The customs we observe on the day of Tisha B’Av are strikingly similar to those of an avel (mourner), one whose close relative has recently passed away. We abstain from washing ourselves and putting on perfume, from wearing leather shoes and talking frivolously. We even refrain from studying parts of the Torah that are unrelated to the events and the mood of the day. Instead we sit on the floor or a low chair and solemnly contemplate the loss of the Beit HaMikdash.
On Tisha B’Av the sense of mourning and sadness is palpable. But, in truth, the observances of mourning begin long before Tisha B’Av itself. Already from the Seventeenth of Tammuz, at the start of the “Three Weeks” period, Ashkenazic communities minimize involvement in pleasurable activities like getting married, taking haircuts and buying new clothing. From the beginning of the month of Av through Tisha B’Av, a period commonly referred to as the “Nine Days,” we refrain as well from doing laundry, wearing freshly laundered clothing and shaving.
Tisha B’Av is certainly the most restrictive of the entire period of the “Three Weeks,” but the observances of aveilut (mourning) are not limited to that day alone.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l (1903-1993), known to his many talmidim as the Rav, used to say that these three periods of time mirror the three periods of mourning that a child observes after losing a parent. Tisha B’Av is like the seven-day period of shiva when the sense of mourning is most intense. The “Nine Days” beginning with Rosh Chodesh Av is similar to the period of shloshim (30 days of mourning), and from the Seventeenth of Tammuz until the month of Av we observe laws of mourning similar to the twelve-month period of aveilut that a child observes after losing a parent.
What’s interesting is that the order of observances is reversed. The child who loses a parent observes shiva first, then shloshim and then the twelve-month period of aveilut, while during the “Three Weeks” we first observe the aveilut of the twelve-month period, then shloshim, and only on Tisha B’Av do we keep to the restrictions of shiva. Why is the order changed when we mourn the loss of the Beit HaMikdash?
The Rav explained that there is a fundamental difference between aveilut chadasha (newly occurring, personal mourning), as the rabbis refer to it (Yevamot 43b), and aveilut yeshana (ancient, annual mourning for the Beit HaMikdash).
When a close relative passes away, the grief, the pain, the sense of loss come naturally and easily. It is therefore most appropriate to begin the observances of aveilut with shiva, the most intense expression of mourning. But after seven days, the avel is ready to take a step back. Although his loss is still very much on his mind, nevertheless his emotions have tempered; his feelings of sorrow have lessened. For him, the observances of shloshim are more fitting.
By the end of thirty days, the avel has gained perspective on his loss. For most relatives, he is now able to conclude the observances of aveilut. Even for a parent, while he continues to mourn, he still reduces his aveilut once again.
In the case of aveilut yeshana, on the other hand, this progression is out of place. We have become so used to living in a world without the Beit HaMikdash that it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to begin the “Three Weeks” with the observances of shiva. It simply would be unnatural for a person to suddenly break down and cry over the loss of the Beit HaMikdash; the sense of mourning for its destruction can be internalized only through gradual increments.
In other words, it is only by slowly increasing our observances of aveilut from the Seventeenth of Tammuz through the “Nine Days,” while at the same time reflecting on the significance of this three-week period, that we can hope to approach Tisha B’Av with the right frame of mind. By engaging in this three-week learning experience, we prepare ourselves mentally so that when the day of Tisha B’Av finally arrives we are ready to grieve appropriately.
Differences in Mourning
The Rav added that in certain ways aveilut yeshana for the Beit HaMikdash is even more stringent than aveilut chadasha. Although the Talmud (Moed Katan 27b) mentions that the first three days of shiva are days of crying, there is no obligation for an avel to cry. The Talmud simply says that during the first three days of shiva it is natural for an avel to want to cry. But on Tisha B’Av, crying is one of the motifs of the day. As the prophet Jeremiah (9:16-17) says in the Haftarah we read the morning of Tisha B’Av, “Summon the dirge singerslet them hurry and raise up a lament for us; let our eyes run with tears and our eyelids flow with water.”
Mourning for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash requires an expression of raw emotion. It obligates us to show how overcome we are with our longing for the Beit HaMikdash. That is why we spend much of the morning of Tisha B’Av reciting kinot (lamentations) which bemoan the loss of the Beit HaMikdash and describe the pain and suffering the Jewish people has endured as a result. The kinot are designed to awaken our emotions until we cry out uncontrollably because only by crying can we properly mourn the loss of the Beit HaMikdash.
There is another important difference between the observances of aveilut yeshana and those of aveilut chadasha. The rabbis never placed any limitation on how much a person is allowed to mourn for the Beit HaMikdash. To the contrary, one who mourns the loss of the Beit HaMikdash incessantly is praised. In fact, the very last kina we recite on Tisha B’Av is Eli Tzion V’areha, in which we ask Jerusalem and its surrounding cities to continue to cry for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:6) records that some amoraim (sages of the Talmud) fasted on both the ninth and the tenth days of Av because the Beit HaMikdash was set on fire on the ninth day of Av but it continued to burn on the tenth. How was it permissible for these rabbis to add an extra fast day? Aren’t we prohibited from adding to any mitzvot? The Ramban (Torat Ha’adam, Chavel ed., p. 242) answers that mourning for the Beit HaMikdash is different. Not only is one allowed to add to the mourning, but such behavior is praiseworthy. An avel who cries or mourns too much for his relative is criticized. As the Talmud says (Moed Katan 27b), “Anyone who grieves excessively over his dead will ultimately weep over another deceased.” But one who weeps bitterly for the Beit HaMikdash is rewarded.
What is the difference between these two types of aveilut? The Rav explained that an avel is enjoined from crying too much for his relative because, as the Rambam writes (Hilchot Avel 13:11), death is minhago shel olam; it is part of the natural course of events in this world. But the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was an unnatural event. The Beit HaMikdash was much more than a physical edifice. It symbolized the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. It was the focal point of spirituality in the world.
When we mourn the loss of the Beit HaMikdash, we are not crying for the wood and the stones. We mourn the fact that we no longer see Hashem’s presence as clearly in the world and that our relationship with Him is strained. We long for the day when the Jewish people will reunite with Hashem and feel his closeness once again. In other words, we hope for the day when the world will return to its natural spiritual state. That is why we are obligated to cry on Tisha B’Av and there is no limit to our mourning because the loss of the Beit HaMikdash is a reality we can never come to terms with.
The Tefilla of Tisha B’Av
There is another remarkable thing about Tisha B’Av that highlights the unique sense of mourning we feel on this day. Aside from being a day of mourning, Tisha B’Av is also a ta’anit tzibbur, a communal fast day. It is similar to the fasts that were decreed in Eretz Yisrael in the event of a prolonged drought (Ta’anit 12a). The fast begins at sunset, as opposed to the more minor fasts, like those of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Tenth of Tevet, which begin at sunrise. On Tisha B’Av, in addition to the prohibitions of eating and drinking, we refrain as well from washing and anointing ourselves, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations.
On the surface, the laws of Tisha B’Av seem to follow those of Yom Kippur and other communal fasts. And yet, while Tisha B’Av does share the restrictions of these other fasts, the focus of the day is significantly different. On a typical ta’anit tzibbur, we place much of our attention on tefilla. We beseech the Ribbono Shel Olam to have mercy and compassion on the Jewish community. But on Tisha B’Av, many critical components of the tefilla of a ta’anit tzibbur are missing. We do not recite Selichot or Avinu Malkeinu. There is no tefilla of Neila, like we have at the end of Yom Kippur. We even omit the Tachanun prayer and the section of Titkabeil Tzlot’hon U’vaut’hon (accept our prayers and supplications) during the Kaddish at the end of Ma’ariv and Shacharit.
If Tisha B’Av is a ta’anit tzibbur, why then do we not engage in prayer the way we do on other fasts? The Rav was fond of quoting the approach of the Mordechai (Ta’anit, sec. 635) that we leave out Selichot, Tachanun and Titkabeil in order to show that with the loss of the Beit HaMikdash, our tefilla is less effective. As the Talmud (Brachot 32b) states, “From the day the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been sealed, like the posuk says (Eicha 3:8) ‘Even as I cry out and plead, He shut out my prayer – satam tefillati.‘ “
On a regular ta’anit tzibbur we add extra prayers, like Selichot and Neila, to our tefilla. We try to break through the barriers between the Ribbono Shel Olam and ourselves. But on Tisha B’Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash – the event that undermined the power of our tefilla – we leave out any extra supplications we would have liked to add in order to demonstrate that we realize that without the Beit HaMikdash the strength of our prayers has been weakened – satam tefillati. We omit Titkabeil from Kaddish as an expression of sadness, as if to say we understand that since we have become estranged from Hashem, it is more difficult for our prayers to be accepted.
Comfort on a Day of Grief
After spending the morning of Tisha B’Av reciting kinot, we get up from the floor, put on our tefillin and recite the bracha of Nachem, asking Hashem to console Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Where is there room for consolation on such a dark day?
The Rav explained with a Midrash (see Tosafot, Kiddushin 31b). The posuk in Tehillim (79:1) says, “A song of Assaf: Hashem! The nations have entered into Your estate; they have defiled the Sanctuary of Your holiness.” The Midrash asks, “A song of Assaf? It should have been titled kina l’Assaf, a dirge of Assaf!” The Midrash answers that Assaf sang with happiness and joy that Hashem vented his anger, so to speak, on the wood and stones of the Beit HaMikdash, and not on the Jewish people.
This is our source of comfort on the sad day of Tisha B’Av: that while Hashem lashed out in fury against the Beit HaMikdash and Jerusalem, He spared the Jewish people.
Paradoxically, it is precisely at the time of the Mincha prayer, when the Beit HaMikdash started to burn (Ta’anit 29a), that we feel consoled because that act of destruction was really a demonstration of love. It showed that Hashem wants the Jewish people to survive; He wants them to flourish and ultimately to reunite with Him.
If Hashem punishes us only out of love, like a father disciplines his child, then there is hope for the future. We can look forward to the day of reconciliation when Hashem will return to us and reveal His glory to the entire world.