Tisha B’Av (9 Av) is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem. On this day, we do not eat, drink, wear leather shoes, groom ourselves or do many other things (read more here and here). Of course, there are special synagogue services unlike those held on any other day of the year. Here is what you need to know:

Brief Overview

Services are held three times:

  • The evening leading into Tisha B’Av, after the fast starts (see when that is in your area here). The primary event of this service is the reading of the Book of Eichah (Lamentations), in a unique, mournful tune.
  • The morning. The prominent special addition here is kinot (or kinos), a long selection of elegies composed after the many tragedies that have befallen our people.
  • In the afternoon. Unlike the morning services, tallit and tefillin are worn for these services—so, gentlemen, make sure to bring yours along, if you have them.

Note that we will not go into every twist and turn of the service. For that (and more), turn to page 622 of the Annotated Tehillat Hashem Siddur. Here, we’ll just run through the broad strokes of the synagogue services.

Evening Services

After eating their last pre-fast meal, people will come to the synagogue. You will notice three things about your fellow worshipers:

  • No one is dressing up. This is a sad day, so there is no need to wear holiday duds. (When 9 Av follows Shabbat, though, people will still be wearing their Shabbat attire tonight.)
  • One observance of this day is to avoid leather shoes, since we don’t want to get too comfortable on this day of mourning. You’ll see people wearing slippers, flip-flops and sneakers. For the next 25 hours, you should do the same.
  • Deeply engrossed in the sadness of the day, people do not greet one another. So don’t expect anyone to give you a cheery “hello,” and know that no one is expecting one from you either.

Upon entering the synagogue, you’ll notice that the furniture may have been rearranged somewhat. As mourners, we do not sit on chairs of ordinary height until midday tomorrow. So tonight, people may sit on low stools, or even on the floor—all depending on what’s available.

Also, the decorative curtain that covers the ark where the Torahs are kept is removed. Even the Torah is unadorned on this very mournful day.

In some communities, the lights are dimmed and services are held by flickering candlelight.

Find yourself a spot and open your prayerbook to the weekday evening services. Services are brief and follow the regular pattern, with a few exceptions that you can expect to be announced.

Following the Amidah (the “Standing Prayer”), Eichah is read. You can find this in most editions of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), or in a book of kinot. Not all synagogues supply kinot, so it may be a good idea to purchase your own—especially if you favor a specific translation (there is no special Chabad edition, per se).

Eichah will be chanted aloud, and everyone will follow along in their own books. If you read Hebrew, you’ll note that the verses of each chapter are arranged in Hebrew alphabetical order. The reading of Eichah should take from 20 minutes to a half hour. It is followed by a few kinot.

With no meal to eat, and even most Torah learning forbidden, you’ll find that people often mosey out slowly.

Morning Services

Like the night before, you’ll see people sitting on low seats and the ark still uncovered. Morning services today are unique in that men wear neither tallit nor tefillin. They are an adornment, and we mourn bereft and unadorned.

Until after the Amidah, services pretty much continue as usual (except that we omit the blessing on page 7 thanking G‑d for providing our needs). We skip the Tachanun prayers, and then the Torah is removed from the ark and the prophecy of Israel’s dispersion and subsequent return to G‑d are read from Deuteronomy 4. This is followed by a haftorah, where we read a similar prophecy from the book of Jeremiah.

For the next few hours we read from the kinot booklets, immersing ourselves in the dreadfulness of the Roman pillage of Jerusalem, the brutality of the Crusades, and the many other horrors our nation has experienced for millennia. Some kinot may include compositions written after the Holocaust. You can keep up with the leader, or you can read on your own. Feel free to transition to English, since the poetic Hebrew is often very hard to understand—even for native speakers. If you do follow the Hebrew, you will note that many of the poems form complex codes and have multiple layers of alphabetization.

After the reading has ended (and it can take several hours), or when the sun has reached its apex (chatzot, which you can calculate here), the kinot readings conclude with a composition known as “Eli Tziyon,” which the reader and congregation read responsively. (Some have the custom to read Eichah again privately today as well.)

When finishing up the morning services, you’ll notice that we omit the “Song of the Day” and “Ein Ke’Elokeinu,” both too joyous for this depressing morning. We will say them later this afternoon.

Afternoon Services

When planning your attendance, note that there are some things to be done before afternoon services, so you might want to give yourself an extra 20 minutes or so.

Entering the synagogue, you’ll notice that the curtain has been restored to the ark and that people are once again sitting on chairs, since the most extreme expressions of mourning end at midday.

We then get down to business, taking care of the things we skipped in the morning. First, men get wrapped up in their tallit and tefillin, which they have not worn that morning. Then, everyone catches up on the songs missed out in the morning services.

Afternoon services kick off with the Torah reading (from Exodus 32 and 34, where we read of G‑d’s forgiveness) and the haftorah (from Isaiah 55 and 56, which gives a hopeful message of repentance and return).

During the Amidah, we add two extra paragraphs (on pages 107 and 108) asking G‑d to answer our prayers and comfort our people.

Men remove their tallit and tefillin after the afternoon services.

By now, you may be feeling faint—especially if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, where the day (and fast) ends quite late. The good news is that you are almost done. All that remains now is to pray the evening service (the regular weekday one, with no special additions) once night has fallen.

Afterward, you’ll see everyone streaming out of the synagogue on their way to catch a bite. But there are a few things to do first:

  1. Wash your hands. As part of our non-grooming, we’ve not ritually washed our hands past our knuckles all day, so you can join the line at the sink to pour water thrice on each hand, alternating from right to left.
  2. If Tisha B’Av is on Sunday, you’ll do havdalah as well, since we could not do it last night.
  3. If the weather is nice, now is a perfect time to do Kiddush Levanah, in which we thank G‑d for the moon. Since the past nine days were so sad, we pushed it off until now, but delay no longer!

You did it! It hasn’t been an easy run, but now there is something happy to look forward to (besides for the break-fast): In just 5 days it will be the 15th of Av, described as one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar. How is that for a roller-coaster of emotions?

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.