The month of Av, the fifth month on the Hebrew calendar, is a month of mixed emotions. In the Bible, it is the month in which the spies brought back their evil report (Numbers 13-14). Aaron, the first High Priest and brother of Moses and Miriam, passed away at age 123 on the 1st of Av in the Jewish year 2487 (1274 BCE). It is the only date of passing explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 33:38). But it is most well-known for being the month in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (II Kings 25:8-9).
The name of the month, Av, literally means “father”. It is customary to add the Hebrew word Menachem, which means “comforter,” to the name of the month because this month is associated with many tragic events including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Together with this addition, the name of the month means that despite whatever tragedies we might experience, our Father in Heaven is always there to comfort and console us.
Yet the month of Av isn’t all bad. Despite the terrible tragedies that occurred, Av also contains one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar. According to Rabbi Simeon son of Gamliel, “There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).”
How can we make sense of this month? Why does it contain the saddest day of the year as well as one of the happiest?
This progression from intense mourning to great joy finds expression in a number of ways during this month. In addition to the 15th of Av being considered such a happy day, there is a Jewish tradition that the Messiah will be born at this time. In fact, the Jewish sages relate that the Messiah will be born on the very day when the Temples were destroyed: the 9th of Av. This teaches us that the tragedies and suffering associated with the 9th of Av will turn into joy with the coming of the Messiah.
In other words, even at the beginning of exile and the destruction of the Temple, God promises that one day the Messiah will come. The statement of the sages is not really about predicting when the Messiah will be born, but pointing out that even in total darkness there is light in the distance. Or, that contained within the destruction itself are the seeds of redemption.
The astrological sign of Av is the lion, which represents both the tragedy and the potential for redemption contained within this month. As the Jewish sages teach, “The lion [Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar] came, under the constellation of lion [Av], and destroyed the Lion of G‑d [Jerusalem] . . . so that the Lion [Messiah] shall come, under the constellation of lion [Av], and build the Lion of God [Jerusalem].” The lion is a fitting imagery for the messiah who will come from the tribe of Judah, the tribe whose symbol is also a lion.
This movement from destruction to redemption is also expressed in the transition from the 9th of Av to the 15th of the month. The sages teach that a number of events occurred on the 15th of Av including the end of God’s decree that an entire generation of Jews would die in the desert before entering the land of Israel, the permission for members of different tribes to intermarry thus ending a painful division between the tribes of Israel, and a rescinding of the decree made by King Jeroboam that the tribes of the kingdom of Israel were not allowed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. The 15th of Av is, therefore, a day of renewal and reconciliation.
The sages teach that “when the month of Av arrives we decrease our happiness.” Although Av is currently a time of mourning, there is hope on the horizon. Redemption is coming soon and the temporary mourning of the month of Av will transform into permanent rejoicing. As the prophet Zechariah writes:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘… The fast of the fifth … shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.’” Zechariah 8:19