The Gemara relates two stories about Rabbi Eliezer and unsuccessful attempts to pray for rain. In the first, even after establishing thirteen fast days, still no rain fell. When the last fast was over and the people began to leave the synagogue, Rabbi Eliezer called out to them, “Have you prepared graves for yourselves?” – a statement that so shocked the people that they began to cry. Only then did the rain begin.
In the second story, Rabbi Eliezer led the congregation in the lengthy amidah prayer for fast days, but his prayers were not answered. At that point, his student, Rabbi Akiva, prayed for rain, and rain began to fall. When the rabbis present began to discuss why the student, Rabbi Akiva, was successful, while Rabbi Eliezer was not, a heavenly voice called out that it was not an issue of greatness; rather, Rabbi Akiva was more relaxed and forgiving, while Rabbi Eliezer was more exact and demanding. God responded to each of them according to his personality.
This can be understood based on the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (17a), which teaches that a person who is relaxed and forgiving is more easily forgiven by God, who responds to every person according to his own behavior and personality – midah ke-neged midah (measure for measure). The Talmud Yerushalmi tells the story differently. According to the Yerushalmi, when Rabbi Akiva was asked to explain his success, he offered a parable of a king who had two daughters – one who was unpleasant and inappropriate, the other who was agreeable and pleasing. It is the unpleasant daughter to whom the king responds more quickly, since he prefers to interact with her as little as possible. The agreeable daughter, however, is required to put in greater effort to receive what she wants, since he enjoys and looks forward to their interactions.
We have learned that the kohanim and levi’im were divided into 24 mishmarot – groups that served in the bet ha-Mikdash two weeks out of every year. The first Mishnah in the fourth perek of Masechet Ta’anit introduces us to the concept of ma’amadot – 24 groups of Israelites (i.e. Jews who are neither kohanim or levi’im) who were assigned to spend two weeks out of the year involved in prayer and study in community synagogues. It should be noted that, according to the Rambam, while all kohanim were obligated to serve in the bet ha-Mikdash as members of their mishmar, the ma’amadot were not for all community members, but only for the uniquely pious individuals who volunteered for this responsibility.
The Mishnah explains that the source for creating ma’amadot stems from the passage in Bamidbar (28:2) in which the Jewish people are commanded to bring a daily sacrifice – the korban tamid. The Mishnah argues that when any sacrifice is brought to the Temple, its owner stands at its side. Who stands by the side of communal sacrifices? The early prophets established the system of ma’amadot to serve that purpose.
The point is raised that the Mishnah takes for granted that every sacrifice needs its owner to accompany it. Although this is clearly true for korbanot that require semikhah (laying hand on the sacrificial animal), why is this essential for other sacrifices? The Iyun Ya’akov suggests that this idea is connected with the position of many commentaries, who explain the purpose of animal sacrifice as an attempt to engage the individual who brings the korban in some level of soul-searching. The process that the animal goes through in preparation for sacrifice – slaughter, having its skin removed, being disemboweled, etc. – should inspire the person to think “really, I deserve to have these actions done to me; it is God’s mercy that allows them to be carried out on this animal in my stead.” If this is true, we can easily understand why it is important to have the person bringing the korban present when it is being sacrificed.
Throughout the week, the individuals whose turn it was to represent the Jewish people in ma’amadot (see yesterday’s daf, or page) would involve themselves in fasts and prayer:
- On Monday, on behalf of those traveling the seas
- On Tuesday, on behalf of those traveling in the desert
- On Wednesday, on behalf of those suffering from contagious disease (askara or croup)
- On Thursday, on behalf of pregnant and nursing women.
Members of the ma’amadot did not fast on Friday, in order to honor Shabbat, and they certainly did not fast on Shabbat itself. Why didn’t they fast on Sundays? A number of explanations appear in the Gemara. Rabbi Shmu’el bar Nahmani says that Sunday is the third day after man was created (Adam was created on Friday, just before Shabbat began) and the third day is a day of weakness (see Bereshit 34:25). The explanation presented by Rabbi Yohanan is “because of the notzrim.”
Notzrim is ordinarily translated as Christians, and, in fact, most of the commentaries explain that the ma’amadot did not fast on Sundays due to the concern that the Christians would take offense at the fact that the Jews were fasting on the day of the week that was their day of celebration. The Maharsha suggests a different angle: that fasting – and not working – on the Christian day of rest would appear to support the new religion’s practices and beliefs. Nevertheless, the Maharsha, as well as other commentaries, point out that there are many historical problems with these explanations.
Another approach to Rabbi Yohanan’s statement is to read the word as notzarim – the ones who were created – rather than notzrim, in which case RabbiYohanan’s explanation is similar to the one offered by Rabbi Shmu’el bar Nahmani.
The Me’iri suggests that the term notzrim refers to Babylonians, based on the passage in Yirmiyahu (4:16) – “Notzrim are coming from a faraway land” – which is interpreted by the Radak to be referring to the army of the Babylonians. According to the Me’iri, the Babylonians had a day of celebration on Sundays, so the Sages did not want to establish anything special on that day.
What additions does your local synagogue make to the morning service on Rosh Hodesh? What do you do if you are not praying in a synagogue? Today it is common practice to recite what is referred to as “half-Hallel” immediately after the amidah prayer. “Half-Hallel” consists of the normal recitation of psalms of thanksgiving (Tehillim 113–118), but skipping the first half of mizmorim 115 and 116. Generally speaking, the Ashekenazi community recites a blessing before this prayer, while the Sefardi community does not (see Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 422:2). In Chabad synagogues the tradition usually is for the hazzan to recite the blessing, and congregants respond to that berakhah without saying it themselves (see the Siddur ha-Rav).
These varying traditions stem from the discussion of this topic in our Gemara and the lack of clarity in its conclusion.
The Gemara lists the days on which a full Hallel is said – eight days of Sukkot, eight days of Hanukkah, the first day of Pesach and on Shavu’ot (three days are added in Diaspora communities) – with no mention made of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. The Gemara relates that when Rav went to visit the Jewish community in Bavel he was surprised to hear them reciting Hallel on Rosh Hodesh and considered making them stop. When he saw, however, that they skipped parts of Hallel, he concluded that it was apparently a long-standing – and acceptable – tradition. The Gemara concludes by quoting a baraita which teaches that an individual should not begin saying Hallel, but if he begins then he should finish it.
Some understand that this story indicates that Hallel was not recited in Israel on Rosh Hodesh, perhaps because the closeness to the mikdash, where special sacrifices were brought to celebrate the day, was enough of an observance; in Bavel, on the other hand, they had a sense that there was a greater need to recognize and publicize the day.
The Ge’onim understood the concluding line of the Gemara as suggesting that individuals do not say Hallel at all on Rosh Hodesh. The Ri”f understands it to mean that an individual should not begin Hallel with a berakhah, but if he did so, he should conclude with the appropriate blessing, as well.
The Mishnah (26a-b) taught that five separate occurrences took place on the seventeenth of Tamuz and another five on the ninth day of Av for which we are in mourning to this day.
The events of Tisha be-Av are discussed on our daf. They include:
For the first two events, the Gemara brings sources from the Tanakh from which we learn that they occurred on Tisha be-Av. Dating the later events was based on a tradition of the Sages. Part of the tradition tells of how, at the time of the destruction of the second bet ha-Mikdash, the Nasi Rabban Gamliel survived the decree of the Roman procurator, Tineius Rufus, who decreed that he was to be put to death.
When the search for Rabban Gamliel was underway, a certain Roman officer entered the bet midrash and announced, “ba’al ha-hotem mitbakesh, ba’al ha-hotem mitbakesh!” (literally, “the one with the nose is being sought!”). Rabban Gamliel hid, and this officer tracked him down and asked whether he would merit the World-to-Come, were he to save him. When Rabban Gamliel assured him that he would, the officer threw himself off the roof of the building and died. The Roman tradition was that if a decree was made and one of its authors died, the decree was annulled. Thus, thanks to the sacrifice of the Roman officer, Rabban Gamliel survived the destruction of the Temple.
The expression ba’al ha-hotem – “the one with the nose” – is understood by most of the rishonim to refer to the outstanding individual of the generation, just as the nose is the most prominent feature on one’s face. Another suggestion is that this is a play on words. In Latin, “the one with the nose” is Nasotus, which sounds like Nasi. By using this word-play, the officer was, in effect, warning Rabban Gamliel that he was being sought by the Romans.
Tineius Rufus was the procurator during the Bar-Kokhba rebellion, and he put down the revolution with great violence. It was he who had Rabbi Akiva killed and plowed up the area of the Temple in order to symbolize its total destruction.
Aside from the five basic activities forbidden on Tisha be-Av (eating and drinking, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations), the baraita teaches that all of the restrictions that apply to someone who is in mourning for a close relative are applicable to all Jews on Tisha be-Av. A person is not allowed to learn Torah – neither Tanakh nor the Oral Law – except for things that are in the spirit of the day, like kinot, Sefer Iyov and the parts of Yirmiyahu that describe the destruction of the Temple.
The Tanna Kamma also permits learning Torah in an area of study to which one is not accustomed, something that Rabbi Yehudah forbids. Rashi suggests that such study might be permitted because the person will feel frustrated that he does not understand the material, an emotion that fits in with the sentiment of the day. The Rivan suggests that such study involves strenuous effort, which is, therefore, not pleasurable.
Another mitzvah that is not mentioned here, but is the subject of some discussion, is whether people put on tefillin on the day of Tisha be-Av. A mourner does not don tefillin on the first day of his mourning since they are referred to as “finery,” and a mourner should not go out wearing such an ornament. The Ra’avad believed that this rule applied to Tisha be-Av as well and ruled that tefillin should not be worn. The Ritva and the Me’iri point out that usually burial does not take place on the same day as the person’s death (which would create a situation where the mourner is obligated on a Torah level and would therefore not wear tefillin), so the mourner invariably will put on tefillin later in the day, after the burial is over. There are different traditions today; most Sefardim don tefillin, while most Ashkenazim put them on only after midday, during the afternoon Minha service.
Masechet Ta’anit closes with a discussion of one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar – T”u be-Av, the 15th of Av. This is the day on which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out to the dance in the vineyards in borrowed white clothing (so that girls who were poor would not be embarrassed), calling out to the young men suggesting that they choose wives from among them.
The Ge’onim explain that this tradition is an outgrowth of the story at the end of Sefer Shoftim (see Chapter 21) where wives were found for the remnants of the tribe of Binyamin, which had almost been wiped out. The commentaries explain that this custom was instituted specifically for young women who were having trouble finding a suitable match, and through this system, young men would choose to meet and marry them.
As a segue from the story of the young women dancing in the vineyards, the Masechet closes with a description of the righteous individuals who, at the end of days, will dance in a circle around God and point at Him, fulfilling the passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (25:9) “And it shall be said in that day: ‘Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord, for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’”
This event is understood by the commentaries as referring to a mystical event rather than a physical one. Rabbenu Bahye understands the circle of dancing as symbolizing something with no end, i.e. the abundance of goodness that the righteous will enjoy in the World-to-Come. The Alshich writes that, in the future, all will be on a level of prophesy, as indicated by the ability to perceive and “point” at God, which is, in essence, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the secrets of the Torah. Furthermore, this idea is hinted to in a passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (31:13) that connects the dance of young women to that of the elders.
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.