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People Who Secretly Love Feeling Miserable on Tisha B’Av

The holiday gives us permission to mourn for many things, personal and communal, that we avoid discussing the rest of the year

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But maybe that’s the point of Tisha B’Av—as well as other Jewish holidays. They’re not just times to commemorate what we are “supposed” to commemorate, but days for people to express highly personal emotions that they feel duty-bound to suppress the rest of the year. They keep quiet most days out of embarrassment or to protect their families or just to be on “good behavior” in the eyes of the community.

This hit home for me when I was much older and a friend described to me a visit with his grandmother, who was in her nineties at the time. He asked her for stories of her childhood in the Old Country. She would draw a blank. My friend was frustrated, but he came up with an idea: He would ask her for stories not of herself but of the Jewish holidays, and then the stories began to flow. On Rosh Hashanah I did this, on Sukkos we did such-and-such. On Tisha B’Av the rabbi came to the synagogue and sat down on the floor and wailed and we cried with him. Listening to my friend, I understood that the holidays gave his grandmother “permission” to express some aspect of herself. Here was an old woman whose sense of self was deeply entwined with Jewish culture and religion. Only when the holidays were spoken of could her “self,” bound as it was with the sacralized memories of those holidays, come forth.

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Nowadays I spend a good part of Tisha B’Av in shul as I always have, but I am less circumscribed by the day’s “appropriate” feelings and more comfortable with my own ideas. One of them is that human beings are full actors, even in the confined spaces of shul and home. There are infinite ways we have to grieve, to be sad, to examine our feelings, even to take a lighter look at our sadness when we can.

By way of this, the Talmud records a story that has become famous. It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Akiva went up to Jerusalem. When they reached the (destroyed) Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” they asked him.

He answered: “It was prophesied that foxes would haunt the Temple Mount. It was also prophesied that ‘old men and women shall yet dwell in the streets of Jerusalem.’ Now that the first has happened, we know that the second, the redemption, will happen, too. This is why I laugh.”

It is possible that Rabbi Akiva, in addition to instructing us on prophecy, might also have been expressing the tension between grief and mirth. Perhaps he was saying, too, that the “life-giving pleasures of grief” may also carry the seeds of consolation.

It is no wonder the other rabbis responded: “Akiva, you have consoled us. Akiva, you have consoled us!”

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People Who Secretly Love Feeling Miserable on Tisha B’Av

The holiday gives us permission to mourn for many things, personal and communal, that we avoid discussing the rest of the year

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