We are in the midst of the "Three Weeks of Sorrow" that began with the Fast of Tammuz and ends with the fast of Tishah B'Av. Spiritually, these three weeks are marked by a renewed called for teshuvah (repentance), and the weekly readings from the prophets all warn the people about imminent judgment from heaven. Because this is a somber time for the Jewish people, it is customary not to schedule weddings or other joyous events during this time of year. Indeed, among the very Orthodox, the last nine days of the three weeks are the most rigorous and solemn. Beginning on the first day of the month of Av, traditional mourning customs are practiced in anticipation of the great fast of Tishah B'Av, when the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eichah) is plaintively recited during the evening service.
The Three Weeks of Sorrow (culminating in Tishah B'Av) mark the saddest and most solemn time of Jewish year, with great emphasis placed on the need for repentance and heartfelt cries for the salvation of the Jewish people. It is a time for us to remember Israel all the more in our prayers and ask for God's revelation of the Messiah.
The month of Av is traditionally regarded as the most tragic in the Jewish calendar. On the first day of this month, Aaron (the first High Priest of Israel) died (Num. 33:38), which was regarded as a prophetic omen of the future destruction of both of the Temples on the Ninth of Av. Parashat Masei is traditionally read near the new moon of the month of Av (which begins Sunday, July 27th at sundown).
Since Rosh Chodesh Av marks the time of mourning for Zion, we humbly ask the LORD to help us prepare for the coming time of teshuvah:
The Sabbath that immediately precedes the fast of Tishah B'Av is called Shabbat Chazon (the "Sabbath of vision") since the Haftarah that is read (i.e., Isa. 1:1-25) comes from the vision of the prophet Isaiah regarding the imminent destruction of the Temple:
"Hear, O heavens and give ear, O earth, For the LORD has spoken; Though I brought up and raised My children, They have rebelled against me." (Isa. 1:2)
When it was first recorded, Isaiah's vision of the destruction to come was still future, and the Jews still had a chance to repent before the great tragedy befell them. However, since they refused to do teshuvah (turn back to God), calamity overtook them. Today the Haftarah is traditionally chanted to the same haunting melody as Megilat Eichah (Lamentations), written by the prophet Jeremiah, who was an eyewitness to the destruction and fall of Judah and Jerusalem.
During the last nine days of the Three Weeks of Sorrow it is common to confess the sins in our lives that likewise contribute to the lack of God's Presence in our midst. Hashivenu Adonai, elecha vena-shuvah; chadesh yamenu kekedem: "Turn us back to You, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old" (Lam. 5:21).
Though Shabbat Chazon is a time of mourning, it is also a time for hope. The Torah reading for Shabbat Chazon is always parashat Devarim, the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy. In this reading, Moses details the victorious battles with Sihon the king of Amorites and Og the king of Bashan. Because it speaks of God's victory, the sages recommended envisioning the future Temple that will be built by the Messiah at this time. According to Jewish tradition, after the Messiah comes and restores Israel, Tishah B'Av will become one of the happiest days of the year (may He arrive soon and in our days).
Tishah B'Av - Aug. 4th-5th
Tishah B'Av (תשעה באב, the "ninth [day] of [the month of] Av") is an annual day of mourning that recalls the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries, but most especially the destruction of the Holy Temple and the ongoing galut (exile) of Israel. This year Tishah B'Av begins Monday August 4th at sundown and runs 25 hours until Tuesday, August 5th, one hour after sundown. The customs for observing the fast are similar to those of Yom Kippur.
Tishah B'Av is generally regarded as the saddest day of the Jewish year (and even sadder than Yom Kippur) since it was on this date that both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed and the Jewish people were forced into exile. The root of these tragedies is said to go back to the Exodus from Egypt, when the LORD decreed a 40 year exile from the Promised Land because of the Sin of the Spies on the ninth of Av. In addition, Aaron died on Av 1 (Num. 33:38), and this was said to foreshadow the destruction of the Temple. The sages call this prophetic principle: ma'aseh avot siman labanim (מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים):"The deeds of the fathers are signs for the children."
The ninth of Av is the lowest point of a three week period of mourning that began with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (undertaken to recall the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians before the First Temple was destroyed). The "Three Weeks of Sorrow" is intended to instill a sense of teshuvah (repentance) and to prepare for the Messianic redemption to come.
Torah Readings for Tishah B'Av
Tishah B'Av allows us to express heartfelt grief over the loss of Zion and therefore over the fraility of our human condition. During this time it is appropriate to grieve over our sins and to shed tears that attest to lev nishbar v'nikdeh, a "broken and crushed heart" (Psalm 51:17). Indeed, during the entire "Three Weeks of Sorrow" we read selections from the prophets that forewarn of the coming destruction of the Temple (churban) and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people (galut). During this time of the year, we listen to the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah crying out for our repentance...
During Tishah B'Av synagogue services, the lights are dimmed and the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) is draped in black (in some synagogues the parochet (curtain) is removed as a sign of mourning). The crowns with tinkling bells are removed from Torah scrolls. Congregants remove their leather shoes and do not greet each other. The cantor leads the prayers readings in a low, mournful voice, and the cantillation (chanting style) for the Scripture reading is set to elegiac, sorrowful melodies.
Parashah is the weekly Scripture portion taken from the Torah. Each parashah is given a name and is usually referred to as "parashat - name" (e.g., parashat Noach). For more information about weekly readings, click here.
Aliyot refer to a smaller sections of the weekly parashah that are assigned to people of the congregation for public reading during the Torah Reading service. In most congregations it is customary for the person "called up" to recite a blessing for the Torah before and after the assigned section is recited by the cantor. For Shabbat services, there are seven aliyot (and a concluding portion called a maftir). The person who is called to make aliyah is referred to as an oleh (olah, if female).
Maftir refers to the last Torah aliyah of the Torah chanting service (normally a brief repetition of the 7th aliyah, though on holidays the Maftir portion usually focuses on the Holiday as described in the Torah). The person who recites the Maftir blessing also recites the blessing over the Haftarah portion.
Haftarah refers to an additional portion from the Nevi'im (Prophets) read after the weekly Torah portion. The person who made the maftir blessing also recites the blessing for the Haftarah, and may even read the Haftarah before the congregation.
Brit Chadashah refers to New Testament readings which are added to the traditional Torah Reading cycle. Often blessings over the Brit Chadashah are recited before and after the readings.
Mei Ketuvim refers to a portion read from the Ketuvim, or writings in the Tanakh. Readings from the Ketuvim are usually reserved for Jewish holidays at the synagogue.
Perek Yomi Tehillim refers to the daily portion of psalms (mizmorim) recited so that the entire book of Psalms (Tehillim) is read through in a month. For a schedule, of daily Psalm readings, click here.
Gelilah refers to the tying up and covering the Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) as an honor in the synagogue.
Divrei Torah ("words of Torah") refers to a commentary, a sermon, or devotional on the Torah portion of the week.