Every Jewish holiday has its own food associations. Passover: Matzah, of course! Rosh HaShanah: Apples and honey; Hanukkah: Latkes; Shavuot: Blintzes and other dairy food; Tu-B'Shvat: Almonds. Even Yom Kippur, which is a fast day, is bracketed by festive meals before and after the fast. Tisha B'Av, Judaism's "other" full fast day, does not quite have the same positive associations as Yom Kippur. And for good reason! It's a fast day stuck right in the middle of the summer.
Tisha B'Av (The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, falling this year Monday night August 8 through August 9), is a sad day, a day of communal mourning. On this day, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The theology of the Rabbis of antiquity explained these destructions as punishment for the sins of our people: the first destruction for the Israelites turning toward idol worship, the second for the sinat hinam, boundless hatred that many Jews had for one another in a time of rampant sectarianism.
The act of fasting and self-deprivation is conceived by the Torah and Rabbinic tradition as an act of teshuvah, repentance or returning from a wayward path. On Yom Kippur, we take stock of our individual misdeeds, while Tisha B'Av is a time to take stock of our failings as a community. Therefore, as physically challenging as a fast may be, it would be pointless if we were not filled with the hope that we could make ourselves and our world better.
In this light, I think Tisha B'Av represents a great opportunity for our community. Our society as a whole needs to take stock of the damage we have caused to the environment through excessive carbon emissions that are changing our climate before our eyes. Our observance of Tisha B'Av falls precisely during the summer, when we are most likely to spend time outdoors enjoying God's world. Therefore, as a way to renew meaning for the day, we can recognize that we as a global society are all responsible for the mess we've created and for cleaning up after ourselves.
From the first day of Av (July 31-August 1) through the ninth there is a widespread custom for Jews to refrain from eating meat. The custom represents a build-up in our sadness culminating in the fast day. I believe that this custom represents another opportunity for environmentally concerned people. As we take stock of our global neglect of the environment, for at least these nine days we limit our diets to food that comes directly from the earth (with eggs, dairy and fish thrown in for extra protein). After all, according to estimates, the production of meat in the U.S. accounts for one fifth of our country's fossil fuel consumption. An ancient custom of refraining from meat may thus be renewed with the notion that the first nine days of Av form a process to help us become more mindful of how we treat God's earth.
Tisha B'Av doesn't have blintzes and latkes, but it is not without its culinary associations. In our day, Tisha B'Av fosters greater mindfulness for our treatment of God's earth and its fruits that sustain us. With the symbolism of boundless hatred and disrespect as the backdrop for the day, my hope is that Tisha B'Av can inspire us toward boundless love and respect for the earth that sustains us and the human beings, animals and plants that surround us.