Joshua Gutterman Tranen
Issue 4, October/November 2021
There are two major fast days in the Jewish calendar. Many people are familiar with the first: Yom Kippur, the somber Day of Atonement, only ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. But fewer are familiar with the second, Tisha B’Av, which takes place two months earlier. According to Jewish tradition, Tisha B’av — which just translates to “the 9th day of the month of Av” — marks the calamitous date upon which the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Other, more modern tragedies are also said to have occurred on Tisha B’Av, from the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492 to the approval of Hitler’s Final Solution in the early 1940s.
Tisha B’Av is a day of asceticism and a masochist’s delight. If the fasting of Yom Kippur represents an angelic denial of the body, the purpose of Tisha B’Av is to suffer and mourn, plain and simple. In addition to fasting from sundown until the emergence of three stars the next night (roughly 25 hours), one is forbidden to shower, wear leather shoes, apply lotions and oils, and have sex. One is also supposed to sit on the floor and refrain from using cushions until at least midday, as the fires of the Temples supposedly burned until then. If you haven’t caught on, the point of the day is to make yourself as miserable as possible.
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The summer before eleventh grade, I observed Tisha B’Av in Israel, where I was attending an all-male, yeshiva-style summer camp. Several hours before the fast ended we took a bus to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel, the last standing remnant of the Second Temple period. We gathered in the large plaza, arranged ourselves in a sitting circle, and sang the 12th of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith: Ani ma’amin b’emunah shleimah b’viat hamashiach, veaf al pi shyitmameah, im kol zeh achake lo bechol yom sheyavo. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he may tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.
As we sang this song — one I had sung for years in youth group and summer camp — I recalled what I had recently learned: that Mashiach would be born on Tisha B’Av. (I immediately pictured a woman in labor, a baby’s cry breaking the air.) Some also taught that Mashiach would appear on Tisha B’Av, and that his arrival would transform the day of tragedy into one of celebration. And while everyone agreed that Mashiach would kick off the era of the Third Temple, there was disagreement over whether the Temple would miraculously arrive pre-built or we would have to build it ourselves. Sitting where the Third Temple would supposedly stand, I anxiously scanned the Jerusalem sky for a flying limestone structure.
But a part of me also hoped that Tisha B’Av would end without note, and that we’d return to campus Mashiach-less. In Orthodox Judaism, life is oriented toward a future that oddly looks like the past: patriarchal and hereditary kingship, animal sacrifices in the Temple, Jewish courts to try cases using archaic laws. Secretly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted Mashiach to show up if that was the future he’d bring with him. I wanted to stay in the U.S., drive the car my parents bought me for my sixteenth birthday, and apply to college.
I now understand that the incessant accounting for one’s actions — “if you do this, you’ll bring Mashiach!” — was just a tool of self-regulation. (How often, as a high schooler, did I think jerking off would forestall the coming of Mashiach?) It’s also clear to me now how messianic longing served as a utopic break from the dullness of teenage life. Once, praying the final service of Yom Kippur at home with my sister, we both heard a distant shofar blast, the telltale sign of Mashiach’s arrival. We waited expectantly, convinced that at any moment we’d magically teleport to Israel. Sadly, I didn’t experience the ingathering of the Jewish people on eagles’ wings. But it’s easy to see how the possibility of a revolutionary event held a seductive appeal to two depressed teenagers who wanted different lives than the ones they were living.
A few years after my summer in Israel, when I was learning full-time in a religious Zionist yeshiva in a West Bank settlement, I was struck by something a friend said about the Messianic era. I believed that Mashiach would gather the Jewish people from the four corners of the earth back to biblical Israel, and yet I always saw that as a precursor to an apocalyptic end-of-days situation. But, my friend pointed out, weren’t we already living in the time of Mashiach? The Jewish people were steadily moving back to the land of Israel, living in an ethnostate, and bulldozing over Palestinian land just like the Israelites in the Book of Joshua. Perhaps, he suggested, Mashiach wasn’t a person but a time period — one which had already begun. What, then, happened when we said that Mashiach was already here? Messianism became a handy way to create a state of exception: exceptional in the sense that Israel (and the Jewish people) was exempt from the regular laws against ethnic cleansing. Because, you know, Mashiach was on their side.
Nowadays I’m no longer religious, and I haven’t thought about Maimonides’ 12th principle in years. I’d rather pin my hopes to the here and now, staying alert to how messianism functions as a blunt tool of wrongdoing. That said, if Mashiach does come — well, I’ll cross that bridge when I need to. In the meantime, I’m not holding my breath.
Joshua Gutterman Tranen‘s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, Hyperallergic, Jewish Currents, Catapult, Full Stop, and Guernica.