Rabbi’s Monthly Message July 2013

Rabbi’s Monthly Message July 2013

RabbiShalom all,

We have become so accustomed to having the modern state of Israel to visit, to admire and to nurture, that we have forgotten what it is like to have no Jerusalem, no Jewish state, and, ultimately, a loss of confidence in the divine promises to our people. We are certainly part of a privileged generation, the first and second generations to experience the existence of an independent Jewish state since the year 74 CE, when the last stronghold of Jewish resistance to the Romans fell at Masada.

I also believe that in order for us to truly appreciate what we have today and to recognise how fortunate all Jews are to have a Jewish state, we must also remember our past. You appreciate something when it is lost and then recovered, and we are compelled to remember days when our people could only hope for what we too often take for granted today.

That is why we have Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) in the Jewish calendar, to remember when Jerusalem and both Temples were destroyed on the same date, one in 586 BCE, the next time in 70 CE.

Our services will take place on Monday 15 July, 9-10:15pm. Cantor Heller and I, along with participants, will be chanting and reading the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eicha), studying one of the kinot (lamentations) composed for the observance of Tisha B’Av during the Middle Ages. I will present and we will discuss the contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to our understanding of Judaism during the volatile first century CE, which witnessed the Jewish people’s greatest calamity, Hurban Bet Hamikdash, the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We will also hold our unique Belsize Square commemoration at Pound Lane Cemetery, on Sunday 14 July, 11:30 am, where a moving service will remember those who perished during the Holocaust and who have no one to remember them. Please join us for both commemorations—it is too easy to forget.

Some notes about Tisha B’Av

1) Tisha B’Av is the only other FULL fast-day on the annual calendar aside from Yom Kippur. It is the saddest day of the Jewish year, for on this very day both Temples were destroyed, and subsequent to 70 CE, many other tragedies befell the Jewish people on this exact date, including the subject of my very first Tisha B’Av with the congregation, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

2) The observance of Tisha B’Av begins at sundown, and not earlier, hence the late beginning to our own service on 15 July. Generally, a simple meal precedes the fast, called seudah mafseket (the meal of demarcation) and many customs and traditions follow in the synagogue: the parokhet (curtain) that covers the Ark is replaced with a black one reminiscent of the pall that covers a casket on its last journey to the grave. It is customary to turn off the lights and to light candles instead to maintain a mood of solemnity. We read the Book of Lamentations, probably composed by the prophet Jeremiah, describing the horrors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. It is customary to sit on the floor, or on low stools or cushions, as a sign of mourning, as aveilim (mourners) traditionally do at the shiva home when they lose a loved one.

As on Yom Kippur, it is customary to not wear leather shoes (seen as sign of luxury), refrain from sexual intimacy, refrain from washing for pleasure and not wear perfumes or use scented oils.

The maariv (evening) service is chanted in a low voice, with congregational singing muted because of the mournful undertones. It is also customary to recite kinot, or dirges that were written over the course of Jewish history, mostly from the medieval period, all of them dealing with the theme of the loss of the Temple, of Jerusalem, and of Jewish life.

3) The Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Hazon (or the “Sabbath of the vision of Isaiah”), and is chanted in the trope normally used for Tisha B’Av.

4) There are no restrictions on working during Tisha B’Av, but joyful things are usually avoided, as mourners would show restraint during their period of mourning for a loved one.

5) There is some controversy as to whether there should be any connection made between the Shoah and Tisha B’Av. After all, the first proposed date for a commemoration of the Holocaust was supposed to be Tisha B’Av, eventually rejected by consensus in the new state of Israel. The feeling of many authorities is that the two should remain separate, to highlight the fact that the Holocaust is sui generis, one of its kind, never was, is, and hopefully never will be again.

6) There is another controversy because of the existence of the modern state of Israel. Some feel that with the rebuilding of Jerusalem there is less of a need for Tisha B’Av. I disagree, for the reasons I shared above: remembering history, our past, enables us to appreciate what we have today, and the triumphs of today are interwoven with the tears shed by our ancestors.

7) Tradition tells us that Tisha B’Av will also be the day the promised Mashiach (Messiah) will be born. In other words, our Sages never gave up their fervent hope that even in the darkest of days of the Jewish people, would be made up one day with the redemption of Israel and humanity as a whole.

To all of you, good wishes during these summer months. I do hope to see as many of you as possible for the observance of Tisha B’Av here at Belsize Square Synagogue.

In shalom always,

Rabbi Altshuler