Mourning over past losses intensifies on Tisha BAv

Last Tisha B'Av eve, my then 3-year-old daughter Shlomit was surprised to find her parents sitting on the floor, shoeless, eating a "dinner" of bread, water and hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with ashes.

In response to her bewildered query, we explained that we were showing sadness for the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem by very bad people a long time ago.

We explained that although God is everywhere, the Temple had been the central address where God could be more easily found. It was also the place where all Jews used to make pilgrimages three times a year.

This dinner, we told her, was the beginning of a very sad day, and that the whole next day we would be fasting to show our deep sorrow.

This year, Tisha B'Av — the ninth day of the month of Av — is marked on Saturday night and Sunday. Although the ninth day of Av actually falls on Friday night, the annual commemoration is postponed for one day this year because fasting isn't allowed on Shabbat — a day of joy.

Our explanation last year about Tisha B'Av seemed to satisfy Shlomit, if only temporarily. The next day she found us back in our chairs, wearing shoes, and eating a regular meal. Her innocent and sincere question was now: Has the Temple been rebuilt?

Her point was well taken, of course, and she, in her simplicity, stumbled upon an idea discussed in the Talmud.

In Tractate Baba Batra (60b), it is suggested that in our extreme sadness over the destruction of the second Temple, there should be a ban on eating meat and drinking wine until the Temple is rebuilt.

The Talmud's response is that such a reaction to tragedy can be taken to extremes that would lead to bans on many aspects of normal life. Instead, normal life must continue, but with reminders of this national tragedy sprinkled throughout.

We thus mourn the destruction of the Temple at certain time periods that are designated for mourning, such as Tisha B'Av and the three weeks leading up to it. In addition, we have a slew of customs that are intended to remind us of the Temple and its destruction that are included in our daily lives and at various life-cycle events.

In order to explain this to Shlomit, we took out our wedding album and showed her the breaking of the glass. Even at our most joyous occasions we do not suppress the lingering sorrow over the still unbuilt Temple. At all weddings a glass is shattered to remind us of the tragedy. In addition, some have the custom of placing ashes on the groom's head as an additional reminder.

At times of personal sorrow, the national mourning is also commemorated. The standard formula for consoling a mourner is: "HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch sha'ar avlei tzion v'yerushalayim," or "May God comfort you among the mourners of Jerusalem and Zion."

We are telling mourners that they are not alone in their mourning. We are all still grieving the loss of our beloved Jerusalem that is not fully rebuilt.

A custom that has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, especially in Israel, is the talmudic mandate to leave an area approximately 2-feet by 2-feet opposite the entrance of the house unplastered. This, too, is a sign of mourning for the Temple. A contemporary take on this is to cover the area with a piece of artwork that indicates the reason for it being left unplastered.

Other memorial customs are location dependent.

For example, although the general talmudic attempt to ban all music in mourning over Jerusalem's destruction has not taken hold, there is to this day a generally observed proscription on instrumental music in Jerusalem's Old City.

And just as a mourner rends his garments in despair, so too is there a custom to tear them when seeing the desolate Temple Mount. Some visitors who have not been to the Western Wall in more than 30 days can be seen ripping their shirts.

As Jerusalem and the Temple are mourned and remembered, so we hope they will be speedily rebuilt. This fervent wish has been incorporated into the thrice-daily prayers, the grace after meals, and in the closing liturgy of two of the most important days on our calendar.

The Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur and the seder on Passover both conclude with the moving phrase: "Next Year in Jerusalem."

Before the destruction of the Temple, the essential Yom Kippur ritual was not praying all day in synagogue, but rather the service of the high priest in the Temple. And "Pesach," the Hebrew name "Passover," actually refers to the paschal sacrifice that was offered in the Temple.

It is on those two days that the absence of the Temple is most acutely felt, and therefore it is on those days that our hope for its restoration is verbalized.

Shlomit continues to ask if the Temple has been rebuilt and if not, what can we do to make it happen.

We try to explain to her that if we as Jews are "good," it will help make the time right for God to rebuild the Temple. She, of course, insists that she is good. Other than that, we explain that although life must continue as usual, we try to not let the absence of the Temple stray too far from our minds even after the Tisha B'Av fast is concluded.