Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.
There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.
In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”
The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av. Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.
The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”
Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.
Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.
This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?
My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).
After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:
- 17 Tammuz: “The Temple”
- Rosh Chodesh Av: “Hallel in a Minor Key” (A PDF published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, including the sheet music, can be downloaded here.)
- Tishah B’Av: “In Sorrow” from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day (CCAR Press, 2017)
- Seven weeks of consolation: “Tears, Too Close: A Prayer of Consolation” from This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer (CCAR Press, 2021)
It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”
Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.