The Secret of Jewish Regeneration

  • Rav Yair Kahn
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur

"Hitna'ari Me-afar Kumi" - The Secret of Jewish Regeneration

by Rav Yair Kahn

A. What is Tu Be-av?

The final mishna of Massekhet Ta'anit (26b) concludes with a famous discussion concerning Tu Be-av and Yom Kippur: "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, 'There were no better days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out ... and dance in the vineyards." The gemara (30b) elaborates: "The reason for Yom Kippur is clear, since on this day we achieve forgiveness and atonement; it was the day on which the second set of tablets were given. But what about Tu Be-av..."

Further on in the sugya, six different possibilities are suggested as to the reason for rejoicing on Tu Be-av: 1) It was the day on which members of different tribes were first permitted to marry each other. 2) It was the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was permitted to rejoin and marry into the nation. 3) This day marked the end of the deaths of the generation which wandered in the desert. 4) On this day Hoshea ben Elah removed the road-blocks which Yerav'am ben Nevat had placed on the roads to prevent the people from going to Jerusalem. 5) On this day the Romans allowed those who fell defending Betar to be buried. 6) This was the day when the cutting of wood for the mizbe'ach (altar) was completed.

These suggestions are varied and give rise to completely different understandings of the nature of Tu Be-av. Some focus on the theme of the unity of the nation, while others indicate the cancellation of evil decrees. The last suggestion, which is the only one which has its source in a beraita, involves environmental issues. We will attempt to find some common thread which joins these varied reasons and creates a unified and defined characteristic of Tu Be-av. In addition, we shall try to understand the connection between Yom Kippur and Tu Be-av. Let us begin by widening our perspective in order to understand the fundamentals of these questions within a broader context.

B. Tisha Be-av Differs from the Other Fasts

The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (18b), addressing the subject of the four fasts, turns its attention to Zekharia's prophecy: "'So says the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will be unto the house of Yehuda [days of] gladness and rejoicing...' (Zekharia 8:19) - they are called fasts, and they will be called gladness and rejoicing... At a time when there is peace, they will be days of gladness and rejoicing. At a time when there is an [evil] decree, they will be days of fasting. At a time when there is neither an evil decree nor peace, then if people wish, they may fast, and if they do not wish to, they need not." (The halakhic ruling is that even at a time when there is neither peace nor any decree, "all are obligated to fast on these four days, and no one may make himself an exception" - Orach Chaim 550:1.) The Gemara concludes that during a time when there is no peace but also no evil decree, even though the other fast days are voluntary, there remains an obligation to fast on Tisha Be-av: "Tisha Be-av is different, for on this day many sorrows befell us."

The Rishonim point out that on the 17th of Tammuz, as well, many sorrows befell us, as we learn from the Gemara (Ta'anit 26a), "Five calamities happened to our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and five took place on Tisha Be-av." What then makes Tisha Be-av unique?

Some of the Rishonim explain that Tisha Be-av is nevertheless in its own category because the same calamity, the destruction of the Temple, took place on this date twice (see Tosafot). But we cannot accept this explanation if we adopt the contention of the Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4:5) that in the case of the First Temple, the walls of the city were breached on the seventeenth of Tammuz (as was the case once again with the Second Temple). Also, if we follow the Rambam, who defines the Second Temple period as a time when there was neither peace nor any evil decree, and Tisha Be-av was nonetheless obligatory, then likewise we cannot accept this explanation - since while the Second Temple stood, the calamity had not yet repeated itself. (See Rambam's Commentary on the Mishna, Rosh Hashana.)

Other Rishonim explain that the special nature of Tisha Be-av is derived from the dimension of the tragedy of the destruction, rather than from the number or repetition of events which took place on that day (Tosafot). Clearly, a tragedy on the scale of the destruction of the Temple is far more serious than the breaching of the walls of the city.

In any event, I believe that what a fundamental distinction is drawn here between calamities and decrees.

C. Calamity vs. Decree

Apart from the mitzva to pray every day, there is a special commandment to pray in times of national calamity. According to the Rambam (beginning of Hilkhot Ta'aniyot), the verse "And if war should come upon your land, the enemy who troubles you, you shall blow on the trumpets" (Bemidbar 10:9) is not a commandment simply to blow the trumpets, but rather includes prayer and petition. Even the Ramban, who rules (in opposition to the Rambam) that daily prayer is only a rabbinic commandment, admits at least partially that there is a biblical commandment to pray in times of calamity. He declares, "And if perhaps they interpret prayer as a biblically-derived principle... then this is a mitzva for times of calamity..." (Ramban's glosses to Sefer Hamitzvot, positive mitzva no. 5).

The foundation for the obligation to cry out to God in times of calamity is the obligation of teshuva. And so the Rambam continues, "And this is part of teshuva..." There is a special obligation of teshuva in times of calamity, as it is written, "When you are in distress and all these things befall you... you shall return to the Lord your God" (Devarim 4:30; see also "Kol Dodi Dofek" by Rav Soloveitchik, note 3). The Rambam explains, "At a time when calamity strikes and they cry out and they blow on the trumpets, all will know that calamity has come upon them because of their evil deeds... and this is what will cause the calamity to be lifted from upon them. But if they do not cry out and do not blow [trumpets] but rather say, 'This has happened to us since this is the way of the world, and this calamity is coincidental,' this is the way of gross insensitivity, and will cause them to hold fast to their evil deeds, and other calamities will be added. This is what the Torah means when it says, 'And if you walk crookedly (in Hebrew: "keri," from the root of the word meaning "coincidence") with Me then I will likewise walk crookedly with you' - in other words, I shall bring calamity upon you in order that you return. If you maintain that your calamities are coincidental then I will increase those 'coincidental' calamities."

The biblical obligation of prayer and teshuva at a time of calamity is extended by our Sages to obligate fasting: "And the Rabbis instructed that there should be fasting for every calamity which comes upon the community, until Divine mercy is achieved" (Rambam, ibid.). And what stands at the center of these obligations is the Divine Providence which watches over Knesset Yisrael and entreats them, calling: "Shuvu banim shovavim - Return, O backsliding children!" Obviously, the very obligation to pray and fast at a time of calamity is based on the assumption that by means of sincere and genuine teshuva the calamity will be removed.

As opposed to "calamity" (tzara) an "evil decree" (gezera) cannot be removed. It expresses not Divine Providence but rather the distancing of the Divine Presence, and God "hiding His face," as it were. "Rabbi Elazar said: Since the day on which the Temple was destroyed, there is a wall of iron that stands between Israel and their Father in Heaven" (Berakhot 32b). The reaction to an evil decree is not prayer brather mourning and surrender tGod's inscrutable will. "And Rabbi Elazar said: Since the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer are locked" (ibid.).

The seventeenth of Tammuz, despite the five tragic events which took place on this day, is defined as a day of calamity. It is true that on this date the first set of tablets were shattered, but following prayer on the part of Moshe Rabbeinu and teshuva on the part of the nation, we merited to receive a second set of tablets. Likewise, on this date the walls of Jerusalem were indeed breached, the enemies stood ready to enter, and, therefore, it was a time of calamity for the Jewish nation. But it was only on Tisha Be-av that a tragic decree was issued: "On Tisha Be-av it was decreed upon our forefathers that they would not enter the land," and despite Moshe's entreaties, the attempts to mitigate the sharpness of the decree reached its tragic conclusion at Chorma (Bemidbar 14:45).

On the other fasts there is a special obligation of prayer and entreaties. The selichot and Torah portions read on these fasts focus on Moshe Rabbeinu's prayer following the sin of the golden calf - the declaration of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. On the other hand, on Tisha Be-av - the day established for weeping for all generations - we sit on the floor, read Eikha and recite lamentations, and the Torah reading and haftara on this day speak of the destruction. This distinction between Tisha Be-av and the other fasts was already formulated by Rabbenu David (Pesachim 54b): "On Tisha Be-av there is no 'Ne'ila' prayer, nor are twenty-four blessings recited, because [this day] is set aside not for prayer but rather for mourning." (The source for this is to be found in the Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 3:4.) Likewise, on Tisha Be-av the "titkabel" clause is not included in the recitation of Kaddish (OC 559:4; see the commentary of the Vilna Gaon), and the sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) does not recite "Aneinu" in his repetition of the Amida of Shacharit (Taz, OC 557:2; see commentary of Dagul Me-revava). Rav Soloveitchik, zt"l, explained that only on the other fasts does one fulfill the special obligation of prayer at a time of calamity, as explained above. But on Tisha Be-av, "Even though I cry out and call for help, He has blocked my prayer" (Eikha 3:8; see Berakhot 32b). Thus, even though Tisha Be-av has the status of a fast day, it is still entirely different in its nature and purpose from any other public fast.

In terms of the other prohibitions of the day, Tisha Be-av is again different from the other fasts. On one hand, there are prohibitions which are similar to those of Yom Kippur (see Pesachim 54b, "There is no difference between Tisha Be-av and Yom Kippur except..."). On the other hand, these prohibitions reflect the mourning of Tisha Be-av, rather than the positive obligations of prayer and teshuva. The gemara (Ta'anit 30a) states, "The Rabbis taught, all the laws pertaining to mourning apply on Tisha Be-av as well; a person is forbidden to eat and drink (these are not forbidden to a regular mourner; see Rashi and the Rif, as well as Rav Soloveitchik's essay in "Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari" regarding public fasts), to anoint his body, to wear leather shoes and to engage in sexual intercourse..." (Rav Soloveitchik deals at length with the similarity to mourning customs.)

In light of the above, let us return to the sugya in Rosh Hashana: "Tisha Be-av is different since on this day many sorrows befell us." According to the fundamental distinction which we have drawn between a calamity and a decree, we can explain that what we are referring to here is not a quantitative addition of calamities on Tisha Be-av over and above those of any other fast. We are dealing not with a calamity but rather with a decree. Therefore, we do not fast within the framework of the obligations of prayer and teshuva in order that the calamity will pass, but rather as part of our expression of sorrow and mourning over the bitter decree.

D. The Day on which the Deaths Ceased in the Desert

With regard to the prohibitions associated with mourning on Tisha Be-av, we find certain leniencies from mid-day onwards. The laws concerning prayer on this day, too, are different after midday. In the afternoon, "titkabel" is included in the Kaddish, and "Aneinu" is also included in the Shemoneh Esrei. In the afternoon, the regular Torah portion set for fast days is read - "Vayechal," including the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and the haftara we read is "Seek out God when He may be found" (Yishayahu 55). Let us turn our attention to this transition. How is it that we dare to pray "as usual" on Tisha Be-av? Is the theme of the day not an expression of "He has blocked my prayer"? How can we soften our mourning - since the decree has been issued and still stands? How can we progress beyond the complete and terrible despair of God's "hiding His face"?

It seems that these questions disturbed our forefathers in the desert. After the decree following the episode of the spies, they had no idea how it would be possible to continue. During the next thirty-eight years Bnei Yisrael wandered in the desert with a feeling of utter despair, with no hope and no future. Chazal describe their tragic and hopeless situation (Yerushalmi, end of Massekhet Ta'anit): "Rabbi Levi said: On every Tisha Be-av eve Moshe would issue a proclamation throughout the camp, saying, 'Go out to dig, go out to dig.' They would go out and dig themselves graves and sleep in them. In the morning they would awaken and find that 15,000 had died during the night. In the last year they did likewise, and they got up [in the morning] and found themselves complete [in number]. They said, 'Perhaps we erred in our calculations [of the date],' and so it was on the tenth and the eleventh, the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth. Seeing that they were still all alive, they said, 'It seems that God has canceled this harsh decree from upon us,' and they decreed a holiday." In this typically anecdotal manner, Chazal describe Bnei Yisrael in the desert as living under the shadow of the decree of the spies. The entire nation used to dig themselves graves and wait for their appointed time to die. Even in the fortieth year, after all those who had been included in the census of Moshe and Aharon had already perished, they again dug themselves graves (see Tosafot, Bava Batra 121a). And even after everyone got up the next morning, they lay again in their graves the next night. (Rav Soloveitchik taught that the position of the parasha of Para Aduma, which deals with the subject of impurity as a result of contact with the dead, hints at this spiritual-psychological state of the Children of Israel in the desert.)

It was only on the fifteenth of Av, when they saw the full moon (and it became clear that their calculation of the date had indeed been correct), that they realized that for Am Yisrael even decrees can pass. Despite the decree, there is a future; despite the tragedy there is hope. It would seem, therefore, that Tu Be-av symbolizes the power of regeneration which lies hidden in Knesset Yisrael. On Tu Be-av we discovered the ability to get up in the morning out of the grave dug by the decree, and to continue our historic journey. Indeed, there was a decree. And every night from the ninth of Av until the fifteenth of Av the nation continued to sleep in their graves. On Tu Be-av they discovered that the decree had only been temporary, and had now passed. On Tu Be-av they gathered strength to renew themselves and continue. (It should be noted that on Tisha Be-av itself the decree had already ended and no more were going to die. However, this became apparent to Knesset Yisrael only when they beheld the full moon on Tu Be-av.)

According to the Bavli, the significance of the "day upon which the deaths in the desert ceased" lay not in the discovery of the nullification of the decree, but rather in the fact that Moshe's prophetic powers returned. The sin of the spies brought in its wake a distancing of the Shekhina and a hiding of God's face. During the thirty-eightyears in the desert therewas no Divine communication with Moshe. On Tu Be-av God returned the situation to its original state, by means of a renewed expression of Divine Providence and covenant. On Tu Be-av, Knesset Yisrael understood that its power to rejuvenate itself was connected with the eternity of the covenant with God.

According to both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, the "day upon which the deaths in the desert ceased" signifies the end of the decree of Tisha Be-av. The same is true for those who hold that Tu Be-av is the day upon which those who died at Betar were permitted to be buried. Following the decree of the destruction of the Temple, and despite the fact that there was no possibility during the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt of nullifying the decree, nevertheless God's mercy to his Chosen People did not vanish; the bodies of the dead of Betar did not decompose, and they were eventually permitted to be buried. Even in the gloom of exile, the nation saw and understood that the Eternal God of Israel had not failed them.

Israel's power of rejuvenation facilitated the healing of deep rifts which divided the nation after bitter conflicts. Following the terrible war against the tribe of Binyamin at Giv'ah, it was specifically on Tu Be-av that the stormy spirits were calmed. It was specifically on Tu Be-av that Am Yisrael found the power to become unified once again, and the tribe of Binyamin was allowed once again to rejoin the community. It was specifically on Tu Be-av that Hoshea ben Elah canceled the divisive decree of Yerav'am ben Nevat, and on that date all of Am Yisrael was once again permitted to ascend to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The unifying aspect of all the events which took place on Tu Be-av is rejoicing over the eternity of Knesset Yisrael. This eternity is rooted in the covenant and finds particularly sharp expression following harsh decrees which threaten the future of Knesset Yisrael. Tu Be-av embodies the facility of renewal, the ability to return to normal life in those situations in which normal historic causality could easily have led to the exit of a nation from the historic arena. It was on Tu Be-av that the generation which merited to enter the land was permitted inter-tribal marriages and allowed to return to a normal life-style, signaling the growth and development of Knesset Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.

The very season in which Tu Be-av falls reflects the same idea. The summer is hot and dry, and the sun beats mercilessly on the ground. The rainy season, when God's Providence is felt with full force, is long gone; now one heat wave follows the next - "the harvest is dried out, the plants are withered" (Yeshayahu 40). There is no wind and no rain, no voice and no one to answer; the Shekhina is distant and God's face is hidden. Is there any hope? Will this decree ever pass? Suddenly Tu Be-av arrives, and there is moisture in the air. The fields will be green again. The sun's power is decreasing; the heat of summer has been broken. "Rabbi Eliezer the elder said: From the fifteenth of Av onwards the power of the sun is broken, and they would no longer cut down trees for the altar because they are no longer dry" (Ta'anit 30a).

The message of Tu Be-av is turning a decree into a (temporary) calamity; transforming mourning into prayer. The hiding of God's face is only what is apparent; it is not genuine. The eyes of God are always upon the land, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. After midday of Tisha Be-av, from the depths of terrible, tragic despair, sparks of hope begin to glitter. The decree is indeed awful, but it will pass, and the Eternal God of Israel will not desert us. Once again we permit ourselves to plead, "Aneinu - Answer us, O God, answer us!" and "Even before they call out, I shall answer." "Titkabel - accept the prayers and supplications of Your nation, the house of Israel." Once again we proclaim the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and the covenant that was made, which will never be revoked. Once again we can proclaim, "Seek out God when He may be found, call to Him when He is close by."

This idea is what connects Tu Be-av to Yom Kippur. The joy of Yom Kippur, as described in the Mishna, is not the rejoicing of accepting the Torah, but rather "a day of forgiveness and atonement; the day on which the second set of tablets were given." The calamity of the shattering of the first tablets on the seventeenth of Tammuz was overturned on Yom Kippur. Following Moshe's prayers and the repentance of the nation, the covenant was not dissolved and Am Yisrael received the second set of tablets. Similarly, Tu Be-av - the day on which the deaths in the desert ceased - signifies Knesset Yisrael's power of renewal, allowing continuation even after the decree of the spies.

From the perspective of Tu Be-av and Yom Kippur, we may take a broader and more authentic view of the nature of Knesset Yisrael and its destiny. It is possible to rise above the present reality, to catch a glimpse of the covenant which determines the destiny and eternity of the nation. On these festivals Am Yisrael acts accordingly: "There were no better days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out wearing white clothes ... and dance in the vineyards... 'Daughters of Tzion, go out and see King Solomon with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding and on the day of his rejoicing' (Shir Ha-shirim 3) - the 'day of his wedding' refers to the day on which the Torah was given, and the 'day of his rejoicing' refers to the building of the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days."

(Translated by Kaeren Fish.)

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