On a phone call with my father, he commented that the 9 Days are now the days when Orthodox Jews eat the most meat. The 9 Days are part of an escalating practice of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. During the first eight days, traditional Jews do not eat meat, and on the 9th day, Tisha B’Av, they fast for 25 hours, from sundown until nightfall of the following day. Yet today, it is not unusual for people to hold a siyum, a celebration for finishing a tractate of Talmud during the 9 Days, so that they can eat meat in honor of the siyum. And since it’s summer, why not have a barbecue? Kosher restaurants are asking local rabbis to make a siyum at the restaurant, enabling patrons to order whatever they wish.
The growth of the siyum workaround is simply the latest in the ongoing subversion of Tisha b’Av. Prior to the spread of this practice, frum Jews replaced daily meat consumption with non-meat delicacies like Chilean sea bass, halibut, and, naturally, sushi. One restaurant advertised a special: order a platter of Sushi for your pre-fast meal, and receive a discount on a 2nd platter for your break-fast meal. Could anything more perfectly capture the idea that the 9th of Av has no real meaning anymore? Eat the same meal right before and right after the fast day. The day itself will have no impact on you.
Even well-intentioned Jews can’t seem to get it right. My father continued to comment that just as the 9 Days had become a meat festival, the 9th of Av itself, a day in which Torah study is forbidden, or at least heavily circumscribed, has become on a par with Shavuot for the amount of Jewish learning it engenders. Whether at synagogue or on the internet,rabbis and teachers expound on the 9th of Av from every possible direction. Some study Eichah and the Kinnot, the traditional lamentations read in synagogue. Others offer modern interpretations on the meaning of Tisha b’Av today and how to connect to its rituals of mourning.
For many, Tish B’Av is the time to commemorate the Holocaust, and to learn its stories, to relive its horrors and to mourn its victims. Tisha B’Av has served as a catch-all for the tragedies the Jews experienced throughout 2,000 years of exile, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. The Holocaust is both the most recent and most horrible of these tragedies, and despite having its own days of commemoration, for Orthodox Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most resonant. Yet, as memory slips into history, even the Holocaust loses its power to bring Jews to an appreciation of the destruction of the Temple. It’s just another historical experience, one that cannot move the heart as readily as the stories of our grandparents once did.
The reality is that Tisha B’Av mourns a loss we have long since regained. The land of Israel is governed again by a powerful Jewish state, approaching its 70th birthday in a position of strength and relative security. Jerusalem itself has been built and rebuilt. Home to a million people, Jerusalem is once again a city of gold and white stone, the seat of the Knesset and the Prime Minister, the center of worship for the Jewish people (and others!) yet again. The prophecies of Jerusalem’s rebirth describe the city today. The absence of the abattoir-Temple of 2000 years ago makes few hearts grow fond for it. Instead of one Temple, Jerusalem is a honeycomb of synagogues, yeshivas, houses of study, ritual baths, and holy sites. No greater temple has even been built by human hands.
And that, ultimately, is why we subvert the Ninth of Av. Mourning is not the right course for a city that has risen from the dead. To recite Eichah, to try and conjure tears and sorrow for a city that is once again the crown of its people, doesn’t make sense. But Orthodox Jews are slow to change their laws. Instead, they change their meanings. Refraining from eating meat on the 9 Days makes no sense, so instead, we demonstrate to God that we are rich in learning enough to make a siyum on each day, in homes and restaurants, and eat meat. And if not meat, then rich dishes that show that whatever measure of sadness there might yet be left in us for the last temple, we have built a third temple to replace it. And on the day itself, we fast and observe mourning rituals, but we are not saddened. We are learning Torah.