What Mourning Means: Reflections of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l on the 3 Weeks and Tisha B’Av

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The left hand of a Jewish adult (early 30's) Caucasian man wrapped with Phylacteries, resting on the holy Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall) in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel.

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 Torah which 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, the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

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 Tamuz, at the start of the “Three Weeks” period, Ashkenazic communities minimize their 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 and from wearing freshly laundered clothing. Many men refrain from shaving. Tisha B’Av itself is certainly the most restrictive of the entire Three Weeks period, 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 when 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 are 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, though, 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?

Differences in Mourning

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 (an older mourning), 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 unfair to expect anyone to begin the “Three Weeks” with the observances of shiva. It simply would be unnatural for anyone to suddenly break down and cry over the loss of the Beit HaMikdash. The sense of mourning for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash can be internalized only through gradual increments. Only by slowly increasing our observances of aveilut from the Seventeenth of Tamuz through the Nine Days, while at the same time reflecting on the significance of this Three-Week period, can we hope to approach the day of 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.

Crying on Tisha B’Av

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 a mourner to cry. The Talmud simply says that during the first three days of shiva it is natural for a mourner 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 (a short selection from the Prophets read every Shabbat) we read the morning of Tisha B’Av, “Call the dirge women…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 (dirges, elegies) 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.

How Much Should One Mourn

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 her 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 (commandments)?

The Ramban (Torat Ha’Adam, 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?

An Unnatural Event

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 structure. 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 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.

Consolation on Tisha B’Av

And yet, after chatzot (midday) on Tisha B’Av, we get up from the floor, put on our tefillin and recite the bracha of Nachem, asking Hashem to console Jerusalem and us. Where is there room for consolation on such a dark day? The Rav explained that our comfort lies in the fact that Hashem took out his wrath on the Beit HaMikdash and not on the Jewish people (see Tosafot, Kiddushin 31a). Paradoxically, it is precisely at the time of the mincha prayer, when the Beit HaMikdash started to burn (Ta’anit 29a), that we feel comforted 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.

This article originally appeared on OU Torah.

Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg is a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, and the editor of two volumes of the Shiurei HaRav series, an annotated collection of Rav Soloveitchik’s lectures published by the Mesorah Commission of the Orthodox Union. One of his volumes deals with mourning and Tisha B’Av.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.