The 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) commemorates the day both the First and Second Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. As part of our mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel, we abstain from many pleasurable activities (such as eating, drinking, bathing, washing, anointing oneself, marital relations, wearing leather shoes and sitting on a normal-height chair). For more on this, see The Laws of Mourning on Tisha B'Av.

However, certain mourning practices—notably sitting on low stools and not putting on tallit or tefillin—are actually suspended in the afternoon. Why is this?

The Chronology of Destruction

The Talmud1 describes the destruction as follows: “On the seventh day of Av, the heathens entered the Holy Temple. They ate and drank and wreaked havoc in it on the seventh and eighth days, and on the ninth, towards evening, they set fire to the Temple, and it continued to burn throughout the tenth day until sunset.”

The Talmud then goes on to explain that the reason the fast was not set for the tenth day, when most of the destruction actually took place, is that the beginning is the most painful.2

This seems to compound the question. Why would certain mourning practices be suspended in the afternoon, the very time the Holy Temple was actually set on fire?

Not All Practices Are Equal

During the afternoon services of Tisha B’Av, we add the special prayer Nachem, in which we ask G‑d to console us.

Why is Nachem delayed? Some point to the tradition that it is not proper to console a mourner until his departed loved one has been buried. In the same sense, we do not ask G‑d to comfort us for the destruction of the Temple until the time of day when it was actually (partially) burned.3

This, however, only addresses the question of the Nachem prayer, but not the other aspects of mourning that are lessened at this time.

What? It’s a Holiday!?

We can understand this by examining something even more paradoxical about the 9th of Av.

Most days of the year, we recite Tachanun (prayers of confession and supplication). The exceptions to this are Shabbat, special joyous occasions and holidays, on which we omit Tachanun. Yet on the 9th of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, we omit Tachanun!

The explanation given is that the Book of Lamentations4 refers to the day of the destruction of the Temple as a moed, an “appointed time” or “holiday.” But this itself begs the question: Why is it a holiday?!

The Happy Tutor

This can be understood by examining yet another perplexing verse about the destruction of the Temple.

We read in Lamentations, “The L‑rd has spent His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger, and He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has consumed her foundations.”5

In explaining this verse, the Midrash makes note of the following verse in Psalms: “A song of Asaph. O G‑d! Nations have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your Holy [Temple], they have made Jerusalem into heaps.”6

The Midrash7 wonders why a verse that tells of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem is described as a song. How can one sing about something as painful as that?

To explain this, they tell a parable of a king who fashioned a wedding canopy for his son. In the meantime, the son went out and lived in a way unbecoming of a prince. In a fit of anger, the father tore up the curtains and smashed the supports of the wedding canopy.

Seeing this, the young man’s tutor took some wood from the smashed structure and made a flute, from which he played the most joyous tunes.

People observed the tutor and wondered, “The king overturned his son’s canopy and you are sitting playing music?!”

“I am playing music,” replied the wise tutor, “because he overturned his son’s canopy and did not unleash his anger upon the boy.”

Back to the perplexing verse in Psalms, says the Midrash.

People asked Asaph: “The Holy One, blessed be He, has destroyed the Temple and you are sitting and playing music?” and he said to them: “I am playing music because the Holy One, blessed be He, poured out his anger on wood and stone and did not pour out his anger on Israel.”

This, the Midrash concludes, gives us a new lens with which to see the verse in Lamentations, “He kindled a fire in Zion which consumed its foundations.”

The Blessing Hidden in the Destruction

Along with the physical destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, many, many Jews were killed.8 The sages tell us that when the Temple became engulfed in flames, the Jews saw that G‑d had turned away his anger from them, and instead poured His wrath upon the “wood and stones” of His Holy house. This is the joy expressed in Asaph’s Psalm.9

Now that we understand that the destruction of the Temple meant that the Jewish nation was spared death, we can understand why (a) the anniversary of its destruction is considered a holiday and (b) why the time of day when the burning began is somewhat less sad than the rest of the day.

But there is another reason as well.

The Birth of the Redeemer

The sages tell us that it was in the afternoon at Minchah time, at the time that the Holy Temple was lit on fire, that Moshiach, the future redeemer of this exile, was born.10

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal, explains that since Moshiach, who at times is called “Menachem” (“Consoler”), was born at that time, we recite the prayer of Nachem, “Consolation,” at this time as well.11

The underlying theme is that it is precisely in the darkest of times, when the Holy Temple is set ablaze, that the spark of light and hope for the Jewish people is kindled. Thus, though the 9th of Av may be the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, it is also the day that our greatest hope is born.

So lest we get stuck in anguish and mourning about the past, it is precisely at the darkest time of the day that we get up and shift our focus to the future with the fervent prayer and hope that G‑d will finally console us with the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, thus finally fulfilling His promise12 that these days will be transformed into days of joy and happiness. May it be speedily in our days!