|Tish’a Be’av: a Day
of Mourning, and a Day of Teshuva
by Rabbi Avi Baumol
(based on a lecture by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik 1979)
On Tish’a Be’av two seemingly contradictory halakhic categories inter-relate, or, perhaps, confront each other. It is first and foremost a day of mourning—aveilut yeshana (old mourning relating to the mourning over the temple versus aveilut chadasha—new mourning, i.e. a personal one). The tragic destruction of the Beit Hamikdash leads one to no other conclusion than to think of this day as a remembrance to what once was, and is no longer. On this day of grief-stricken sadness, the overarching theme is one of passivity, since, after all, what is mourning if not acceptance or acquiescence to the news of the bitter loss. On such a day, Chazal tell the mourner, “shev veal taaseh”—don’t act, rather sit and be acted upon.
The laws which make up hilchot aveilut are filled with don’ts: don’t work, talk, wear tefilin, learn Torah, cut your hair, shave, etc., etc. On Tish’a Be’av, according to the Ramban, even the acts which an avel would normally do in order to define himself as a mourner—tearing, covering your head in a talit, turning the bed over—do not apply, seemingly because on this archetype 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 a day of mourning, Tish’a Be’av is a public fast day—ta’anit tzibur. It is not just any ta’anit tzibur, but perhaps the archetype of them all (on par with Yom Kippur). On this day we not only refrain from eating and drinking like any other fast day, but, similar to Yom Kippur, we observe four other elements of suffering: washing, wearing shoes (of leather), anointing, and sexual relations. As usual, the formula of “vayechal Moshe” is recited at Mincha, and a typical spirit of teshuva pervades the day. This can be seen from reading the morning Torah portion —“ki tolid banim”, where the theme of the parsha is doing teshuva—returning to God.
What symbolizes a public fast day? On the one hand, we refrain from physical pleasures, but this is not the intended goal; rather, it is a means towards the ultimate end of getting closer to God. Prayer, and mitzvot make up the typical ta’anit tzibur. On this Tish’a Be’av, the paradigmatic fast day, we would assume that activity would be the major focus. Yet, due to its counterpart--mourning, this is certainly not the case, since there are some exceptions to this supposedly quintessential fast day as well.
In sum, two “spirits of the day” seem to coincide on Tish’a 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 might be found when analyzing the exceptions to the rule.
Exception to passive Mourning
According to Rav Soloveitchik, there is one halacha which resembles “kum aseh”—get up and act, on Tish’a Be’av, and that is the recital of Kinnot. Where 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 sad poems on the Temple and its destruction. What is the nature of these Kinnot? The Rav felt that while we would normally sit in silence, the Kinnot represented the essence of the entire day. They therefore, must be recited. What are Kinnot? In a word, a hesped. But whereas in personal aveilut, one describes a person, the lost one, on Tish’a Be’av, the “met hamutal laefanenu”(dead in front of us) is a composite of many things.
First and foremost, our relative, lying before us, is the Mikdash (Holy Temple). We mourn the loss of the glory of God (Shechina) being centered within the community. We mourn the erection of a wall which has separated God from His people. We mourn the loss of the special connection each Jew had with Hashem, and the great tragedy which took place to manifest the severance of that connection.
This mourning is so intense, that the Kinnot, which encompass the description
of Jerusalem as well as relaying the sadness and the feeling of loss that we sense, also have an added dimension—they unleash the unsheltered question of how God could have let this happen—“Eichah” (how?). We cry out, how can it be that God allowed this to take place? How did He let His beautiful Temple be defiled?... Questions which, asking them, has one treading on thin theological ice. How do we dare challenge God with such a question?
Halacha states that man’s reaction to calamity should be in the form of 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 humbled, “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 up to God? The Rav answers that were it not for Jeremiah who uttered the lines first we would never have had the capability to say such words. Jeremiah acts as a matir (a halakhic allowance) for man to recite Kinnot. According to the Rav, the mourning on this day is so intense and so all-encompassing, that we are able to take the cue from Jeremiah and recite Kinnot, uttering words that should not be said.
Tish’a Be’av, then, a day of mourning, focuses on the hesped of the Beit Hamikdash, the hesped of Jerusalem. There is one more focal point to this mourning which we shall explain shortly. First, let’s analyze the exceptions to the ta’anit tzibur.
Exception to active supplication on this public fast day
There are a few things glaringly missing in our tefilot on Tish’a 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 “uva letzion”? Additionally, our formulaic
kaddish is incomplete—we skip the line which asks God to accept the prayers and supplication of the Jewish nation. Finally, the Rav says, we are missing a crucial component of fast days—Neilah (which is not exclusive to Yom Kippur).
The common denominator of all of these factors is that they, in some way, ask from 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 His promise He made to our forefathers, so that when He hears our prayers He will have mercy on us and forgive us from sin. All this is fine and well on a regular fast day; Tish’a Be’av, as we stated, is different. It is not just a ta’anit tzibur, it is a ta’anit tzibur of aveilut. Sadly enough, today God does NOT accept our prayers.
We read in Eichah 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) (3:9)... “You have slaughtered, you have not had pity”. In Jeremiah itself, the most poignant testimony to this idea is found : God says to Jeremiah, the messenger of Israel, “ do not pray on behalf of this nation and do not raise up to me song or prayer for them and do not reach me for I will not listen to you”.
Why does God choose not to listen to our prayers on this day? Perhaps it is to tell us that though this day is a public fast day, it is Not a day of teshuva. It is not a day when we can expect God to listen to your quests 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 Hamikdash and the loss of the shechina 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 iniquity of the nation. This same nation thought that they were doing okay (or at least better than the previous generation when Menashe was king). It is sin which brought the first (and second) holocausts and it is sin (and the lack of total teshuva) which has prevented from this Tish’a Be’av from becoming, in the words of the prophet Zecharyah, “a day of happiness, joy, and good times”.
Chazal’s declaration that every Tish’a Be'av that continues to be a day of mourning is equivalent to us destroying it ourselves, is quite poignant as 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 worth accepting in God’s eyes. This, then, is the true aveilut on this day.
This is the driving force behind the focus of the day centering on kinnot. 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 doing 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.
When can we recite “vayechal”? When do we ask for mercy from God? Only after midday (and some say after all kinnot are recited). Why can we suddenly recite “Nachem” at Mincha? Because at this late hour in the day, the ta’anit tzibur element of the day comes to the fore, and the aveilut aspect submerges into the background. Why does this happen at all on Tish’a Be’av, in light of what we have said? Perhaps to say that while we have no chance of affecting this Tish’a 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 Chatzot, when all of the mourning has drained our souls, the component of teshuva as an ideal, takes center stage, in hope that this past Tish’a Be’av will be our last.