Shavuot, Tisha B’Av and the Yamim Nora’im – some reflections
By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani
On Motzei Shabbat 17 July, Jews around the world will begin to commemorate Tisha B’Av. I write this article a month after our celebration of Shavuot and it struck me that there are many parallels between this festival and the commemoration of Tisha B’Av.
Shavuot is ritually connected to Pesach through sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the omer. The Torah (Lev. 23:15-17) commands that we count seven complete weeks from the day after the ‘sabbath of Pesach’ until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. Our sages understood ‘sabbath’ to mean the first day of Pesach (as opposed to the Saturday during the week of Pesach) and so we count the omer every night from the second night of Pesach for seven weeks. The next day we celebrate Shavuot, which became the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai (originally Shavuot was the celebration of the First Fruits, Chag ha-Bikkurim).
Similarly, Tisha B’Av occurs seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, a fact that is marked by the seven Haftarot of Consolation, starting with Shabbat Va’etchanan, the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is also referred to as Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Comfort) because this haftarah is followed by six more prophetical readings from the Book of Isaiah, all with the theme of God comforting the People of Israel after their suffering.
The mood of these seven weeks linking Tisha B’Av to the beginning of the Yamim Nora’im (the Days of Awe) is in stark contrast to the haftarot of the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av. These prophetical readings, taken from the Books of Jeremiah and Isaiah are termed Haftarot of Affliction, in which the prophets warn their audiences of the dire consequences of not observing God’s ethical laws. Thus the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are preparation for mourning the destruction of the two Temples, and other tragedies that befell the Jews of Europe; just as the three days leading up to Shavuot are preparation for hearing the Ten Utterances being chanted from the sefer Torah on the morning of the festival.
These three days are known as Sheloshet Yemei Hagbalah (the three days of limitation), based on Exodus 19:12 and 15 where God instructs Moses to make sure that the Israelites are ready to witness the revelation at Mount Sinai.
The ritual counting of the omer every night for seven weeks forces us to make a conscious link between Pesach (the Festival of Freedom) and Shavuot (the Festival of the Giving of Torah), illustrating the importance of moral and ethical laws to ensure true freedom and the safe-guarding of human dignity.
Similarly the chanting of the seven haftarot of consolation on the seven Shabbatot linking Tisha B’Av to the High Holy Days should instil an awareness of a connection between the two events in our spiritual calendar.
The original reason for commemorating the fast of the ninth of Av (as well as the fasts of 17 Tammuz, 3 Tishrei and 10 Tevet) was to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively.
The Talmud (Yoma 9b) teaches that the First Temple was destroyed by the Chaldeans because the People of Israel were guilty of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. Even though the populace of Judaea occupied themselves with Torah study and the observance of the mitzvot and acts of loving-kindness during the times of the Second Temple, the sanctuary was destroyed by the Romans because of the prevalence of causeless hatred (sinat chinam) among the Jews (Yoma 9b).
The historical record of the destruction of the Second Temple bears out this Talmudic assertion. Intolerance and hatred of the followers of one Jewish sect towards those of another simply because they had different interpretations of Torah or views on how to relate to the non-Jewish world led to inter-factional fighting that eventually enabled Rome to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.
So while the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur is a time of personal atonement and soul-searching, Tisha B’Av should be a day of national self-examination and evaluation. The ninth of Av should be a reminder of the dangers of intolerance and self-righteousness.
Jewish communities world-wide are comprised of Jews that differ in religious practice and interpretation of Torah, political views (pertaining to the State of Israel and beyond), ethnic backgrounds and spiritual journeys. Some are born into the Jewish people and others find their way to Judaism. Tisha B’Av warns us that it is imperative to accept that we are a people that are at once diverse and united under God and Torah.
Rabbinic literature is replete with argument and discussion LeShem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Similarly, every Jew who is committed to tikkun olam and relating to the elevation of the mundane into the realm of the holy has a path to the Most High. As long as we express ourselves from the premise that we must be ‘light of nations’ (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6) we must have a safe space to articulate our views without fear of being ostracised or worse.
Needless hatred and fear of diverse opinions not only leads to the destruction of a society or a people, but it also inhibits individual growth because being challenged is the only way to undertake sincere personal examination, a task that we are supposed to undertake during the Yamim Nora’im.
This year Tisha B’Av falls on Mandela Day, a day set aside for sixty-seven minutes of tikkun olam (repairing the broken fabric of the universe), based on the premise that we are all God’s children and that we must set aside our differences to work for a common cause. President Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation by definition necessitates embracing our diversity under the umbrella of unity, just as a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with humanity, is one entity comprising different colours.