The year the fast day became a feast
The ninth day of the Jewish month of Av — or Tisha B’Av, as it is known in Hebrew — is one of the two major days of fasting and abstinence (the other being Yom Kippur). The central theme of Tisha B’Av is the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
(This year Tisha B’Av will actually be observed on the 10th of Av; the ninth falls on Shabbat, when Jewish law proscribes commemorating a fast day, except Yom Kippur.)
In the memory of rabbinic tradition, both the first and second iterations of the Beit Hamikdash were razed on this date hundreds of years apart. Over time, successive catastrophes that befell Jews in the Diaspora, such as the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, and events related to the Holocaust, came to be associated with the date as well. In short, the Ninth of Av has stood since biblical times as the quintessential day of Jewish communal mourning.
With one minor exception. In one of the more bizarre episodes of Jewish history, a sizable portion of the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire observed Tisha B’Av not as a day of fasting and mourning, but of feasting and celebration. How did this come to pass?
The answer revolves around Sabbatai Zevi, the most famous — and infamous — Jewish messianic character of the medieval period. Around 1648, Zevi began to see himself as the long-predicted Jewish Messiah, revealing this to a small inner circle in his hometown of Smyrna, in what is now Turkey. Exiled by local rabbinic authorities for his unorthodox claims and behaviors, Zevi departed to Palestine, where a group of kabalistic scholars took up his message and formed a movement around him.
In 1665, Zevi publicly declared his identity and mission, instigating a wave of messianic fervor that spread to all parts of the Diaspora. Entire Jewish communities across Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and throughout the Ottoman Empire readied themselves to be miraculously returned to the Promised Land in 1666. Though not without fierce opponents, the Sabbatean movement gained such size, power, and influence in certain areas that to oppose it meant excommunication.
Emboldened by this swell of popular support, Zevi undertook even more inflammatory actions. In August 1666, having been imprisoned by the Muslim authorities for sowing political discord, he issued the following edict regarding Tisha B’Av: “And ye shall make it a day of great banqueting and rejoicing, with choice food and delicious drinks and many candles and lights, and with many melodies and songs, for it is the birthday of your king Shabbatai Zevi, highest among kings of the earth.”
The move was heavily meaningful for Zevi and his followers. A well-known talmudic tradition holds that the Messiah will be born on the Ninth of Av. Furthermore, since the date represents the start of the Jewish exile, its transformation into a festival signals the advent of the final redemption. There are testimonials verifying that the day was observed as a joyous feast in the major Jewish communities of Smyrna and Constantinople, around Palestine, and even to some degree in Jerusalem. With little warning, the most sacred and ancient symbol of Jewish national tragedy had been turned on its head.
Incidentally, it was not too long after the Ninth of Av that Zevi’s story took a dramatic turn. In September 1666, Zevi’s captors offered him the chance to convert to Islam or else be put to death. To the shock and dismay of his followers, he chose to accept Islam and live. A small number of the most devout Sabbateans remained loyal to him even after the conversion, but the vast majority of Jews whose hopes Zevi had ignited and then dashed returned to their old lives and traditions.
Zevi’s influence was quickly banished to historical memory by his adversaries, but to this day, Tisha B’Av 1666 is a stark reminder of the remarkable power of messianic ideology.
(All historical information and analysis cited is from Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press, 1973.)