to the deep sorrow in the author’s heart. Yet:

    “This I recall to my mind,
    Therefore I have hope.
    Surely the Lord’s mercies are not consumed.
    Surely His compassions fail nor (verses 21-22)

    Chapter 4, with 22 verses, is again alphabetical. It stresses that the city has suffered not only by reason of external but internal factors.

    The Rabbis declared that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, and the second because so much groundless hatred prevailed amongst the people. National weakness and internal social disintegration were the unseen allies of the enemy.

    (This explanation of Jewish defeat must not be applied automatically to the tragedies of our own generation, which introduced a new dimension into Jewish suffering.)

    Chapter 5 is not alphabetical but contains 22 verses. It concludes with an appeal to God to become reconciled with Israel and to “renew our days as of old”. In order not to end a Biblical book on an unfavourable note, verse 21 is repeated after verse 22. There is a similar custom in the case of Isaiah, Malachl and Ecclesiastes.

    The alphabetical framework – a common feature in classical Hebrew poetry – may have been designed as an aid to memory in days before printing. To the Rabbis, It also suggested that Israel violated the Law from aleph to tav – from beginning to end.

    Echah contains no indication as to its author, but tradition ascribes it to Jeremiah, who lived when the First Temple was destroyed and saw the fulfilment of his own prophecies.


    Altogether about 60 kinnot (elegies or dirges) for Tishah B’Av are known. Like most of the piyyutim (religious poems) found in the Ashkenazi liturgy, they contain many historical and literary allusions, and for their full appreciation a knowledge of the sources is required. In particular, the kinnot are often woven around verses from the Book of Lamentations. Many contain the alphabet, and some the author’s name, in acrostic.

    In kinnah after kinnah, the Jewish people lamented the lost glory of their people. “All suppressed pain which accumulated in (a Jew’s) heart, due to his peculiar situation among the nations of the world, found expression in the kinnot. All his troubles he traced back to one source: to the loss of his homeland and the ruin of the Sanctuary.” (AZ Idelsohn)

    Zechor HaShem Meh Hayah Lanu – Recall, O Lord, what has befallen us: This poem is based on chapter 5 of Echah. Each line of the poem is taken from successive verses of the chapter, interspersed with the refrains “Alas!” and “Oh, what has befallen usl”

    Eich Mippi Ben U’vat – O how, in place of songs and joy: A kinnah read when Tishah B’Av commences on Saturday evening. It alludes to the midrashic tradition that the Temple was destroyed on the night after the Sabbath.

    BeLeil Zeh – On this night: How Jewish life became darkened by reason of the tragedies that occurred on the night of Tishah B’Av, is the theme of this poem.

    Shomron Kol Tittein – Samaria lifts up her voice: Like two sinful sisters, the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem bewail the punishment that has come upon them. It was composed by Solomon ibn Gabirol, the 11th century Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher.


    Three worshippers are called to the reading of Deuteronomy 4:25-40. This passage warns that Israel will not retain their land if they allow evil and corruption to spread. However, “at the end of days you will return unto the Lord your God and heed His voice” (verse 30).


    The third person called up reads the Haftarah to the melody of Echah. The Haftarah is from Jeremiah 8:13-23 and 9:1-23 and describes the inner sickness of the people. It asks, “Is there no balm In Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of My people recovered?” (8:22).

    Its answer is that health will be restored not by flaunting wisdom, power or riches, but by sincerely acknowledging God and humbly resolving to walk In His ways.


    Shavat Suru – The joy of my heart ceased: The enemy has been and gone – Israel is left uprooted and bereaved. This is the first of a group of kinnot by Eleazar Kalir (8th century); he was the most prolific of the authors of the piyyutim and on his style many later poets modelled their works. Little is known of his life.

    Echah Atzta – How in Your wrath You hastened to destroy: Another alphabetical kinnah by Kalir with the refrain, “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us!”

    A’adeh Ad Chug Shamayim – O that I might soar up to the vault of the heaven: By Kalir. In response to the pleas of Israel, God says He has forsaken them because they forsook Him. But to have had to punish them gives Him no joy.

    Oholl Asher Ta’avta – I mourn for my Temple which You desired: Kalir asks God in this kinnah, “The Temple in which Your Presence dwelt – will You leave it to lie in ruins forever?”

    Ei Ko Omer – Where is that joy-laden promise?: Many expressions of Divine promise contain the word “Thus” – eg “Thus shall your descendants be (as numerous as the stars)” (Genesis 15:5). Israel now asks in agony, “Where is that ‘Thus’? When will God’s promises be fulfilled?” The phrase Ei Ko is a play on Echah.

    Lecha HaShem HaTzedakah – To You, O Lord, belongs righteousness: This poem by an unknown author (possibly Kalir) elaborates on a common theme of our liturgy, God shows such righteousness and charity towards us but, shamefaced, we have to confess how unworthy we are of His blessings.

    Arzei HaLevanon – The Cedars of Lebanon: In this kinnah by Meir ben Yechiel (12th century), the martyrdom of ten rabbis, mighty in the Torah as the cedars of Lebanon, is described. Among the ten, put to death by the Romans, was Rabbi Akiva, who faced his end with joy, happy to be able to make the supreme sacrifice for God. A fuller account of the ten martyrs is given in the poem Elleh Ezkerah in the Avodah on Yom Kippur.

    Mi Yitten Roshi Mayim – O that my head were water: Kalonymos ben Yehudah of Mainz (12th century) declares in this poem that only if his head were made of water would he have enough tears to weep “for my slain children and babes, and the old men of my congregation”. The tragedy which gave rise to this kinnah was the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland during the First Crusade (1096).

    Az Bahaloch Yirmeyahu – Then when Jeremiah went: By Kalir. Jeremiah stands at the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at Machpelah. How can they rest, he asks, when such sorrow has overtaken their descendants? One by one the patriarchs rise and plead with God for the people until He at last bids them return to their rest, for He will reverse the captivity of their children.

    Tzion Halo Tish’ali – O Zion, will you not ask?: This famous poem by Yehudah HaLevi, the 12th century philosopher and poet, has a place in all rites for 9 Av. It opens a section of poems commencing with the word “Zion” and expressing an ardent longing for the land of Israel. HaLevi appeals to Zion to send a greeting to the prisoner of hope, who, living in the lands of the West, desires only to see the Homeland in the East.

    Sha’ali Serufah – O Law, that has been consumed by fire: An elegy by Meir of Rothenberg (13th century) on the public burning of the Torah at Paris in 1242. The Torah and the books of Judaism, beloved companions of the Jew, are mourned as martyrs: “Dismay has seized upon my soul; how, then, can food be sweet to me, when, O Law, I have seen base men destroying you?”

    Eli Tziyyon – Let Zion and her cities lament: This hymn has the same metre as Adon Olam and is sung to a melody of hope. The image of Zion mourning like a woman in labour gives an assurance that through the suffering a new era will be born.


    In the afternoon tallit and tefillin are worn. The reading of the Torah, to which three worshippers are called up, is from Exodus 32:11-14 and 34:1-10, and the Haftarah is from Isaiah 55:6-13 and 56:1-8.

    The Amidah includes Nachem, a prayer for God’s compassion on “the city which is in mourning, laid waste, despised and desolate”.

    More of Rabbi Apple’s insights on Tishah B’Av are available on the OzTorah Tishah B’Av page.

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