Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Halacha Talk – Aveilus Practices on Tisha B'av

Unfortunately, yet another year has passed and we still have not merited our redemption and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh. We are therefore obligated to observe another Tisha B'Av with all the various customs of aveilus. In order to help set the tone and put us in the correct frame of mind, let us examine the halachic literature on how the earlier generations observed the customs of mourning during these days. Although some of the practices that we will learn about have fallen into disuse, it is still apropos to discuss them, as perhaps by doing so we will be awakened to properly mourn our great loss.

The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 5:9) writes: “This was the practice of pious individuals in the earlier generations: On Erev Tisha B’Av, they would bring dry bread with salt to each person on his own, which he would soak in water. He would eat it while sitting between the stove and the oven, and drink a small measure of water. [This was done with the feeling of] worry and desolation while crying as if his dead were lying before him. It is fitting for the wise to do this or something similar.”


It is reported that a talmid observed the practices of the Chasam Sofer during the seudah mafsekes by peeping through the keyhole. The Chasam Sofer took a cup, and filled it with his tears as he cried over the churban. He then dipped his bread into the tears and ate it, thereby fulfilling the posuk, “You fed them bread of tears; You made them drink tears in great measure” (Tehillim 80:6).




In sefer Shaar Hamelech (Shaar IV, chapter #9), a work of ethics and collection of proper conduct, we find the following:


“Therefore, every year on Erev Tisha B’Av everyone must arouse much lamentation and a great eulogy, for every year in which the Beis Hamikdosh has not been rebuilt and the Divine Presence has not been raised from the dust of the exile, it is as if the Beis Hamikdosh has been destroyed and the Jewish people have been exiled this year. Thus, we must do teshuvah specifically on these two days, the eighth and ninth of Av, for these two days are the most horrible of the entire year. When we do teshuvah with much crying on these days, they will change from mourning to a yom tov. Because of our many sins, since we are not awakened on these two days, and we cause a great crying and lament among all the hosts of the heavens as it was in the days of the churban, therefore the exile of the Divine Presence is lengthened and the troubles increase. Great is the reward of one who organizes a eulogy on Erev Tisha B’Av and gathers men, women and children and awakens them with captivating words.”




One of the Minhogim that was practiced in numerous communities was to count on Tisha B’Av publicly the number of years that had passed since the churban and the sending of the Jews into golus. This custom is mentioned in Yosef Ometz (#875) who writes as follows: “The custom is to say with a broken heart to one’s family members at the end of the seudah mafsekes: ‘Because of our sins, it is now so-many years since the destruction of our Beis Hamikdosh.’ And it seems to me that the great sage of our city, our master Rabbi Akiva, the great darshan who would speak every Shabbos of the year, would count the years since the churban in all of his droshos on Shabbos Chazon.”


We also find this custom mentioned in sefer Kaftor Vaferech (chapter #51), a work composed by Rabbeinu Ishtori Haparchi, a Rishon of the fourteenth century: “We are accustomed in the Land of Canaan to publicly mention our calculation every Tisha B’Av eve [in order to increase] distress and the number is from the year of the destruction.”


Additionally, we find in numerous places in the droshos of the Chasam Sofer that he gave over the years on Tisha B’Av where he mentions the number of years that had passed since the churban.




In the Minhogim of the community of Worms (Vermeisa) we find (volume II, #119): “On Erev Rosh Chodesh Av, the shammes would cover the sefer Torah with a black mantel. Additionally, the paroches and all the coverings were black and they would be left even on Shabbos. [This was true] even if Tisha B’Av was on Shabbos and delayed [until Sunday], and then there were two Shabbosos between Rosh Chodesh and the fast, nevertheless, the black [coverings] would be left for both Shabbosos.”


In a comment to this entry, the author notes that the custom of using the black coverings during the Nine Days was unique to Worms, for in other communities the custom was to do so only on Tisha B’Av. It should be noted that nowadays, the prevalent custom, based on the Rama (559:2), is to remove the paroches from the aron kodesh on Tisha B’Av.


We find in a letter written by Rav Yehosef Schwartz, the author of Tevu’os Ha’aretz, from 5597 (1837) in which he provides us with a fascinating description of some of the Minhogim of Yerushalayim in that era: “On Tisha B’Av, they (the Sefardim) wrap all the sifrei Torah in the aron and all the holy utensils with black cloth. When they remove the sefer Torah from the aron for reading — and this they do here after reciting kinnos — the chazzan places ashes on his head, followed by all the congregants who do likewise. Afterwards, the chazzan reads a very moving kinnah in the vernacular [Ladino or Arabic]. The impression that this reading in the spoken language makes on the women and children is indescribable. Weeps and sobs penetrate the air of the beis knesses, and all of the congregants shed copious tears. After the tefilah, many go to the Western Wall and recite kinnos there.”




We find mention in the works of several poskim concerning a very unusual Tisha B’Av “custom,” and the only reason why they discuss it at all is to discourage following the practice. Apparently, in some communities there had been a practice where young men would gather berries from the trees and throw them at each other and at the other congregants on Tisha B’Av during pesukei dezimra and kinnos.


Sefer Yosef Ometz (#886) writes as follows: “Therefore, it is fitting to remove this evil custom from amongst us, [where] young lads and servants throw and they hit each other, causing mirth on Tisha B’Av in our beis knesses during the kinnos as if it is Yom Tov. It is incumbent upon the sages and leaders of the generation to pay heed to this, to erect a fence, to fine and punish the evildoers” (see also Elyah Rabbah 55:17).


However, Rav Yisroel Veltz (Shu”t Divrei Yisroel, volume I, #155), the rov of Budapest, finds justification for this custom. He prefaces his words by saying that it is important to find basis for minhogei Yisroel “because all Jewish customs are Torah and even a poor minhag flows from a pure source. Even a custom that has a tradition among the old Jewish women should not be contradicted.” [It is important to note that Rav Veltz points out that this sentence is paraphrased from Shu”t HaRashba, volume I #9.] “One should not raise his hand against minhogei Yisroel, for those that are thought to be foolish customs are [in actuality] hewn wells from a source of living waters.” [This last sentence, cited from Shu”t Chasam Sofer, volume I, #51, is in actuality a play on words in the original Hebrew, where the author contrasts the word boros, which has the double meaning of foolishness or water holes, with the word be’eiros, wells.] “Therefore, it is incumbent on us to justify even this poor minhag.”


Rav Veltz goes on to explain that according to the seforim hakedoshim, one must always serve Hashem with simcha. Even when one is bemoaning the fact that Hashem’s Presence is in exile, he must feel simcha in the fact that he is cognizant of Hashem’s pain. Therefore, out of concern that one’s mourning over the churban of the Beis Hamikdosh would lead people to become despondent and depressed and they would no longer have a minimal amount of simcha, it became the practice to throw berries and the like during kinnos, so as to lighten the mood.




Rav Chaim Benveniste, the rov of Izmir, Turkey during the second half of the seventeenth century notes in his halachic work, Sheyurei Knesses Hagedolah (#551, Hagahos Beis Yosef #21) that an incident took place in his day where someone had the audacity to smoke on Tisha B’Av afternoon, and the rov placed the perpetrator in cheirem. Apparently, Rav Benveniste’s actions made a tremendous impression on the coming generations of poskim, as numerous Acharonim subsequently cited the incident and likewise ruled stringently (see Pele Yoeitz, Tisha B’Av; Rav Yaakov Emden, in Siddur Bais Yaakov, who also cites his father, the Chacham Tzvi).


On the other hand, numerous Acharonim disagreed with Rav Benveniste’s position that smoking is forbidden on Tisha B’Av. Rav Moshe Rapp of Frankfurt am Main held that there is no basis to excommunicate someone for such an insignificant act. He suggests that perhaps in Rav Benveniste’s community the custom was to remain in shul the entire day and someone who breaks with that tradition is deserving of being placed in cheirem. However, he maintains that needlessly placing stringencies on the tzibbur causes them to be lenient with matters of actual halachah.


Another authority (Shu”t Zecher Yehosef #198) suggests that Rav Beneviste decided to be strict in regards to smoking on Tisha B’Av in order to impress on the members of his community the severity of the day. It was well-known that Shabtzei Tzvi, in his delusion, believed that the time of the geulah had already arrived, and it was no longer necessary to observe the fasts of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, which commemorate the churban Beis Hamikdosh. Many of his followers followed suit, and the observance of these two days was tremendously weakened. In order to reverse the tide, Rav Beneviste specifically targeted those who were lenient on Tisha B’Av. However, the Zecher Yehosef contends that according to the halachah there is nothing wrong with smoking on Tisha B’Av. This is also the view of the Butchacher Rav (Eishel Avrohom #567).




Another group of poskim who argued the pros and cons of smoking on Tisha B’Av focused their disagreement on a seemingly unrelated topic: the reason why Torah study is prohibited on Tisha B’Av. As is well known, one is only allowed to learn Torah topics on Tisha B’Av that deal with mourning, Eichah, the churban and the like. The question is why is this so. Some poskim maintain that one is not allowed to learn Torah on Tisha B’Av as it diverts one’s mind from the mourning. Based on this, these poskim argue that smoking should be forbidden as well, since doing so causes one to lose his focus on the mourning (Shu”t Darchei Noam, Orach Chaim #9).


Other authorities contend that the reason for the prohibition against Torah learning is because Torah gladdens the heart, as it says, “The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart” (Tehillim 19:9). Therefore, since we do not find a prohibition against diverting one’s mind from the mourning, smoking is permitted (Shu”t Har Hacarmel #19).


It is interesting to note that although, as we cited earlier, Rav Yaakov Emden agrees with Rav Beneviste that one should not smoke on Tisha B’Av, this is only true where one smokes for pleasure. Rav Emden writes, however, that if refraining from smoking causes one discomfort or if he needs to smoke in order to relax, it is permissible in a private place where he will not be seen. He bases this on the concept that although washing and anointing are forbidden on Tisha B’Av, if one does either of these two activities not for pleasure, but rather for some positive need, they are permissible. Rav Emden contends that smoking is certainly not more stringent than washing or anointing. The Mishnah Berurah (555:8) also rules leniently for someone who needs to smoke, provided that he does so privately and after midday on Tisha B’Av.




The Gemara (Taanis 16a) states that when beis din would declare a fast day due to lack of rain, the Jews would go to the cemetery. The Gemara explains that this was for two reasons:


1) Doing so is a physical expression of the idea that as far as Hashem is concerned “we are like the dead.” In other words, this was meant to move the people to teshuvah, as they should feel that if the situation does not change, they would all die.


2) Going to the cemetery was meant to encourage the neshomos of those buried there to daven on the behalf of people.


The Gemara goes on to explain the necessity of there being two reasons for visiting the cemetery. If there is a Jewish cemetery, then one should go, as both reasons apply. However, if there is only a non-Jewish cemetery available, although the second reason does not apply, as the neshomos of non-Jews do not have the capacity to daven on behalf of the Jewish people, one should go nonetheless, as the first reason applies.


Tosafos (s.v. yotzin) notes that this Gemara is the basis for the custom of going to the cemetery on Tisha B’Av. Although the Gemara is dealing with a fast instituted for the lack of rain, since both it and Tisha B’Av are considered public fast days, the concept of going to the cemetery applies to Tisha B’Av as well.


This Tosafos is cited by the Rama (559:10), who writes: “We go to the cemetery immediately after leaving the beis haknesses.” The Mishnah Berurah (559:41), after quoting the two reasons given by the Gemara, goes on to say that although the Rama wrote “al hakevoros” — that the custom is to go “on the graves,” this should not be taken literally and one should always remain a distance of four amos away from the graves. He explains that this is so the negative spiritual forces should not attach themselves to the visitors.


The Mishnah Berurah goes on to cite the Shaloh: “It is proper that one should not go with a large group, as this would be considered as a tiyul, a pleasure outing. Additionally, this would cause idle chatter and they would divert their minds from the mourning. Rather, one should either go by himself, or with one other person so that they should not cease to speak about the churban and to arouse themselves to mourning. It also seems that if going to the cemetery will necessitate the wearing of [leather] shoes, it is preferable not to go at all.”




From chatzos, halachic midday, on Tisha B’Av, certain elements of the mourning are decreased. For example, we are permitted to sit on chairs, the paroches is returned to the aron hakodesh, we don tefillin at mincha and we recite the tefilah of nacheim during the shemoneh esri of mincha. What is the basis for reducing the level of aveilus during the afternoon of Tisha B’Av?


The Gemara (Taanis 29a) relates that the enemy entered the Beis Hamikdosh on the seventh of Av and on the ninth towards evening they lit it on fire and it burned the entire night and day of the tenth. The Gemara explains that although it would have seemed more logical to fix the fast day commemorating the churban on the tenth, as that is the day when most of the Beis Hamikdosh was destroyed, the Gemara concludes, “aschalta depuranusa adifa” — “the beginning of the punishment takes priority.” Since the beginning of the destruction took place on the ninth, that is the day which is commemorated.


However, the question is since the actual destruction began on the afternoon of the ninth, it seems illogical that specifically then we lessen the intensity of the aveilus. From Shivah Asar B’Tammuz until chatzos of Tisha B’Av, there is a constant, gradual increase in the severity of the mourning. Why is it decreased at chatzos? If anything, the greatest level of aveilus should be during the afternoon of Tisha B’Av.


In order to answer this, we must examine a Midrash Eichah (4:14; see also Rashi, Kiddushin 31b, s.v. istei’ya). The posuk states: “A mizmor of Asaph: O G-d! The nations have entered Your inheritance, they have defiled the Sanctuary of Your holiness, they have turned Jerusalem into heaps of rubble” (Tehillim 79:1). Focusing on the fact that “mizmor” usually refers to a song, the Midrash contends that the word “kinnah,” “lament,” would be more appropriate here. Rather, the Midrash explains that in actuality there is a positive side to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh. This is the idea that Hashem, rather than utterly destroying the Jewish Nation, He instead vented His anger on the Beis Hamikdosh, thereby saving His people from annihilation.


Being that this salvation of Klal Yisroel took place on Tisha B’Av afternoon — when the burning of the Beis Hamikdosh began, the waning hours of the saddest day of the year are indeed a time of consolation (Shaar Hakavonos, Inyan Bein Hametzarim, s.v. inyan Tisha B’Av).


Let us hope that we will soon merit to see the rebuilding of the third Beis Hamikdosh!




Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated