There are two main and somewhat contradictory natures of Tisha B’Av: aveilus (mourning) and teshuva (repentance). The ultimate goal of Tisha B’Av and the three weeks that proceed it is teshuva– repairing and renewing our relationship with Hashem. But, many sources point out that the main focus on the 9th of Av itself is aveilus over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. In fact, throughout most of the day, personal acts of teshuva and tefilla are actually discouraged.
Resolving this apparent contradiction is critical to observing Tisha B’Av fully.
While many people may know about the main themes of the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av, there has been less emphasis on how to bring it all together and turn the spiritual energy of this period into meaningful, personal action. Most of us are simply caught up in the struggle to mourn over a time, place, and spiritual reality that is hard to relate to today. Few (if any) of us really understand what it is that we lost two thousand years ago, and on top of this, we also have to deal with the day’s confusing, conflicting messages and unpleasant limitations.
But, our observance of Tisha B’Av today has an important purpose. In fact, on this very day Hashem has given us (us!) a gift– the process and the ability to sweeten the dinim of Three Weeks and bring the world closer to the geula.
The gift of the Three Weeks won’t help us, though, if we don’t know that it’s there and if we don’t know how to tap into it.
Time to change that…
Before we get to the nature of this gift and the process of tapping into it, we need some background on Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks…
Tisha B’Av: A Day of Aveilus
After the loss of a close relative, the surviving members of the family begin the process of aveilus. The gemara (Yevamos 43b) refers to this time as aveilus chadasha (newly occurring, personal mourning). The emphasis of aveilus primarily lies in helping the avel (mourner) cope with the pain and shock over the loss– while simultaneously benefiting the deceased person’s neshema.
The thirty days after a relative’s passing begin with shiva, a week of hespedim and heavy restrictions placed on the avel when the grief, pain, and sense of loss are at their peak and the niftar “lies before him.”
But after the seven days have concluded, though the loss is still very painful, the feelings of sorrow will have lessened. At this stage, many of the restrictions are eased and the avel fulfills the observances of the shloshim. By the end of thirty days, the avel can more easily come to terms with the loss and can conclude the observances of aveilus. For children who have lost a parent, aveilus continues for a full year, with reductions spread out over that time.
The Three Weeks is also a period of aveilus, known as aveilus yeshana (ancient mourning for the Beis HaMikdash). There are, however, fundamental differences between this form of aveilus and aveilus chadasha. For one, the order of aveilus is reversed. During the Three Weeks the intensity of the aveilus and the tightening of restrictions increase over time.
From the 17th of Tammuz, at the start of the three weeks, we minimize our 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, referred to as the “Nine Days,” we also refrain from eating meat, washing and from wearing freshly laundered clothing.
The customs on the day of Tisha B’Av itself are similar to those of an avel whose close relative has just passed away. We abstain from washing ourselves and sitting on a chair of normal height, from wearing leather shoes and talking frivolously. We even refrain from studying parts of the Torah which are unrelated to the events and the mood of the day. Instead, we sit on the floor or a low chair and contemplate the loss of the Beis HaMikdash– both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
The difference between the two forms of aveilus can be explained as follows:
In the case of aveilut yeshana (ancient mourning), the gradual reduction and easing of restrictions over time is out of place. In this case, the “deceased lying before us” is the Beis HaMikdash. We mourn the loss of the Shechina, (Divine Presence) which dwelled among Clal Yisroel. We mourn the loss of the open revelation of HaShem’s Presence that each Jew who came to the Beis HaMikdash could experience. We mourn apparent severing of the special connection the Jewish people had with God, and the great tragedies which manifested the severance of that connection.
However, we have become so used to living in a world without the Beis HaMikdash, that the raw emotion and longing which are supposed to characterize our aveilus can be actualized only through gradual increments.
Even on the day of Tisha B’Av itself, the reading of Eicha and the reciting of kinos, along with the other observances on the day, are all there to help us get in touch with the deep pain and suffering the Jewish people has collectively endured throughout the long galus.
Thus, the aveilus during the Three Weeks is not about easing pain, but getting in touch with and reviving an old anguish that has been covered over by years of malaise, distraction, and denial.
Before we leave this topic, there is another important difference between the observances of aveilus yeshana and those of aveilus chadasha based on the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik z”l that should be mentioned. An avel who cries or mourns too much for his relative, is criticized. “Anyone who grieves excessively over his dead will ultimately weep over another deceased.” (Moed Katan 27b)
However, one who cries and mourns the loss of the Beis HaMikdash incessantly is actually praised. On Tisha B’Av, according to the Ramban (Toras Ha’Adam, p. 242), even the acts which one would normally perform in order to demonstrate his mourning for a relative, for example, tearing clothes, do not apply, seemingly because in this type of aveilus no remnant of activity should exist. On this day the overarching theme is one of passivity, שב ואל תעשה, “sit and refrain from action.”
Many people are familiar with some or all of the above ideas. We haven’t yet answered our questions, though. We’ll get back to these points later on…
Tisha B’Av: A Day of Teshuva
Tisha B’Av is fundamentally connected to teshuva and Divine forgiveness.
Chazal define Tisha B’Av as a public fast day belonging to the group of public fasts which are days of both Divine rebuke and teshuva (Pesachim 54b).
Regarding Tisha B’Av in particular, there is a well-know prophecy that Tisha B’Av will transform into a Yom Tov at the end of days:
Thus says the Lord: The fast of the fourth month (17th Tammuz), the fast of the fifth month (Tisha B’Av), the fast of the seventh month (Tzom Gedalya), and the fast of the tenth month (10th of Teves), shall become for the House of Judah days of joy and gladness – moadim tovim (festivals of Divine favor) – and truth and peace you will love.
“Transform” is not really the right word, though. Instead, it should be “return” to being a Yom Tov.
According to the midrash on Parshas Pinchas (Yalkut Shimoni, 782:23) Hashem wanted to give the Jewish people a Yom Tov in every month of the spring and summer. Thus, Pesach occurs in Nissan, Pesach Sheini in Iyar, and Shavuot in Sivan. When the nation transgressed in Tammuz with the golden calf, Hashem canceled the great yomim tovim for the months of Tammuz, Av and Elul– which were supposed to be Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos respectively. Instead, Hashem gave these yomim tovim to the month of Tishrei, in addition to Shemini Atzeres which was originally meant for the month.
This means that the Yom Tov of Yom Kippur was originally supposed to be on Tisha B’Av, and Yom Kippur is the ultimate day of teshuva, Divine forgiveness, and simcha. It’s the day when God renewed His covenant with the Jewish people after cheit Ha’Eigel (the sin of the golden calf) by giving them the second set of Tablets. It’s also the day the nation received commandment to build the Mishkan so that God’s presence could dwell in their midst (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46).
Every day in the Jewish calendar is imbued with it’s own unique spiritual energy and potential. While the Yom Tov, the celebration of that potential, may have been given to another month, if Yom Kippur was originally meant for Tisha B’Av, it must be because the day itself inherently contains the same spiritual potential for teshuva, purification, and kaddusha that characterizes Yom Kippur.
However, we have to work to find it…
Paradoxically, for most of the day on Tisha B’Av, the theme of teshuva is subdued.
There are a few things glaringly missing in our tefillos on Tisha B’Av:
- There is no recitation of selichos with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy
- We skip the possuk: “As for Me, this is My covenant with them…” in the Uva Letzion prayer.
- We leave out the possuk in Kaddish which asks God to accept the prayers and supplications of the Jewish people.
- There is no Neilah prayer, which is not exclusive to Yom Kippur, but also appears on certain public fast days
The common denominator of all of these factors is that they, in some way, ask God to accept our prayers and extend His attribute of Divine Mercy. They also remind God of His unceasing relationship with His people. These elements are very much part of the teshuva process– particularly on public fast days.
The message seems to be that Hashem simply does not want to hear from us. As it says in Eicha: “You have covered yourself in your clouds so as not to accept our prayer (3:44) … Even as I cry and pray to You, my prayer is sealed (3:8)… You have slaughtered, you have not taken pity (3:43).”
When Down is Up and Up is Down
So, if that’s true, if Tisha B’Av is not a favorable day for tefillos… then it shouldn’t be a favorable day for teshuva either, since teshuva cannot happen without tefilla.
Can it really be that Hashem wants nothing to do with us on Tisha B’Av?
Some people are fully convinced that the observances of Tisha B’Av mean that on this day Hashem won’t accept our teshuva. We as a nation are on such a low level, we are so far away from Hashem, that we are unworthy of being heard. After all, doesn’t it say that every generation which does not rebuild the Beis HaMikdash it’s as if they destroyed it anew?
So, Hashem is justifiably angry and has turned His Back on His People, on a day that historically elicited Hashem’s wrath.
Sounds about right…
But, this is a mistake that at its foundation stems from feelings of yeiush that are so deeply ingrained in our personal and national psyche that we don’t even know they’re there.
The truth of the matter is actually the very opposite. The observances of Tisha B’Av are meant to bring us to a very high level of tefilla and teshuva on the day itself.
The missing pieces of this puzzle can be found in Chassidus…
Adversity and distress of any kind is not just a punishment. It is a direct message from Hashem that we have strayed from the path that is meant for us. On the possuk: “I have strayed like a lost sheep: seek out Your servant for I’ve not forgotten Your commandments [Voice]” (Psalms 119:176), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, teaches:
God’s way is to call to the person immediately when He sees him straying from the [proper] path… He calls to him to turn back. And [God] calls to each person according to his level. To one He calls with a hint, and to another with an actual call. There is also one whom He tramples down and punishes… that [the distress and suffering] is his call.
Likutey Moharan I, 206
Hashem is always present, forever calling out to us to draw closer to Him. If we don’t take the hints, which become progressively “louder” over time, then He sends us something that completely shakes us up. This shake up is an external wake up call from Hashem and a big chesod to us– even if it is a difficult, painful experience.
One of the fundamental teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that the world is a mirror. The shortcomings, failings and imperfections we see in others and the world at large is a reflection sent from Above of what we ourselves need to fix and do. Put another way: Everything that happens to us on the outside is only a reflection of what is happening on the inside.
And Hashem has returned to me according to my righteousness, according to the purity of my hands [ie my actions] before His eyes. With the devoted one, you deal devotedly, with the wholehearted one, You act wholeheartedly. With a pure one, You show Yourself pure, but with a crooked one, You deal crookedly. For You redeem an afflicted, humble people, and You humble haughty eyes.
The more we are true to ourselves and our mission in life, the more truthful the world appears. The more loving we are to ourselves and others, the more love we see in the world, and so on. The opposite is also true.
Once we acknowledge that Hashem is calling to us through the distressful experiences we have, the Baal Shem Tov further teaches that there are three stages that we must go through in order to respond in a way that increases kadusha and brings us closer to Hashem: submission or humility (hachna’ah), separation (havdalah), and sweetening or mitigation (hamtakah).
Hachna’ah is humble submission to the fact that the choices we make in life literally create our reality. It means accepting that we are limited and imperfect by nature. We recognize that life may not always turn out the way we hoped it would. Instead of denying or avoiding the reality of a painful, distressful situation, we agree to yield to a Divine Plan that we may not fully understand.
Once we yield to that realization, we can move on to the second step: havdalah. Havdalah means both discernment and separation. We are called on to distinguish the light from the darkness, the emes from the sheker and discern the exact nature of the situation we find ourselves in. Then we need to distance ourselves in whatever way possible from the false beliefs that are covering up and obscuring the emes.
In morning brochas, we say, “Blessed are You Hashem… Who gives sight to the blind… clothes the naked… releases the imprisoned… straightens the bent.”
So, who does Hashem really give sight to, clothe, release, and straighten? Only those who acknowledge that they are blind, naked (of merits and good deeds), imprisoned, and bent.
When we agree to hear the Divine messages coming our way, even when those messages are hard to swallow, and make some effort to change and improve in response (no matter how small that effort is), we build a cli (vessel) to receive the Sciata D’Shamaya we need to move forward.
Even where breaking free of our bad middos and false beliefs seems impossible we, nevertheless, should never stop trying to run towards the light and the person we could be. Without the desire to get away from the sheker that holds us and colors how we see ourselves and the world, Hashem simply cannot help us.
This is how Hashem created the world.
Only after we go through the stages of hachna’ah and havdalah, can we be ready for hamtakah— a sweetening of the dinim (stern judgments). At this stage we experience an aspect of הכל לטובה “everything turns into good.” We find the sparks of light and goodness that are hiding within the darkness, the opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth that come from our biggest challenges and weaknesses.
The experience of this light changes our whole perception of the difficulties that contained it. Without the struggle, we would never know that such light existed. It turns out the darkness itself is nothing more than hidden light and Godliness.
The Three Weeks… Bringing Us to Geula
Now let’s bring this all together…
There is such a potential for spiritual growth and geula on Tisha B’Av that the day itself, combined with the three previous weeks, have been structured to help us tap into it in the fullest way possible.
The point of the mourning during the Three Weeks is threefold:
- To get in touch with the reality and pain of the galus, the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and the loss of our connection to Hashem (as a nation and on an individual level)
- To ask ourselves, Ayecha? (Berseshis 3:9) “Where are you?” What is my personal role in the prolonged galus? In other words, “where am I going astray in my life? Where am I struggling to find Hashem and connect to who I am b’emes?”
- And, to ask ourselves, Eicha? How did this happen? “How did I get here in the first place? Where did these internal falsehoods come from?”
Such personal accounting and internal dialogue is not an easy process. So, Hashem calls out to us, gently at first, from the 17th of Tammuz. Then, He calls a bit louder, from the start of the nine days. On Tisha B’Av itself, we are shaken and unable to ignore the messages.
The night and morning of Tisha B’Av is not a time for personal tefilla. It’s a time to acknowledge and mourn the concealment of the Divine Presence in our lives and in the world at large. It’s a time to humble oneself, to sit and look at the problems in our lives and in our communities in the face, to admit that things are not as they should be, or could be, to consider the damage of our bad choices and the falsehood that feeds them.
יֵשֵׁ֤ב בָּדָד֙ וְיִדֹּ֔ם כִּ֥י נָטַ֖ל עָלָֽיו
Let him sit solitary and wait,
for He has laid [it] upon him.
The aveilus, however, is a means not an end. The end is our teshuva. We can’t come to teshuva if we first don’t understand that we’ve strayed from the emes, if we don’t admit that we lack emuna and bitachon. We can’t have haruta (regret) nor a ratzon to be better, if we don’t first acknowledge at least some of the damage our bad choices have caused.
If we agree that we have a part to play in the galus, then we also have a responsibility to try to rectify that which went off.
Immediately after chatzos (midday) on Tisha B’Av, the restrictions of aveilus are eased and the themes of teshuva and consolation come clearly into focus:
- We get up from the floor to sit on regular chairs, and we can once again engage those around us.
- Men put on their tallis and tefillin.
- The cover (paroches) of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept is returned to its place
- We recite the sections of “Nachem” and “Aneinu” in the shemoneh esrei of Mincha asking Hashem to console us and answer are tefillos.
- The Torah reading is Shemos 32:11–14 and 34:1–10, which deal with Moshe’s successful attempt to intercede on behalf of Clal Yisroel and attain forgiveness from God for the Chait Ha’Eigel.
- After the Torah reading, the haftorah of the day is Yeshayahu 55:6–56:8, which also has themes of teshuva and consolation starting from the first possuk: “Seek Hashem when He is found, call Him when He is near.”
It’s at this very moment that the gates of Shamayim are beginning to open.
But what tends to happen at this time? After chatzos most of us are just hungry, thirsty, tired, dizzy, emotionally drained… perhaps, all of the above. Now that the dinim and restrictions are easing, we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we can now “relax” a bit.
This is a test from Above.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that when we are unable to pray properly, it means Hashem is there, but He is hidden from us. If a person strengthens himself and continues praying to the best of his ability under the current circumstances, he will receive assistance from Above and eventually experience an opening. He will then feel that Hashem is actually very close and his tefillos will emerge from the depths of his heart. (Tzavaat HaRivash, 72; 86)
These last few hours of Tisha B’Av are actually the highest, the spiritual culmination of the three weeks. If we can gather our strength and focus our thoughts on teshuva and channel this yearning into tefilla on this day at this time, we can tap into a deep wellspring of future Sciata D’Shamaya, yeshuos, and spiritual growth.
Even a few minutes of personal tefilla after chatzos on Tisha B’Av can be enough to open vast spiritual doors in one’s life and sweeten judgments. But, we have to break through the yeiush and malaise. Even if we don’t end up feeling anything, any tefillos we make and actions we take to come closer to Hashem will create a biggest impact Above.
I’ll close this article with a final thought:
The Gemara (Taanis 29a) recounts that as the sun was setting on the Ninth of Av, the goyim set the Beis Hamikdash on fire. The Shulchan Aruch brings that the Beis Hamikdash burned the entire Tenth of Av, with the fire finally extinguishing as the sun was setting.
Some sages felt that we should be fasting on the 10th of Av, instead of the 9th since that is when the Beis Hamikash actually burned. Others suggested fasting both days. Though we follow the opinion that we fast only on the 9th, paradoxically on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, the intensity of the aveilus is reduced. Given the details of the destruction, shouldn’t the restrictions at least remain in place till the end of the fast?
Perhaps this is connected to another gemara (Talmud Yershalmi, Brachos 2:4) which states that the birth of Moshiach is on Tisha B’Av shortly after the fires had been lit. His birth, which brings with it the potential for geula, came moments after the destruction began.
But, wait a second… Doesn’t it say “God does not strike at Israel unless He has already created the remedy for them”? (Megillah 13b). The Moshiach cannot be the remedy because his birth came after the destruction began.
If so, then what is the remedy?
The teshuva we do after chatzos on the 9th of Av, hours before the final destruction began!!!
Moshiach’s coming is just the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. Our teshuva and yearning today– especially on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av– can sweeten the harshest dinim and quite literally create Moshiach’s coming.