Question: Why do we say Tachanun on some days and not on others? What are the rules? When do we not say it?
In his encyclopedic work, Otzar Erchei HaYahadut, Rabbi Yosef Grossman, zt”l, notes, “In earlier times Tachanun was an individual private prayer that was recited by silently after the congregation said the Amida; a person would sequester himself with his Creator and pour out his heart seeking salvation and Heavenly mercy. However, as generations passed, Tachanun became an integral part of congregational prayer with a set text.”
He explains that poskim refer to Tachanun as Nefilat Appayim because “when reciting it, one places one’s head upon one’s arm. At Shacharit when one dons tefillin, one rests upon the right arm as a sign of respect to the tefillin. However at Mincha, when one does not don tefillin, one rests upon the left arm.
He continues: “In times of old, one would completely prostrate oneself before Hashem as we find in Deuteronomy 9:18: ‘va’etnapel lifnei Hashem – and I [Moshe] prostrated myself before Hashem.’ We also find a similar verse (II Samuel 24:14) quoting King David: ‘Vayomer Dovid el Gad: Tzar li me’od, niplah na b’yad Hashem ki rabim rachamav, u’vyad adam al epolah – And David said to Gad: I am greatly distressed; let us fall into the hand of Hashem for He is abundantly merciful, but let me not fall into the hand of man.’” Euphemistically, the falling King David refers to is Nefilat Appayim, a full prostration [on one’s hands and feet] before Hashem.
“On Mondays and Thursdays,” Rabbi Grossman writes, “the prayer ‘V’Hu Rachum,’ known as the ‘long V’Hu Rachum’ – as opposed to the short ‘V’Hu Rachum’ that prefaces Maariv – is added with additional supplications. One only ‘falls’ where a Sefer Torah is present. A support for this rule is found in the following verse about Joshua (Joshua 7:6): ‘Vayipol al panav artza lifnei Aron Hashem – And he prostrated himself before the Ark of Hashem …’ If there is no Sefer Torah, Tachanun is recited without falling.”
He notes as well: “Nefilat Appayim – falling upon one’s face – is a remembrance of the Holy Temple where they would prostrate themselves when they recited the confessional. Each would cover his head with his hand so as not hear the other’s confession. According to the Gemara (Megilla 22b), this same procedure was followed even later in Babylonia in the times of the Amoraim.” Rabbi Grossman adds that this “same procedure was followed even in the times of the Rambam.”
Rabbi Grossman lists the days on which Tachanun is omitted. “It is not said on Shabbat and the Festivals, Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, the 15th of Av, the 15th of Shevat, Purim Katan, Purim, Shushan Purim, Lag B’Omer, Tisha B’Av, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the entire month of Nissan, from the eve of Yom Kippur until Isru Chag of Sukkot [currently it is customary to not say it the entire month of Tishrei], and from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until Isru Chag of Shavuot.”
We don’t say Tachanun on any of these days because they are joyous days when we are not supposed to display distress, and Tachanun is a prayer that evokes distress.
But what about Tisha B’Av? Isn’t that day the saddest and most tragic on the Jewish calendar – the day on which both the first and second Temples were destroyed? Nevertheless, we don’t say Tachnaun on this day because of Lamentations 1:15, which states, “Koroh olay moed – Refer to me as moed – [a festival].” We actually find similar verses elsewhere in Eicha as well. Each one is understood to be referring to the time of the final redemption when Tisha B’Av will be transformed “mi’yagon l’simcha – from a day of lament to one of joy.”
(To be continued)