"The meal before the fast of Tisha B’Av ( the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av) should not be eaten at a table” - the 9th of Av in Jerusalem

by מוזיאון מגדל דוד

Food creates and carries memory.  Symbolic foods, meals and even avoiding eating are all part of religious ritual.  The first days of the month of Av are called “the 9 days”, and Jewish laws and tradition attempt to create the feeling of mourning over the destruction of the Temple through limitations on eating - refraining from meat and drinking wine - and during the day of the destruction itself - fasting.

Besides refraining from eating, traditions and customs have developed in Jewish communities over time relating to the last meal eaten before the fast. In order to express sorrow over the destruction, it is customary to sit on the floor; and there are homes where people sit apart and not around one table.  Many eat this meal as a simple meal with 2 dishes identified as food for mourners:  lentils and hard-boiled eggs.  These are foods whose round shape symbolizes the circle of life, destruction and creation.

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 30a), it is told that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Ilai were arranging the last meal eaten before the fast in a dreadful place next to an oven and they only ate rotten bread with salt. During the Middle Ages in European communities, the tradition developed to eat alone. How did the last meal before the fast appear in Sephardic, Ladino-speaking households in Jerusalem? Which foods were eaten at the meal before the fast?  And why did they specifically eat them? In his book “Childhood in Old Jerusalem,” Yaakov Yehoshua describes the foods served at his Sephardic Jerusalem family’s meal before the fast at the beginning of the 20th century.  

Yehoshua, awarded the honor of Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem (and father of the writer AB Yehoshua), was born in Jerusalem and raised in the Yemin Moshe and Even Yisrael neighborhoods. Besides his work as an historian at the Ministry of Religion, he collated books, memories, and folk stories from the Sephardic, Ladino-speaking community in Jerusalem. The first volume is dedicated to describing the ways in which the Jewish holidays were celebrated in the Jerusalem community. As Moses Goldstein describes:

“The author sings songs of Jewish holidays, their special character and their glory, their light and their charm - the Sephardic tradition encompasses a symphony of sounds, the smell of good food, family warmth and rich ethnicity [...] From the uniquely endearing experience, atmosphere, and character of ancient Jerusalem [...] every holiday is described by the author in a lyrical melody, in the rhythm of life, life that passes and is no more.” (From book review written by Moshe Goldstein, “World Destroyed”. Maariv, January 21, 1966)

For the 9th of Av, Yehoshua describes the meal before the fast, the change in the way people eat - on the floor around a low table from a sort of tub, the silence of the meal and the “forced” lack of appetite:

“[...] the last meal before the fast in the evening before Tisha B’Av we didn’t eat next to a table.
My mother would place a laundry tub upside down, and spread a sheet on it and arrange a few cushions around it.  There were those who used a round, large brass bowl used for sifting wheat for Passover matza.
Uncharacteristically, we sat quietly and in silence. We ate lentil soup whose taste was bland and “bamia” (okra), a food that lessens thirst. There were families who only ate eggs in tomato juice.
The meal was eaten in silence, quietly, without excessive appetite, and the grace after meals was said quietly [...]” (p. 110-111)

Traditions and memories continued to be passed from generation to generation, through stories, texts and foods.  And before the start of the fast, by stopping daily activities and choosing to fast, is an invitation to contemplate on the act of eating and on food itself, and the cultural and religious significance that food carries within it.