Tisha B’Av: The peak of a reversed Avelut process
Tisha B’Av is the Jewish people’s national day of mourning. It is the day on which we sit shiva and mourn the loss of our Holy Temple – as well as acknowledge the tragedies the Jewish people have experienced throughout history. In many ways, it is a carefully and intentionally curated experience.
We do not bathe, sit on chairs, or think about our physical appearance. We are supposed to be too consumed with our loss to tend to such mundane matters. We are meant to experience loss in the ways in which a mourner does, viscerally and as an all-consuming state of being.
Although Tisha B’Av is parallel to the shiva period of mourning, the structures of ritual within which the two mourning experiences are embedded are mirror images of one another; one is designed to take mourners out of a state of mourning, while the other is designed to bring them in.
After the loss of a loved one, the individual mourner is plunged into a state of helplessness immediately and naturally. Halakha, Jewish law, does not have to encourage the mourner to feel the loss, for that feeling is intense and unavoidable. On the contrary, Halakha has to encourage the mourner to emerge from that sense of loss and it provides the framework and a series of steps for doing so. After the seven days of shiva, therefore, the mourner is obligated to enter a secondary, less intense period of mourning, the shloshim. Here they may not cut their hair and may not formally launder their clothing. Finally, for a parent, the mourner enters an even less intense stage after the first month; for the remainder of the year, they avoid overt celebrations and public rejoicing.
By the end of the year, the Halakha feels confident that the mourner has emerged from their despondence. Stage by stage, they have been brought back within the fold of the community, and are able to participate fully in communal life.
Our mourning for the loss of the Temple, however, is quite different in experience. Here, the Halakha knows that if we were left to our own devices, we would be hard-pressed to feel any sense of loss at all. The mourning process is, therefore, reversed. We build towards it incrementally, and our thoughts and emotions are designed to follow our actions.
We begin to talk about the loss on the 17th of Tammuz, a day that commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the second temple, a full three weeks before Tisha B’Av.
The mourning ritual intensifies at the beginning of the month of Av – a period of time known as the “Nine Days” – with a suite of practices parallel to the year of mourning. During the week of Tisha B’Av itself, the mourning is intensified even further; we now enter a period parallel in its practices, and its intensity to the shloshim (30 days) following the loss of a family member. Haircuts and washing one’s clothes are forbidden.
Finally, we arrive at Tisha B’Av itself. Here we are subjected to the restrictions of the week of shiva.
Rather than expecting that the mourners – in this case, the entire community – will spontaneously experience the crushing loss of the Temple, the Halakha was constructed to create that sense of loss.
In both the cases of individually mourning a family member and communally mourning the destruction of the Temple more than 2,000 years ago, the Halakha has goals for the emotional states of the mourners. It is not content to simply let the mourners experience what they will. This is to ensure that depression and despondence do not overwhelm the mourners and preclude a return to normal life, and to ensure that the loss is adequately felt and appropriately commemorated.
Actions lead to emotions
There is a critical insight, shared by the Halakha and by modern scientists. It was expressed concisely more than a century ago by William James: “We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.”
Today we have more data that complicates this theory but confirms the core insight: our actions can create emotional states. This important lesson shows us how we can construct our own actions. Our actions (ma‘asim) lead to particular thoughts (machshavot) – feelings and emotional states of being.
It isn’t always the case that we will respond instinctively to violations of the right and the good and act upon our values. Often, in our natural states and for various reasons, we prefer to sit idly even when we know wrongs are being committed. We may be fearful of overreacting, and tell ourselves the situation has to be given more time to work itself out. We may believe, or wish to believe, that others are better positioned to address the problems. We may have more pressing things to do.
It is also possible, though we may not wish to admit it, that we have not sufficiently fine-tuned our characters and our personalities. We all aspire to create righteous personalities within ourselves and live according to guiding values and principles. From the system of mourning created by the Halakha leading up to Tisha B’Av, we learn how to do this.
The impact of value-driven actions
Our experiences and emotional reactions can be crafted by acting in the way we wish to intuit. Even when we do not immediately feel the moral outrage at injustice that perhaps we should, performing value-driven actions can lead us to be more sensitive to the problems our world faces and to the solutions available to us.
By practicing actions that reflect our guiding values, even if they don’t reflect our current feelings, we can create personalities that are suffused with a perfected sense of justice and ethical propriety. And by creating such a society, we can continue the slow march towards shaping a more sensitive, caring, and just humanity.
Shira Hecht-Koller, M2 Center for Values in Action Education Director, is an educational entrepreneur, attorney, and writer. She brings with her over fifteen years of experience teaching Jewish Studies and designing interdisciplinary curricula in the classroom and immersive learning environments. Prior to her career in Jewish education, she practiced corporate law at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. She is the author, together with Hanoch Piven, of Dream Big, Laugh Often: And More Great Advice from the Bible (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2023). Her written work appears in both scholarly and popular publications and she lectures widely on topics of creativity, family life, and Jewish texts. She holds a JD from Cardozo School of Law and is a graduate of the Advanced Talmud program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She is an avid tennis fan and loves exploring the world with her partner Aaron and children Dalya, Shachar, Amitai, and Aiden.