The Jewish Friday the 13th
“He who does not mourn over the Destruction of Zion will not live to see her joy.”1
Down through the ages, this rabbinical saying has encapsulated the essence of one of the gloomiest days on the Jewish calendar—Tisha be-Av.
Tisha be-Av, or the Ninth of Av (Av is the fifth month in the Jewish calendar, corresponding to July/August), not only commemorates specific tragedies in Jewish history; it also symbolizes all that has been dismal, dreadful, and lamentable in Jewish existence. It is the Jewish Friday the 13th and will be commemorated this year on July 21.
Origin and Description of Tisha be-Av
The biblical record is unclear as to the origin of Tisha be-Av; however, comparing Zechariah 7:3–5 with Zechariah 8:19 indicates that it was probably instituted some time after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Bible does not give any evidence that Tisha be-Av, as a commemorative fast day, originated with God or received any form of divine sanction.
Tisha be-Av marks the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The first Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians, and the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Aside from the Temple disasters, other misfortunes befell the Jewish people around the Ninth of Av.
In 132 A.D., Israel revolted against Rome for the second time. Under the leadership of a false messiah, Bar Kochba, the Jewish army held out for three years. Their last stronghold, the city of Betar, fell in 135 A.D. on Tisha be-Av.
Exactly one year later, again on the Ninth of Av, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had the ruins of the city of Jerusalem plowed under by a team of oxen. He then built on its site a Roman city, which he named Aelia Capitolina.2 Jews were forbidden to enter the city upon penalty of death.3
Other calamities that occurred around the Ninth of Av include the burning of Talmud books in Paris in 1242; the expulsion of thousands of Jewish people from Spain in 1492, thus ending Spanish Jewry’s “Golden Age” and the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in 1942.
“For these things I weep” (Lam. 1:16) says the Jewish soul on Tisha be-Av.
Observance of Tisha be-Av
There are few details concerning the observance of Tisha be-Av in biblical days. The only descriptions are found in Zechariah 7:3–5 and 8:19, where we are informed that the people wept (7:3) and mourned (7:5) in the fifth month.
The returned Jewish exiles also separated themselves on Tisha be-Av (7:3). The idea was to abstain or separate oneself for the purpose of consecration. Fasting (7:5; 8:19) by abstaining from food was thought to be one way to accomplish this.
Today’s observance of the fast of Tisha be-Av in orthodox Jewish homes stems largely from rabbinic traditions and teachings. As in biblical times, fasting and mourning continue to play major roles in the modern observance. The solemnity of the day is carried over into the synagogue as well. Along with various prayers and dirges, the Book of Lamentations is read.
The modern observance does not allow for the study of the Scriptures on the Ninth of Av. The justification for this is found in Psalm 19:8: “The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” Since rejoicing on Tisha be-Av is forbidden, studying God’s Word on that day would violate that prohibition.
Tisha be-Av and Prophecy
According to Zechariah 8:19, a day is coming when, instead of being a fast, God will transform Tisha be-Av into a feast—a cheerful feast! Instead of weeping, there will be joy. Instead of mourning, there will be gladness. The purpose and practice of Israel’s saddest day of the year will be completely refurbished. No longer will men and nations recall to memory the old Jerusalems with their tortured pasts. In that day there will be a new, rejuvenated Jerusalem (Zech. 8:3–5).
Prophetically, Zechariah chapter 8 is looking ahead to the days of the Messiah and His reign on the earth. The future glorification of Tisha be-Av will, therefore, take place during that peaceful period of time.
Until then, the Word of God offers to Israel a benevolent exhortation. Although Tisha be-Av now brings to the heart sorrow and tears, it will one day bring joy and laughter. Remember, the Lord has promised “to do good unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear ye not” (Zech. 8:15).
Lessons from Tisha be-Av
GOD DOES NOT PLAY GAMES WITH SIN
“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps. 103:8). But the stories behind the Ninth of Av show us that God is also just (Dt. 32:4), and He means what He says regarding sin. He does not wink at it; He does not sweep it under the rug. He deals with it, opportunely and justly. God’s no nonsense approach to dealing with sin was evidenced in the destruction of both Temples. He gave His people many opportunities to repent, but finally there came a time when they had to pay the piper (2 Chr. 36:15–16).
The Word of God contains numerous warnings to fallen man, calling upon him to turn away from his sin and be reconciled with his Maker (e.g., Ezek. 33:11; Acts 17:30–31). But all too often these warnings go unheeded. Instead of trying to escape, rationalize, or seek “broken cisterns” for help (Jer. 2:13), the Bible admonishes the unregenerate man to be honest with himself, face his sin squarely, and get right with God. The passage read every year on Tisha be-Av is a good place to start: “Let us search and test our ways, and turn again to the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Lam. 3:40). Once this is done, the sinner will discover God’s grace as well as His justice.
GOD CAN TURN TRAGEDY INTO TRIUMPH
Tisha be-Av was created to be a time of fasting and sorrow, but we have seen that one day God will transform it into a time of feasting and gladness. If there is anything Tisha be-Av can teach us, then, it is that God is capable of taking a broken vessel and making it whole again. He can turn heartache into cheer, fasting into feasting and mourning into mirth. God not only does this with holidays; He also does it with people.
The good news of the Bible is that God can take a person who is dead in his trespasses and sins and make him brand new. At the moment an individual puts his trust in Jesus as his Messiah—his Savior—a spiritual metamorphosis takes place. The Apostle Paul described it this way: “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
“Is there no balm in Gilead…?” (Jer. 8:22), the question is asked on Tisha be-Av. O yes, my friend, there is. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”4
HIS NAME IS JESUS. GENUINE PIETY COMES FROM THE HEART, AND ITS SOURCE IS THE LORD.
The danger of elevating outward ritual above inward reality can be seen in the prohibition against studying the Bible on Tisha be-Av. This man-made veto is designed to give tradition preeminence over the knowledge of God. It vividly illustrates Jesus’ statement in Mark 7:9, “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.”
God is not concerned that we be dutiful in superficial liturgies; rather, He wants us to know and worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24). Our God calls us to something far better than mere outward traditions, rites, and ceremonies. He calls us to a spiritual authenticity that comes from the heart and finds its fountainhead in Him.
- Nathan Ausubel, The Book of Jewish Knowledge (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1964), 469.
- “It was called Aelia after Hadrian’s family name, and Capitolina after the Capitoline Jupiter [a Temple to the Roman god Jupiter located on the Capitoline hill at Rome] “ (Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past: The Archaeological Background of Judaism and Christianity, 2 vols. [Princeton:, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959], vol. 2, 329, n 10).
- Encyclopedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1971), vol. 3, 936. Jewish commentators see this plowing up of Jerusalem to be in fulfillment of Jeremiah 26:18 and Micah 3:12.
- From the traditional spiritual, There Is a Balm in Gilead.