Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is one of two major fast days in the Jewish calendar. It’s largely unknown to most Jews since it occurs during the summer (and thus not while religious school is in session!). If you ever attended a Jewish camp, you might remember this day as one that lasted forever and left a sour taste (food pun intended) in your mouth.
Tisha B’Av is the day in which both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. In addition, the Jewish people have experienced several other tragedies on this day throughout history. It is a day of mourning, of prayer, and of hope for the future.
While strict observance of Tisha B’Av (not eating for an entire evening and the subsequent day, and spending time in synagogue reading Eicha, the Book of Lamentations) may not be your goal, especially when you have young kids to consider, here are nine ways to engage your family on the 9th of Av so that the day might not pass unnoticed, and with the hope that it could become a meaningful experience for everyone.
1. Skip dessert. Just like Yom Kippur, this is a day of no eating or drinking. For many, especially those in hot climates, not drinking during the summer might be unsafe. Children, of course, are not required to fast at all. But perhaps skipping dessert—not making it a day for a family ice cream trip, for instance—might make sense. Talk about the choice you are making and the change in routine: if not having dessert makes this day different for your family, then you may have accomplished the goal.
2. Talk about body image. Our relationship with food is complicated, especially as Jews: We’re either feasting or fasting. Add in any concerns about body shape or size, regular eating habits, and magazines that too often give us a false sense of reality, and many children have significant body image issues. Talk together about eating, restraint, and how we are created in God’s image and must take care of our bodies.
3. Explore Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Today, Jerusalem is a beautiful, sacred, international, historical, and modern city. Find a book about Jerusalem or look for pictures online. Phone a relative who has been to Jerusalem (or Skype one who lives there now!).
4. Pledge to end indifference. Our rabbis in the Talmud taught that the Temples were destroyed because, among other things, we were not kind to one another. As the late Elie Wiesel z”l taught, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” In our world today we need more love, peace, and understanding. Reach out to a local inner-city school and see what you might do to help: volunteer to plant a garden, coach a basketball team, or cook a meal with your family.
5. Learn Hebrew numbers. Since Tisha B’Av is the ninth day of the month, practice counting in Hebrew. There are many online tools you can use, or call your rabbi or local Hebrew teacher for assistance. You might also enjoy watching Shalom Sesame with your children—the Count knows Hebrew too!
6. Find your Hebrew birthday. While you’re working on Hebrew, learn the Hebrew months, too. And then use a tool like hebcal.com to look up your Hebrew birthday as well as those of your children. Make sure to then find those corresponding dates on this year’s calendar so you can celebrate Hebrew birthdays as well—because what kid doesn’t want two birthdays?!
7. Listen to Eicha. While this may sound like a more “traditional” approach to the holiday, it is still an engaging experience for your family. Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, is generally read while sitting on the floor in the dark, with candles or flashlights. The tune is haunting and beautiful and the experience is one that will stay with your family. The reading is brief—it lasts an hour at most, and is often followed by other slowly sung liturgical poems.
8. Comfort and be comforted. On the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av, called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, we read a beautiful Haftarah in which the prophet Isaiah speaks of comforting the Jewish people because of our suffering. His words, nachamu nachamu ami, be comforted, be comforted, my people, might be understood as a command both to find comfort from others and to offer comfort. Make Tisha B’Av meaningful by visiting a homeless shelter, serving lunch in a soup kitchen, or spending time with an elderly shut-in. Offer comfort and you, too, will feel comforted.
9. Start baking for Rosh Hashanah! Indeed, just seven weeks after Tisha B’Av, we will celebrate the Jewish New Year. While it’s not traditional to bake on a fast day, linking the calendar from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah will engage your family in exploring the Jewish calendar and in preparing for another Jewish holiday. Bake challah, or apple desserts, or even get started on the brisket! Just try not to taste it!
However you spend Tisha B’Av (this year on August 13 at night and throughout the day of August 14), may it be meaningful and engaging, and may there come a day when we know only peace.