At sundown next Monday, July 31, a day of communal mourning will begin among Jewish people. Tisha B'av, which translates to the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and that of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., which are said to have happened on this same day. With this in mind, this day's reputation as the "saddest day on the Jewish calendar" makes perfect sense — but there's more to it than that.
Rabbi Yael Rapport of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City tells Refinery29 that, over the years, Tisha B'av has become a day to remember all tragedies in Jewish history, from the Crusades to the Holocaust. "I've heard it said that if there was a separate day on the calendar for every tragedy that the Jewish people ever faced in our history, there would be no days left, so Tisha B'Av holds them all," she says.
So, how does one approach a day as mired in sadness as Tisha B'av? The same way one prepares for a day of Jewish mourning, Rabbi Rapport explains, adding, however, that it's much less common for Reform communities to observe the holiday.
In the weeks ahead of Tisha B'av, tradition states that people should not hold weddings or other celebrations, buy new clothes, or cut their hair. Then, from sundown to sunrise on Tisha B'av, adults must adhere to the same guidelines that they would on Yom Kippur: They may not eat or drink, have sex, bathe, wear makeup, or wear leather shoes.
Synagogue services on Tisha B'av are often lit only by candlelight and feature readings from the Book of Lamentations, also known as Eicha in the Hebrew Bible, which are chanted in a mournful, dirge-like style. The passages read describe the siege and the eventual destruction of the First Temple. Throughout services, the Torah is kept in its ark and covered in a black shroud.
As Tisha B'av draws to a close, worshippers are reminded of better days to come — namely, the High Holidays. Rabbi Rapport explains that this "low point" provides necessary perspective for the rest of the Jewish year: "Every day can't be the delirious joy and giddiness of Purim; by the same token every day can't hold the awe and magnitude of Yom Kippur — we would be unable to recognize meaning when we saw it."
Beyond even that, Rabbi Rapport says Tisha B'av is important as a communal observance, explaining that it can bring people together in the same way that a joyful holiday can. "All of us have felt loss and despair, and in those moments we know it is easy to feel alone," she says. "Marking Tisha B'Av makes us more aware of our own personal journeys, and helps teach us to be more empathetic to others' suffering."