Jewish Wisdom for Goys & Gers

Holidays, Loss

Tisha B’Av & Personal Loss: Part 1

Halakhah (‘Jewish Law’) & the Rehabilitation of the Mourner 

The Historical Context of Tisha B’Av,
Types of Grief,
Primary and Secondary Losses,

There are many types of loss that we may experience in our lifetime: job loss, financial loss, loss of material objects, the loss of a loved one. Each type of loss will affect the individual in a different way, and no two people mourn the exact same way. What is common, however, is that loss disrupts life, often sending the mourner on a type of emotional rollercoaster, and requires much time to recover.

Mourning is complicated. For this reason, the halakhah of mourning is a very complex yet precise system of rituals, prayers, ceremonies, mitzvot, and minhagim. In this series of lectures, we will explore loss, grief, and mourning on two levels: national/collective and individual. The goal, however, is one: the total restoration of the mourner.

Historical Background

The 9 of Av (Tisha B’Av) is an annual fast day of mourning that commemorates a number of tragedies that occurred in the history of the Jewish people. For our purpose of study, we will focus on the destruction of the Holy Temple by the Romans in 70CE.

Nevertheless, Tisha B’Av is the culmination of a period that begins on the 17th of Tammuz—a fast day that recalls the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Romans. The 17th of Tammuz also marks the beginning of the mourning period called the Three Weeks, which intensives during the final Nine Days.

Together with the seudah hamaf-seket and Tisha B’Av, this commemorative time comprises the five national stages of halakhic mourning, which not only teach but provide healing to mourners as a nation and as individuals.

Devastation and Loss

The destruction of the Temple in 70CE by the Romans resulted in the death of nearly 1 million Jews, ranging between 20-25% of the total Jewish population. The Jewish people were massacred, starved to death, sold into slavery—devastated and “broken” beyond the point of any obvious repair.

What are the types of losses would you have suffered and how would you have felt if:

  • You were living in Jerusalem at that time?
  • You were near enough to watch the destruction but at a distance?
  • You received the news in the diaspora?

Main Types of Grief

  • Progressive grief: watching the Roman invasion from a distance would have been like watching a loved one wrestle with a terminal illness.
  • Sudden grief: when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, the residents would have experienced sudden fear and anxiety. Then, when the Romans destroyed the Temple and massacred the population, the inhabitants would have experienced sudden shock and trauma.
  • Ambiguous grief: The Jews who resided in the diaspora would have suffered the type of grief that someone endures when a loved one disappears.

Primary and Secondary Losses

There is a domino effect that is set into motion with any type of major loss, toppling all at once or unfolding over time. Death of a loved one can be likened to throwing a stone into a calm pond, causing ripples to disturb and disrupt the calm. We tend to focus on that initial splash, but the ripples can do much damage.

  1. Primary Losses: What did the Jews loose?

Loss of life, friends, family, relationships, roles/status

Homes, the land, their homeland, national sovereignty, power

The Temple, the sacrificial system


Material possessions

  1. Secondary Losses: What were the consequences of their major losses?

Loss of self, self-confidence, identity, self-esteem

The future, direction, hopes, dreams

Sense of security, trust, faith

Joy, happiness, desire to live, motivation

Focus, concentration, ability to choose, appetite, heath

Accompanying Feelings

Each type of loss brings its own set of negative feelings: sadness, grief, despair, fears, panic. You may feel unmotivated, exhausted, and even impatient that you’re not recovering—you can feel like you are going crazy!

Therefore, the mourning process must embrace both types of losses, but oftentimes we are so focused on the primary loss that we don’t acknowledge the secondary ones.

The Historic Response

To our amazement, the rabbis managed to emerge out of the ashes and rubble to discover in Torah a new way to serve God. They began emphasizing how God’s presence was no longer localized in one place but could be found everywhere. The conclusion was that all Jews had to learn Torah, so that they could discover how God’s presence is hidden in everyday “secular” life.

Hence, the Jewish religion became more democratized: everyone (not just priests) could participate in the worship of God: (1) the common Jew became viewed a priest (2) our homes—a temple (3) our meal tables—an altar.

Conclusively, the Jewish response to catastrophe was to renew life and confront tragedy with hope.

Prayers of mourning were inserted into the entire liturgy to express grief and diffuse it. But the rabbis also limited grief, for example, on Shabbat or at weddings (smashing the glass, but not cancelling out the joy of weddings). Specifically, in relation to this period leading up to Tisha B’Av, the halakhot not only allow us to express grief and diffuse it but also teach us how to have hope in future restoration amidst the brutal realities of life’s tragedies.

Again, the secret to the Jews’ national survival has been to use the memory of tragedy and rebound after defeat. On a personal level, we relive the sorrows during this 3-week period to give us strength to overcome.

Part of grieving is getting used to a new world, a new self!

Our Response

After experiencing loss, the mourner’s life is disrupted, never to return the same. The mourner too is changed permanently. Therefore, part of the grieving process is getting used to a new world, becoming familiar with a new self. But this is impossible when the mourner feels like life is out of control.

Here is where halakhah enters, providing structure to the mourner’s life. The ceremonies, rituals, and prayers help us express and dissipate our pain and grief; they also assist us in re-orientating our focus:

Dealing with Triggers

A trigger can be anything that reminds us of our losses, which cause pain, grief, anxiety, and more. They can make us feel debilitated, leading to a loss of appetite or nightmares.  The following is a list of common triggers and how Jewish prayer, ceremonies, and mitzvot can respond:

  • Holidays: often called seasonal grief or the holiday blues are huge triggers. The Jewish prayers, particularly for holidays, are infused with both mourning and hope.
  • Anniversaries: the Jewish response is yarhtzeit.
  • Objects, places, smells, sounds, songs, foods, movies—anything can trigger a memory.

We need a break from grief and the host of triggers that can incite deep pain. Sometimes we will resort to avoidance, which is not a bad tactic, particularly if we are not ready to confront the trigger. But be aware of:

  • Prolonged withdraw/isolation
  • Over-activity/excessive busy-ness
  • Excessive fear causing prolonged avoidance
  • Lack of emotion/acting like everything is okay

(To be continued)

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