Tisha B’Av and Environmentalism

Romans Destroy Jerusalem - painting of city wall on fire
Romans Destroy Jerusalem

Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) which we commemorate this year on August 10 – 11, reminds us that over 2,600 years ago Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, with the result that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the first of many negative things that occurred on that day, including the destruction of the second Temple as well.

Today there are many “Jeremiahs” warning us that now it is the entire world that is threatened by climate change, species extinction, soil erosion, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, and many other environmental threats. For example, as long ago as 1992, over 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” stating that, “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” and that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More recently, some climate scientists are warning that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences if major positive changes do not soon occur.

On Tisha B’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples and to awaken us to how hungry people feel. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10), which is read on Tisha B’Av, states that, “More fortunate were the victims of the sword than the victims of famine, for they pine away stricken, lacking the fruits of the field.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and almost a billion of the world’s people face chronic hunger.

Jewish sages connected the word “eichah” (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins Lamentations and a word that has the same root “ayekah” (“Where art thou?”), the question addressed by God to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to “ayekah” in terms of stating “Hineini” — here I am, ready to carry out God’s commandments so that the world will be better — causes us to eventually have to say and hear “eichah“.

The reading of the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways, by showing the horrors that resulted when God’s teachings were ignored. The readings on Tisha B’Av help to sensitize us so that we will hear the cries of lament and change our ways. Rabbi Yochanan stated, “Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law” (“lifnim meshurat hadin“). (Baba Metzia 30b). In this time of factory farming, climate change and other environmental threats, widespread hunger, and widespread chronic degenerative diseases, perhaps it is necessary that Jews go beyond the strict letter of the law in efforts to prevent further environmental degradation.

This Tisha B’Av, I hope that we will begin to heed its basic lesson that failure to respond to proper admonitions can lead to catastrophe. The Jewish people must make tikkun olam (the repair and healing of the planet) a major focus in Jewish life today, and consider personal and societal changes that will improve the environment. By doing this, we would be performing a great Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) by working to meet our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

All of us can and must contribute to this new stewardship, even with modest changes to our lifestyle. In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote, “Just as we don’t claim that people need to stop driving their cars completely, we don’t argue that they need to stop eating meat entirely. But reductions in both areas — driving and meat consumption — will certainly benefit the environment.

In view of the many threats to humanity today, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a sustainable path.

Tisha B’Av and Tips for an Easy Fast

Cartoon of two men discussing Tisha Be'Av. Credit: Drybones.

Courtesy of Yaakov Kirschen.

Tonight is Erev Tisha B’Av, the eve of the 9th Day of Av, one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av is the anniversary of numerous tragedies in Jewish history. For example,

  • The report of the 12 spies.
  • The destruction of King Solomon’s Holy Temple by the Babylonians (422 BCE).
  • The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (68 CE).
  • The defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt (132 CE).
  • The declaration by Pope Urban II of the First Crusade (1095 CE).
  • The expulsion of English Jews (1290 CE).
  • The expulsion of Spanish Jews (1492 CE),
  • The start of World War I (1914 CE).
  • The beginning of mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942 CE), and
  • The bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires (1994 CE).

To commemorate these events, Jews fast for 25 hours and refrain from bathing, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations. This fast is probably the most difficult of the year: The sun sets so late making the fast seem longer. The summer heat can dehydrate you. But most of all, unlike Yom Kippur, when you are surrounded by fellow Jews who are also fasting and busy with the liturgy, most Jews continue their daily routines on Tisha B’Av and are confronted with reminders of food.

According to Ira Milner:

While some people fast with little difficulty, most of us expect to feel more or less bedraggled after only a few hours. If fasting means headaches and assorted misery for you, it might be the fault of what you eat or drink beforehand. A few simple precautions in planning your pre-taanit menu could make all the difference.

Here is a summary of Ira Milner’s recommendations:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. 8-10 glasses of water (or other non-caffeinated beverage).
  • Small portions of animal proteins.
  • Increase starch and carbohydrates: Whole grain-bread, cereals, pasta, potatoes, legumes, unsalted popcorn.
  • Increase fiber: Vegetables and fruits with edible skins or seeds.
  • Decrease salt.
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas)
  • Avoid fried or spicy foods.

On Tisha B’Av, We Are Not Weeping Alone


We weep and fast this year together with millions starving all around the world. Children’s mass grave in Dadaab, Kenya.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Last night, Rabbi Marcia Prager led Philadelphia P’nai Or (“Faces of Light”) in a powerful observance of the beginning of Tisha B’Av — the midsummer mourning that began in the burning, scorching heat of mid-summer Middle East and that traditionally was focused on the burning of two Holy Temples in Jerusalem. In addition to the classic mourning chant of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, Reb Marcia brought us the dirge of Karaite Jews, with its refrain: “We sit alone and weep.”

She invited me to make the transition from “We sit alone …” to “We sit together …”  That is, we are transforming Judaism to mourn not alone, a people mourning only its own disasters — but a people that mourns along with other communities grieving their own disasters — and mourning those disasters that afflict us all.

Continued after the jump.
This Tisha B’Av is especially poignant, for we weep and fast this year together with more than a billion Muslims, who are fasting in this month of Ramadan. Some Muslims are fasting in sorrow for thousands killed in a civil war in Syria, and hundreds killed in an incipient civil war in Egypt. For hundreds of children killed by U.S. drones. For tens of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes, by the U.S. war against Iraq. Other Muslims — millions of them — are fasting to turn themselves away from pointless materialist obsessions and toward the spiritual life called forth by the best of the Quran.

We weep and fast this year together with more than a hundred prisoners in Guantanamo, on hunger strike to protest their being held for years illegally and immorally by the U.S. government. These are prisoners whom the U.S. has acknowledged were never guilty of any terrorism, any violence, any crime — but whom the U.S. government will not release. Indeed, the U.S. has responded to the hunger strike with forced feeding — a torture by itself.

We weep and fast this year together with more than 12,000 American prisoners in California, on hunger strike because they are subjected to overcrowding that is so abominable, that federal courts have ruled it is “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Constitution. But the Governor has ignored court orders, and even refused to release prisoners held in cells already infected by deadly “valley fever.” Among the grievances, the thousands in California are protesting against the use of solitary confinement, that for some prisoners has been imposed for decades. (Decades!)

We weep and fast this year together with millions starving all around the world, in famines created by the droughts, created by the global scorching that’s caused by addiction to burning fossil fuels. An addiction carried like a triumphant banner by Americans, who per capita are by far the worst at scorching our shared planet, and whose government refuses to take action to lay a cost upon the Drug Lords of Big Carbon, that profit from this addiction.

We weep and fast this year together with tens of thousands of American children who will suffer hunger, because their parents have been robbed of their jobs by rapacious corporations, and because their congress is hell-bent on cancelling food stamps, while increasing subsidies to wealthy farmland owners.

Last night, the mourners in our circle said, each as the spirit moved them, a line of truth and then another and another, of what we bewail and weep together. How can we heal these lethal wounds upon humanity, and the earth, our mother?

Lo Yisa Jew el Jew: Being Touched by Tisha B’Av’s New Possibilities

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Tisha b’Av is a fast day in which we are turning our consciousness away from food, and onto how we tear down the fabric of society when Jews hate one another. Such hatred is traditionally given as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple and is invoked in regard to other tragedies that have beset our people. A recent JTA article mentioned a video recently posted online, of a “Shas” (Sephardi Orthodox) rabbi declaring Jews in “knitted kippas,” i.e. modern Orthodox Jews, to be “Amalek.”

“Amalek” refers to the mitzvah of stamping out those engaging in pure evil. This evil is associated with those who assaulted the weak and elderly Jews at the rear of the Israelite exodus through the wilderness, later with Haman and his family in the Purim story, and eventually with Hitler and Nazism. Take a deep breath — and before vilifying the rabbi above, as he has reportedly done to other members of the Jewish people — let us not dare to be so easily goaded. Let’s rather “be peace” and maintain an intention within our Tisha b’Av practice of creating room for the many religious and secular cultures within Judaism. I so deeply want to be what I am asking for — to “be peace.” Yet, can I? Can you?

More after the jump.


It’s not easy, even within my own family. I was just recently attempting to pray on the women’s side of a synagogue, behind a mechitzah, the division between males and females — one taller than any of us women, made of thick plasticized canvas. Our connection to the prayer experience felt to me to have been deemed irrelevant in that darkened, muffled, scruffy space. Under such circumstances, inevitably most of the women chatted and few prayed. It was hard to be fully proud of the bright and caring bar mitzvah lad’s entry into young Jewish adulthood, with such substantial impediments in place.

Oh, what’s that, I hear? Inside of me, a voice whispered then, and now, “Be peace.” In Jewish tradition, one of God’s 105 names is Shalom. So, in my prayers, then, and now, I returned my intent to this goal, silently blessing the lad and his community with health, happiness and ahavas yisroel — to find ways to include all branches of the Jewish people in this mitzvah of love.

As depicted in the photo, when one of the women opened the mechizah for a peek, I, too, took a look, as the men were all focused in the direction of the ark and not at us. Later, at the reception, women and men were seated at separate tables. Upon picking up my “Mrs. Goldie Milgram” name tag, my step-grandson raced over to me calling, “Rabbi Goldie, Rabbi Goldie, how are you?” For the first time he did not offer a hug, as I am not a first degree blood relative. By dint of my being a step-grandmother, he can no longer touch or be touched by me, save by my words. So I told him, “Thank you for the wonderful, inclusive welcome! Perhaps you are a spark of the mashiach (messiah) — one who may kindle peace through keeping the flame of love among Jews and towards all. For by interpreting the mitzvah of ahavas yisroel as respectful, supportive interconnection within the Jewish people, it becomes more possible among the nations.” His reply, “I know, Rabbi Goldie. And I will, I will!” I am so proud of him.

Even while marinating today, on Tisha b’Av, in the horrors recorded in traditional Book of Lamentations (Eichah), I will not descend into hate and fear. My intention is to follow the instruction, to “Be Peace,” and to return to this intention as each verse and thought comes my way.

The news also includes some inspiration and hope, that of the solidarity of Italy’s Jews in support of the first black minister, who has been publicly degraded for her race. May we each and all be blessed with the courage to Be Peace, and for an easy and meaningful Tisha b’Av fast day of prayer, reflection and kind connection.  

Nine Vegetarian Days

— by Ronit Treatman

The verse, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord,” (Psalms 130:1) perfectly captures the essence of Tisha B’Av. The fast day, which begins at sundown on Monday, July 15 this year, is one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. It memorializes the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The Sephardic community also mourns the issuing of the Alhambra Decree, or Edict of Expulsion. This dictum, ordering the banishment of the Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, was announced on Tisha B’Av in 1492.

The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are known as Bein HaMetzarim (“between the straits”). They begin on the 17th day of Tammuz (June 25 this year) and end on Tisha B’Av. This is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temples and the exiles of the Jews from the land of Israel. Historically, these three weeks have been a time of danger for the Jewish community. It is customary to avoid hazardous situations during those three weeks. Many Jews eschew lawsuits, surgical procedures, or travels during this time. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 551:9-11) mentions a Jewish tradition to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during the week of Tisha b’Av or even (for some at that time) the entire three weeks.

Out of these days of despair have emerged some of the most creative vegetarian recipes of the Jewish kitchen. Mejedra, a crown jewel of the Syrian Jewish kitchen, is such a dish.

Recipe for Mejedra follows the jump.
Mejedra is a rice, lentil, and onion pilaf.  It is a very ancient recipe, first recorded in 1226 in Kitab al-Tabikh (“The Cook’s Book”). Mejedra is a traditional dish of mourning, based on the stew that Jacob prepared when Abraham died (Genesis 25: 29-34). Traditionally, “Esau’s favorite” was cooked with rice and green or brown lentils. Here is a recipe adapted from Gilda Angel’s Sephardic Holiday Cooking:

Mejedra

  • 2 cups brown lentils
  • 2 cups Basmati rice
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Pour the lentils into a bowl, and cover them with cold water.
  2. Allow the lentils to soak for two hours.
  3. Thinly slice the onion.
  4. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot.
  5. Add the onion, and fry until caramelized to a golden-brown color.
  6. Drain the lentils.
  7. Sautee the rice and lentils with the onion.
  8. Pour in the water, and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Cover the pot, and bring its contents to a boil.
  10. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed.
  11. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan.
  12. Brown the pine nuts in the pan.
  13. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the mejedra.

You may serve the mejedra with warm pita bread, an Israeli salad, and some plain yogurt on the side.