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Tisha B'Av: Making Mourning Traditions Meaningful

07/25/2012 12:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

On major fast days such as the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av) and Yom Kippur, many Jews observe certain practices prescribed for the days after the death of a close relative. These mourning traditions emphasize the state of being in the midst of a great loss. They include not wearing new clothes and refraining from wearing leather. Both these and other mourning practices denote an abstention from luxury and adornment.

In times past, when people raised their own animals and goods made of leather were less ubiquitous than they are today, it made sense to equate items made from leather with luxury, and thus to prohibit them when in mourning after a death and on major fast days. Today, however, with the advent of factory farming, leather has become plentiful and therefore even cheap, devaluing it to the level of commonplace. Nowadays, for example, everyday shoes are leather-topped, leather jackets are considered casual and informal, and even cheaper watches often tout leather accents. In the same vein, when all clothing was woven by hand, the purchase of new garments was an infrequent and special occasion. But today, when an outfit can be purchased for only a few dollars, clothing has become almost disposable and the experience of donning a new garment is far less exceptional as it once was.

So what happens to the significance and meaning of a tradition when affluence, technology and cultural change divorce it from its original meaning and place in our lives?

One thing that happens is that such a tradition takes on a new and different meaning in place of its original one. For many Jews, the abstention from wearing leather reminds them more that they are following a tradition than it effectuates for them an actual step away from luxury.

A set of age-old questions can be raised here: Should apparently outdated traditions be swapped for their modern equivalents so as to preserve intent and purpose? Or should we continue following old traditions as a remembrance of the past despite their changed significance in the modern world?

Certainly, Tisha B'Av is a holiday about remembering -- it commemorates more than a dozen historic tragedies which, whether by coincidence or otherwise, have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. The most momentous of these are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, both befalling the Jewish people hundreds of years apart on the same day. It is therefore arguably fitting that on Tisha B'Av we should commemorate in the same ways as our ancestors, thus also remembering and even reenacting their mourning amid remembering the tragedies that have befallen our larger Jewish ancestry.

But what of other occasions of mourning? Especially for such an emphatically in-the-present tragedy like the death of a close relative, is it appropriate to keep mourning rituals so deeply rooted in the past? Traditional Judaism has often been critiqued as not addressing the needs and sensibilities of Jews in today's world. Of course, many reject such a critique and connect steadfastly to tradition, remaining undisturbed by any perceived disparity between tradition and modernity.

For many modern-day Jews, though, old ways can feel stale. For them, there should be ways to connect to traditional practices in a manner that seems meaningful to modern sensibilities. Perhaps in lieu of (or in addition to) abstaining from wearing leather, which is no longer just a luxury material, one might instead refrain from wearing clothing made from luxurious textiles, refrain from adornments including precious metals and embroidery, or refrain from wearing fancier clothes which may include nicer leather shoes but not more mundane shoes that have leather on them. Similarly, just as Torah study (traditionally seen as noble and joyous) is prohibited on Tisha B'Av except for sections pertaining to the destruction of the Temple, consider applying that concept in a contemporary manner by refraining from watching TV or engaging in otherwise fun activities on Tisha B'Av unless they relate to the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.

Looking to Tisha B'Av this Sunday, think about which traditions are meaningful for you and which ones you follow simply because they are prescribed. Are there other practices that signify for you the experience of mourning a loss, and might be appropriate to observe as your own adopted ritual? If there are traditions that you plan on turning away from, are there ways to make honoring their significance meaningful for you? Keep in mind that it's OK to hold on to a tradition for the sake of it being tradition, connecting you to generations of Jews who have observed similarly over the centuries. But it's important to be aware of what you are doing for the sake of tradition and what you are doing in order to effectuate the tradition's intended purpose.

Whether or not you choose to fast, have a meaningful remembrance of this somber day.