At the 31/2-hour service on erev Tisha B'Av at Congregation Mikveh Israel in Center City, the normal prayer melodies are "replaced by the monotonous and heart-wrenching cadence" that evokes a sense of mourning, explained Rabbi Albert Gabbai.
The holiday, a fast day on which work is permitted, commemorates the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem and the exhaustive list of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in subsequent centuries. It begins this year on the evening of Monday, July 19.
According to Gabbai, Mikveh Israel's service — typically attended by 200 people, including many young adults — preserves the tradition of Sephardi communities in Western Europe and Morocco, even though the majority of members has always been Ashkenazi.
"Because of sadness, we restrict the lighting just for what is needed, which is reading," said Gabbai.
The format has changed little since at least the 1840s, when the congregation was led by Isaac Leeser, whose prayerbook for the occasion remains in use today.
Dan Cohen, an 83-year-old who is a lifelong member of the synagogue, said that it's all about the mourning — and "our custom carries it out to an extent that it's palpable. You can feel the mood."
While Mikveh Israel proudly holds to tradition, other congregations have sought to remake the liturgy by infusing the traditional service with newer elements.
At the same time, some area synagogues don't have a specific program to mark the day, in part because it falls in the middle of the week during the quietest months of the Jewish calendar. It's not uncommon, especially in Reform synagogues, for the symbolism of Tisha B'Av to be discussed on the Shabbat prior to the actual date.
The ninth day of Av commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 C.E.; both events coincide with the loss of national sovereignty in ancient Israel.
Over the centuries, myriad events have become associated with the ninth of Av, including the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the onset of hostilities of World War I, which caused enormous destruction to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. It is also associated with a major deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. In the wake of the Shoah, a debate arose around whether the Holocaust should also be commemorated as part of Tisha B'Av.
A Focus on Ancient Israel
While the question has never fully been resolved, the fact that Yom Hashoah was created in Israel has led many communities to keep the focus of the day on the sack of ancient Israel, which traditionally has been interpreted as divine punishment for the Jewish people's disobedience of God and human sins against each other.
Traditionally, on erev Tisha B'Av, congregations chant the book of Lamentations, or Eicha, which describes the aftermath of the temple's destruction. In Jewish law, celebrations other than the brit milah — the circumcision of infant boys — are prohibited on the day itself.
In fact, prohibitions start three weeks beforehand. According to Rabbi Dovid Max of the Community Torah Center of Bucks County, the customary "forbidden" list includes singing, dancing, weddings, haircuts and even shaving.
A more intensive period begins on the first of Av and lasts through the ninth, when the very observant refrain from laundering, eating meat and drinking wine. Swimming is also forbidden.
According to Jeff Chebot, who eight years ago helped create a lay-led service at Or Hadash: a Reconstructionist congregation in Fort Washington, the observance isn't about the destruction of the Temple, per se. Rather, there's an underlying recognition that those historical events have come to represent the particularity of Jewish suffering through the ages.
"This is a time when we are not reaching out to victims of Darfur or to the poor of Philadelphia. This is a time and date that we reserve for experiencing the Jewish experience of tragedy," said Chebot, adding that the service is designed to provoke an emotional response. "We trust that people are mature enough to walk out and continue to ask questions and find the meanings for themselves."
Or Hadash's service makes an explicit reference to the Holocaust: A Star of David is placed on the floor and marked with six candles.
It also includes nontraditional readings, such as an excerpt from Anne Frank's diary; a description of the slaughter of Jews during the first crusade; and even a segment of the Hamas charter, which calls for the massacre of Jews.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, who directs Hillel's Graduate Student Network, is using the holiday to teach an erev Tisha B'Av class for those who have never experienced its customs and are curious about them. (Co-sponsored by Moishe House, Birthright Israel Next and the Collaborative — all groups that focus on young adults — the class is being held at 7 p.m. in Rittenhouse Square.)
Steinberg-Egeth pointed out that for many, the day draws a blank, in part because it falls in the summer, when Hebrew school's out. If non-Orthodox Jews know the day at all, it's probably from camp, she said. In fact, she recalled contests over who could fast the longest at her summer camp outside Buffalo, N.Y.
Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, said that while his congregation's evening service focuses on sadness, the morning, and especially afternoon, services have a more uplifting element. In the past, they didn't hold an afternoon service, but members requested one to lift them from the depths of despair begun the previous evening.
The ancient rabbis, who were preoccupied with helping Judaism survive after the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, conceived of Tisha B'Av as part of the cycle of destruction and redemption, said Zeff.
In fact, on erev Tisha B'Av — when it's customary to sit on the floor — the synagogue is having a program this year focusing on the image of the fetus — a metaphor for rebirth — in rabbinic literature, featuring Swarthmore College professor Gwynn Kessler.
Zeff said that the liturgy prompts the worshipper to ask: "Where are the possibilities for redemption and rebirth? For the ancient rabbis, their project was really how to rebuild Judaism. Birth, death, destruction, regeneration: They really wanted us to be able to see it more like a cycle. They really wanted to emphasize the hope for redemption."