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Tisha Be-Av: A Day of Mourning, A Day of Teshuva

Rav Avi Baumol
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(Based on a lecture by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l, 1979)

 On Tisha Be-av, two seemingly contradictory halakhic categories confront each other.  On the one hand, Tisha Be-av is first and foremost a day of mourning.  It is the epitome of aveilut yeshana, "old mourning" which relates to a historical tragedy, as opposed to aveilut chadasha, "new mourning" which relates to a recent personal loss.  Our mourning over the destruction of the Beit Ha-mikdash leads us to think of this day as one of remembrance of something which once was, and is no longer.  On this day of grief-stricken sadness, the overarching theme is one of passivity - after all, what is mourning if not acceptance of the news of one's bitter loss?  On such a day, Chazal tell the mourner, "Shev ve-al ta'aseh" - don't act, rather sit and be acted upon.

 The laws of aveilut (mourning) are filled with don'ts: don't work, talk, wear tefillin, learn Torah, cut your hair, shave, etc.  On Tisha Be-av, according to the Ramban, even the acts which one would normally perform in order to demonstrate his mourning - tearing, covering of the head, turning the bed over - do not apply, seemingly because in this type of aveilut no remnant of activity should exist.  There is, however, one exception to this rule, as we shall soon see.  But, first, let us look at the second, contradictory aspect of the day.

 Aside from being a day of mourning, Tisha Be-av is also a public fast day, a ta'anit tzibbur.  It is not just any ta'anit tzibbur, but perhaps the archetype of them all (on par with Yom Kippur).  On this day we not only refrain from eating and drinking (as on most other fast days), but, similar to Yom Kippur, we observe four other elements of suffering: no washing, wearing of leather shoes, anointing, or sexual relations.  As on other fasts, the passage "Va-yechal Moshe" is recited at Mincha, and a typical spirit of teshuva pervades the day.  This spirit is apparent in the Torah portion we read on the morning of Tisha Be-av, "Ki tolid banim," where the theme is that of returning to God.

 What symbolizes a public fast day?  On the one hand, we refrain from physical pleasures.  However, this is not the goal of the day, but rather a means of achieving the ultimate end of coming closer to God.  Prayer and mitzvot are the most salient activities of a typical ta'anit tzibbur.  On Tisha Be-av, the paradigmatic fast day, we would assume that activity would be the major focus.  Yet, due to its aspect of mourning, this is certainly not the case, and therefore we will see that there are exceptions to the general rules of fast days on Tisha Be-av.

 In sum, two "spirits of the day" seem to coincide on Tisha Be-av.  The day of mourning, which invokes passivity, confronts the public fast day, which elicits action.  How can we reconcile these two motifs, melding them into one on this day?  The answer may be found by analyzing the exceptions to the rule.


 There is one halakha which resembles a "kum ve-aseh" (mandated action) on Tisha Be-av, and that is the recital of kinot.  While we are usually told to sit quietly and refrain from prayer, here we are enjoined to wail and weep as we recite a book full of dirges on the destruction of the Temple.  Since the kinot represent the essence of day, they must be recited, despite our proclivity towards silence.  What are kinot?  In a word, a hesped, a eulogy.  But whereas in personal aveilut, one describes a person, the lost one, on Tisha Be-av, the "met ha-mutal lefanenu" (the deceased in front of us) is a composite of many things.

 First and foremost, the "deceased lying before us" is the Mikdash (Holy Temple).  We mourn the loss of the glory of God (Shekhina) which was centered within the community.  We mourn the erection of a barrier which has separated God from His people.  We mourn the severing of the special connection each Jew had with God, and the great tragedy which manifested the severance of that connection.

 This mourning is so intense, that the kinot, which describe the destruction of Jerusalem and convey our sense of sadness and loss, also have an added dimension - they unleash the question of "Eikha," How?  We cry out: How can it be that God allowed this to take place?  How did He let His beautiful Temple be defiled? These are questions which, when asking them, have one treading on thin theological ice.  How do we dare challenge God with such a question?

Halakha states that man's reaction to calamity should be submission: "Just as we bless God in times of joy, we bless Him upon hearing of misery and grief."  Did not Job ask these questions in his moment of suffering and receive this reply: "Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?  Declare to me if you have understanding of these great events.  ... Shall he who reproves contend with the Almighty?"  Job responds humbly, "Behold, I am of no account; what can I answer you?  Once I have spoken but I will not again."

How then can we come along and raise these questions before God?  The answer is that were it not for Jeremiah who uttered the lines first, we would never have had the audacity to say such words.  Jeremiah acts as a "matir" - he grants halakhic permission for man to recite kinot.  The mourning on this day is so intense and so all-encompassing, that we are able to take the cue from Jeremiah and recite kinot, uttering words that should not normally be said.

Tisha Be-av, then, is a day of mourning, focusing on the hesped of the Beit Ha-mikdash and of Jerusalem.  There is one more focal point to this mourning which we shall explain shortly.  First, let us analyze the exceptions to the general rule of ta'anit tzibbur.


  There are a few things glaringly missing in our tefilot on Tisha Be-av.  The first is selichot.  How could we conjure up a fast day without the concept of saying selichot?  How can we pray suitably without reciting the thirteen attributes of mercy?

Secondly, why do we skip certain parts of "U-va Le-tzion?"  Additionally, our formulaic Kaddish is incomplete - we skip the line which asks God to accept the prayers and supplication of the Jewish nation.  Finally, we are missing a crucial component of fast days - the additional ne'ila prayer (which is not exclusive to Yom Kippur).

 The common denominator of all of these factors is that they, in some way, ask God to accept our prayers.  They remind God of His unceasing relationship with His people, and that is very much part of our fast day teshuva process.  We fast, pray, perform mitzvot, and remind God of the promise He made to our forefathers, so that when He hears our prayers He will have mercy on us and forgive our sin.  All this is appropriate on a regular fast day; however, Tisha Be-av is different.  It is not just a ta'anit tzibbur - it is a ta'anit tzibbur of aveilut.  Sadly enough, today God does NOT accept our prayers.

We read in Eikha various verses outlining God's resilience against listening to our cries for mercy: "You have covered yourself in your clouds so as not to accept our prayer (3:44) ... Even as I cry and pray to you, my prayer is sealed (satam tefilati) (3:8) ... You have slaughtered, you have not taken pity (3:43)."  The most poignant testimony to this idea is found in the Book of Jeremiah: God says to Jeremiah, the messenger of Israel, "Do not pray on behalf of this nation and do not raise up to Me a cry or prayer for them, for I will not listen to you (Jeremiah 11:14)."

Why does God choose not to listen to our prayers on this day?  Perhaps it is to tell us that although this day is a public fast day, it is NOT a day of teshuva.  On this day, we cannot expect God to listen to our requests for forgiveness, or our attempts at reconciliation.  Another way to put it is that on this day the teshuva aspect, too, is enwrapped and shrouded in mourning.

Here lies the melding of the two concepts, and the final segment of the variegated mourning.  We mourn the Beit Ha-mikdash and the loss of the Shekhina within the nation; but most of all we mourn the motivation behind the severance of contact between God and His people, i.e., our sin.  The prophets are explicit in warning that the destruction will come about only due to the nation's iniquity.  This generation of the first churban thought that they were doing well, or at least better than the previous generation (when Menasheh was king).  It was sin which brought about the first (and second) destructions and it is sin (and the lack of total teshuva) which has prevented Tisha Be-av from becoming, in the words of the prophet Zekharia, "a day of happiness, joy, and good times."

Chazal's declaration that every Tisha Be-av that continues to be a day of mourning is equivalent to our destroying the Temple ourselves, is quite poignant.  It forces us to re-evaluate our own lives during this day.  Any teshuva which we might endeavor to undertake on this day is too late!  It should have taken place beforehand, during the previous year, heightened in the last three weeks, and even more so in the last nine days.  The fact that we are sitting on the floor today is testimony that we are not worthy of the rebuilding of the Mikdash, and in such a case, our prayers our not worthy of God's acceptance.  This, then, is the true aveilut on this day.

The sense of our own unworthiness is the driving force behind our recital of kinot.  Our prayers will not be answered, so we must fully understand the gravity of our situation.  We must give the ultimate hesped; we cry for what we had, what we lost, and most importantly, for the reason we lost it.

In the morning prayer, we read from the Torah about teshuva.  Immediately following that, we read a haftara from Jeremiah, reminding us of the aveilut of the day.  The two together, by dint of their proximity in time, remind us that the teshuva element is intricately linked with the mourning.  It is no wonder that we can not begin to utilize the formulaic passages asking for mercy from God on this fast day (i.e Selichot).

When can we recite "Va-yechal?"  When do we ask for mercy from God?  Only after midday (and some say after all kinot are recited).  Why can we suddenly recite "Nachem" at Mincha? Because at this late hour in the day, the ta'anit tzibbur element of the day comes to the fore, and the aveilut aspect submerges into the background.  Why does this happen at all on Tisha Be-av, in light of what we have said?  Perhaps to say that while we have no chance of affecting this Tisha Be-av, and all we have left to do is cry bitter tears of mourning, it is not too early to try to alter next year's plans.

After midday, when all of the mourning has drained our souls, the component of teshuva takes center stage, in the hope that this Tisha Be-av will be our last to be marked by aveilut.

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