This Sunday, Jewish people around the world observe the fast day that marks the ninth of Av on the Jewish calendar. The fast of the Ninth of Av is only one of two days of the year that Jews observe the command to fast for a full 25 hours.
The other full fast day is the Day of Atonement, known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur, when Jewish people ask God and their fellow man to forgive them for sins that they have committed, knowingly and unknowingly. The fast of the Ninth of Av is decidedly different.
While Yom Kippur focuses on the individual in the context of the greater community at large, The Ninth of Av focuses on the Jewish people as a whole, and the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. It was on the Ninth of Av that both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, in 586 BC and 70 AD, respectively.
It was on the ninth of Av that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.
It was on the Ninth of Av that the first trains of Jews were dispatched by the Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp in 1942.
Yet it was also on the Ninth of Av that, according to the Biblical account, the spies who were sent by Moses to check out the land of Israel came back with a negative report, saying that the Israelites should go back to Egypt.
The “nay saying” of the spies who did not want to inherit the land chosen by God for the people of Israel was a portent of things to come, because Jewish tradition has it that it was the deterioration of integrity among the Jewish people values that led to the destruction of both Holy Temples, by Babylonia and by Rome, respectively.
The teachings on the Ninth of Av focus on the Book of Lamentations, which, according to the Jewish tradition, was authored by the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the Jewish people being taken into exile.
The Book of Lamentations commences with the question as to “How Jerusalem stood alone,” with hints throughout the book of the moral degradation of the Jewish people which caused the inner weakness of the communal Jewish resolve, which caused Israel’s enemies to besiege and conquer and try to destroy the people of Israel.
While the Ninth of Av is widely observed in Israel by the Jewish people who live in Israel, this is a fast day that is not as well known or respected amongst Jews of North America. The reason given is that it occurs in the summer, when people are on vacation. Yet there may be a deeper reason. In Israel the subject of the threat to destroy Israel and the threat to murder the Jewish people as a whole remains part of the national culture and, in many ways is part of the daily news story.
A high percentage of Israelis are descended from people murdered by Hitler in World War II. A high percentage of Israelis are survivors of that catastrophe. And Israel has been fighting a war for its existence for 60 years.
Jews who live outside of Israel rarely speak about such things in their common parlance. Although the Jewish holidays of Purim and Passover relate to the threat to the people of Israel, from Persia and Egypt respectively, these are happy, joyous occasions, where families gather and also enjoy themselves.
There is no joy on the Ninth of Av. The tradition of the Ninth of Av is that people do not even greet each other with a friendly hello. This year, with Iran and its clients Hamas and Hezbollah gnawing at Israel from the north and south of the country, echoing the Iranian call for Israel’s obliteration, the message of the Ninth of Av could not be more relevant.
The Jewish answer to this reality is stated near the end of the Book of Lamentations, where Jewish people are asked to “examine their ways and to return to God’s path,” with a deep understanding that the persecution of the Jews can be somewhat reduced by a choice to live a more ethical life in the path of the Torah through which God has commanded the people of Israel. On this Ninth of Av, Jews in the United States may be somewhat awakened by an international conference that will gather at the Wyndham Hotel near O’Hare Airport, taking place on Saturday and Sunday.
The theme of that conference: to “eliminate the Zionist presence from Palestine” – not for Israel to withdraw from areas taken by the Jewish state in 1948 or 1967.
Indeed, a call for Israel’s destruction will be heralded on the Ninth of Av in Chicago, for anyone who wants to listen.
Most Jewish people whom this reporter meets in North America would rather not hear that message.
This piece ran in the Philadelphia Bulletin on June 8th, 2008 – http://tinyurl.com/64xqu4