“Shall I Weep In The Fifth Month?”

  • Based on a shiur by Harav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l
Adapted by Rav Yair Kahn
Translated by David Strauss[1]
Jeffrey Paul Friedman
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב
Dedicated in memory of Esther Leah Cymbalista z"l 
Niftera 7 B'Av 5766
            The gemara in Yevamot (43b) defines mourning over the destruction of the Temple as avelut yeshana, "ancient mourning." This definition is based on the parallel that exists between the laws of avelut chadasha, "recent mourning," which apply when an individual mourns a personal loss of a close relative, and the laws that Chazal ordained for ancient mourning, when the entire Jewish People mourn over the destroyed Temple.[2]
            The laws of recent mourning can be divided into three main periods: the first week after the relative's death, the first month, and the first twelve months. When we consider the practices of ancient mourning, we must set the various levels of mourning before us. Mourning during the omer-counting period, for example, corresponds to the mourning observed during the twelve months following a relative's death.[3] If it were true that the laws of mourning during the omer period parallel the laws of the first month following a relative's death, laundering one's garments would be prohibited. During the twelve months following a parent's death, one is forbidden to cut one's hair unless one is rebuked by his colleagues, and one is forbidden to party. These, indeed, are the two prohibitions that are observed during the omer period.
            The same is true about mourning over the destruction of the Temple. According to the laws of the gemara, the mourning over the destruction begins on Rosh Chodesh Av, but the accepted Ashkenazic custom is to begin that mourning already on the 17th of Tammuz. During this period, only cutting one's hair and partying are forbidden, parallel to the twelve-month period of mourning for a parent. In contrast, the laws applying to the week in which Tisha Be-Av falls, which by common Ashkenazic practice are observed already from the time of Rosh Chodesh Av, correspond to the laws applying during the first thirty days after a relative's passing, as laundering is also prohibited.[4] (The prohibitions of meat and wine do not stem from Talmudic law.)[5]
            When we examine the laws of Tisha Be-Av, we see that they are comprised of two types of mourning:[6]
1. The mourning observed during the first week after a relative's death (shiva), as is explained in tractate Ta'anit (30a):
Our Rabbis have taught: All the restrictions that apply to the mourner hold equally good of Tisha Be-Av. Eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, the wearing of shoes and marital relations are forbidden thereon. It is also forbidden [thereon] to read the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings…
2. Acute mourning (aninut) observed on the day of a relative's death,[7] as is stated in the continuation of the passage cited above:
R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: The following was the practice of R. Yehuda ben Il'ai: On the eve of Tisha Be-Av there was brought to him dry bread with salt and he would take his seat between the [baking] oven and the [cooking] stove and eat, and he would drink with it a pitcher full of water, and he would appear as if a near relation were lying dead before him.
            According to the law of the gemara, the prohibition of wine during the last meal eaten before Tisha Be-Av expresses the law of acute mourning. This prohibition continues throughout the day of Tisha Be-Av.
            There is, however, a fundamental distinction between recent mourning and ancient mourning. In the recent mourning of a person who has lost a relative, the mourning process proceeds from the more stringent to the more lenient – that is to say, from acute mourning, to the mourning of seven days and thirty days, and then to the mourning of twelve months. The mourning progresses from the dark night, filled with despair and loneliness, to a new dawn and new hope. In contrast, in ancient mourning, we are witness to the same process in reverse, in which the light gradually dims until we reach the absolute darkness of a "near relative lying dead before him." Why did Chazal choose to reverse the order? Ostensibly, since mourning over the destruction of the Temple is modeled after personal mourning, it should have paralleled it with respect to the direction of the process as well!
            The reason for this is simple. Fasting in the wake of historical events stems from a unique type of memory, through which the people of Israel is capable of living and experiencing the past.[8] The consciousness of this memory is so profound and true that during the final meal before Tisha Be-Av a person must feel as if his near relative were lying dead before him. It is through this consciousness that an encounter is created between a Jew living today and events that took place two thousand years ago. This phenomenon, in which we relate to time from the present to the past, conflicts with man's natural attitude toward time, which is generally reversed – from the time in which we are standing at the moment of the event, and from which we proceed and become more distant. It is impossible to create the consciousness of memory in an instant; what is needed is a long process, which gradually raises memory from being simply remembering things to a true experience in the present. The Halakha creates a system of mourning practices that become gradually more stringent, in order to arouse each individual Jew to live and identify with the events of the past.
            This perception, which relates to past events as creating present experience, fits in well with the position of the Rambam,[9] according to which we are obligated to observe the four fast days in our times even when we are not suffering any real calamity. But the continuation of his position, according to which the fast of Tisha Be-Av was observed even during the Second Temple period, requires examination.
The gemara explicitly asks why the people fasted only on Tisha Be-Av, and then answers:
R. Pappa said: Tisha Be-Av is different, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On Tisha Be-Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed.[10] (Rosh Hashana 18b)
            According to the view of most of the commentators that this passage is dealing with the period after the destruction of the Second Temple, it can be explained according to its plain sense.[11] However, according to the Rambam, who maintains that we are dealing here with the Second Temple period, R. Pappa's answer is incomprehensible. Surely during the Second Temple period most of the misfortunes connected to Tisha Be-Av had not yet occurred! What, then, was special about Tisha Be-Av that it should be treated like a communal fast? It cannot be argued that the Rambam disagrees with the reason, as he himself mentions it:
Even though they were granted permission not to fast on Tisha Be-Av, as was mentioned, they fasted on that day because of the succession of mournful events that occurred on it. (Commentary to the Mishna, Rosh Hashana 1:3)
            In order to resolve this difficulty, we must understand the meaning of fasting over the destruction even after the Temple had already been rebuilt. I am unable to fully reconcile the position of the Rambam, but nevertheless it seems to me that according to the Rambam the words "succession of mournful events" should not be understood in their literal sense. The Rambam apparently viewed the destruction of the First Temple as a profound crisis for the people of Israel that had to be addressed despite the building of the Second Temple.
            We find that at the beginning of the Second Temple period the people sent an inquiry to the prophet Zekharya: "Shall I weep in the fifth month?" (Zekharya 7:3). That is to say, even though the building of the Second Temple changed the people's attitude toward Tisha Be-Av, so that it was no longer a day of mourning for the Temple, their concern about another destruction remained in place. Throughout the Second Temple period, the fear of exile pursued the people of Israel. This fear was especially strong at the end of the Second Temple period, when all the signs pointed to another impending destruction. During this period – forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple – everyone was seized by a fear of further destruction:
Our Rabbis taught: It happened with one High Priest that he prolonged his prayer [in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur]. His fellow priests undertook to enter after him. As they began to enter he came forth. They said to him: Why did you prolong your prayer? He said: Is it disagreeable to you that I prayed for you, for the Temple, that it be not destroyed? (Yoma 53b)
            There is also another baraita that describes the atmosphere of destruction that prevailed at that time:
During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the lot ["For the Lord"] did not come up in the right hand [on Yom Kippur]; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Sanctuary would open by themselves, until Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Sanctuary, sanctuary, why do you alarm yourself? I know about you that you will be destroyed, for Zekharya ben Ido has already prophesied concerning you: "Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars" (Zekharya 11:1). (Yoma 39b)
            This fear of the destruction and of exile found special expression on Tisha Be-Av, as there was a tradition that Tisha Be-Av had been fixed as a day of weeping for future generations, and so the people knew that that day was intended for calamities and misfortune. Even though the Second Temple had already been built, memories of the slaughter and of the destruction of the First Temple had not been forgotten. During the seventy years of exile in Babylonia, Tisha Be-Av was both a day of mourning over the destruction and also a day of prayer. During the entire Second Temple period, Tisha Be-Av continued to be a day of prayer and supplications, even though it ceased to be a day of mourning for the past destruction. "Shall I weep in the fifth month?" – shall I pray to the Almighty with tears and supplications that there not be an additional destruction?
            It seems to me, however, that this is not the only reason Tisha Be-Av was not abandoned during the Second Temple period, and that we are obligated to observe the laws of Tisha Be-Av even in our time. The Second Temple did not substitute for the First Temple, and not only because of the five things that distinguished the First Temple from the Second Temple (see Yoma 21b). Despite all the success of the Second Temple, there was one function that it did not succeed in filling, one problem that it was not capable of solving. The Second Temple did not provide an answer or solution to the philosophical problem presented by the book of Eikha.
            There is no answer to the question of the destruction, to the ancient problem of "the righteous man who suffers and the wicked man who prospers." The Temple was destroyed, women were defiled, prophets and priests were murdered, and all this at the hands of a cruel and impure people. This question remained as painful as it ever had been, with no answer even after the building of the Second Temple. The questions, "How (eikha) does the city sit solitary" (Eikha 1:1), "How (eikha) has the Lord covered with a cloud the daughter of Zion in His anger" (Eikha 2:1), "How (eikha) is the gold become dim" (Eikha 4:1), remained as distressing and perplexing as they had been before the destruction of the Temple. "See, O Lord, to whom You have done thus" (Eikha 2:20) was still valid, despite the dedication of the Second Temple; Yirmeyahu's lamentations describe the tragic fate of the people of Israel who served as a target for God's arrows, and these questions remained unanswered. At the founding of the Second Temple, when the young people, lacking sensitivity, sang and praised and celebrated with joy, the older people were immersed in the pain that stemmed from that unresolved problem – "eikha" – even though the miracle of the return to Zion was materialized.
And when the builders laid the foundation of the Temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaf with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the direction of David king of Israel. And they sang one to another in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, the old men that had seen the first house standing on its foundation, wept with a loud voice, when this house was before their eyes; and many shouted aloud for joy; so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people; for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off. (Ezra 3:10-13)
            The older people, the priests and the Levites, who had seen the First Temple, remembered its destruction, and witnessed how the blood of thousands of Jews had been spilled, did not yet forget the destruction of the land, and they raised the question of "eikha," "how did this happen," and wept. Without a doubt, we must thank God for His mercy and lovingkindness, but this obligation does not resolve the question of "eikha." When Tisha Be-Av arrived after the dedication of the Temple, they once again lamented, "How does the city sit solitary," despite the national revival during the Second Temple period, and despite the sanctification of God's name that became evident at that time.
Does Yom Ha-Atzmaut answer the question of "eikha"? Only fools can think so, arrogant fools, and there are many fools of that sort. Can a Jewish government or military success be considered a substitute for all the suffering and killing of the years of Israel's exile? It is forbidden to say that this is the recompense for six million Jews who were slaughtered. This is an expression of cruelty and a total lack of sensitivity. Does the rejoicing of the Six Day War[12] answer all the questions that arose in the period that preceded it? Are we not as puzzled and confused as we had been before it? Did this triumph lessen our sorrow and calm our spirits? Did it resolve our problems and doubts? Is it not incumbent upon us to repeat, as did Yirmeyahu, the question of "eikha"? As long as God's will is as obscure as it was during the dark night of the hiding of His face, as long as historical events have not been clarified from a comprehensive and true perspective, as long as the world mocks us because of our faith in a merciful and gracious God, as long as the mystery of "eikha" has not found a solution – it is forbidden to abandon Tisha Be-Av. As long as a Jew asks "eikha," one must continue to fast on Tisha Be-Av. Only after we succeed in deciphering the mystery of "eikha" will we be able to abandon the fast of the fifth month.
            What was true during the Second Temple period is certainly true today. When the Messiah arrives, and with him a period of the revelation of the Shekhina, the historical process will be revealed and redeemed from a true perspective; we will see God's righteousness and judgment, on the one hand, and His mercy and lovingkindness, on the other, and we will merit the final redemption in a period when the entire world will dwell in true peace. Then, and only then, will the words of Zekharya be fulfilled:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Yehuda joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons. (Zekharya 8:19)
And when will this happen? Only when, as the verse continues, "you will love truth and peace" – in the days of the Messiah.

[1] This is the second half of a shiur delivered before the Rabbinical Council of America in Tammuz 5728 (1968). The first half is entitled “‘Against the Enemy that Oppresses You”: The Basis of Historical Fasts” and can be found here. The original Hebrew adaptations of this shiur are found in Daf Kesher #473 and #504. See also Rav Soloveitchik’s essay “Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Hadashah: Historical and Individual Mourning,” in his book Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, eds. David Shatz, Joel Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler (Jersey City, 2003).
[2] According to the gemara's conclusion in Yevamot (ad loc.), there are certain halakhic differences between ancient mourning and recent mourning. Nevertheless, according to Rav Soloveitchik, the basic parallelism remains in place.
[3] This novel idea of the Rav has halakhic ramifications. See Daf Kesher, no. 133, and Nefesh HaRav, pp. 191, 198.
[4] See Mo'ed Katan 23a: "Our Rabbis taught: [During the whole] thirty days [the mourner is barred from] pressing clothes." See Tosafot, ad loc. (s.v. kol), who write that according to the Riva, the same applies to laundering (and see Yoreh De'ah 389:1). However, according to the plain sense of the Talmudic passages, only pressing clothes is forbidden all thirty days, whereas laundering is forbidden only during the first seven days (see there in Tosafot). Although laundering is forbidden during the week of Tisha Be-Av (Ta'anit 29b), it is possible that in the case of communal mourning, Chazal broadened the prohibition of pressing clothing to include also the prohibition of laundering (Yevamot 43b, Tosafot, s.v. shani).
[5] The Rav explained our custom of prohibiting bathing during the Nine Days on the basis of those who prohibit bathing during the thirty days of mourning. See Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilkhot Evel 10:6, and see Nefesh HaRav, p. 198.
[6] See Chiddushei Ha-Griz, Hilkhot Ta'aniyot, and his discussion of the passage in Pesachim (54b).
[7] See Chiddushei Ha-Griz, Hilkhot Ta'aniyot, and his discussion of the passage in Ta'anit (30a).
[8] This idea was developed in the first part of the shiur; see note 1.
[9] For a more comprehensive discussion regarding the disagreement between the Rambam and the rest of the Rishonim, see the first part of this article (see note 1).  
[10] According to this reading, all the other misfortunes added to the destruction of the First Temple did not yet occur in the Second Temple period. There is, however, another reading which adds: "It was decreed about our forefathers that they would not enter the Land."  
[11] According to this view, as well, it is not clear how Tisha Be-Av is different, as five things also took place on the 17th of Tammuz (see Ta'anit 26a). Perhaps the fact that the same event (the destruction of the Temple) took place twice explains the uniqueness of Tisha Be-Av (see Chiddushei Ha-Ritva, s.v. veha de'amrinan). But it stands to reason that even according to this view, the words, "hukhpalu bo ha-tzarot," indicates the quality of the misfortunes, and not the quantity (see Tosafot, s.v. ho'il; and Chiddushei Ha-Ran, s.v. shani).   
[12] Note should be taken of the date of the shiur – 5728 (1968).