The customs we observe on the day of Tisha B’Av are strikingly similar to those of an avel, a mourner, one whose close relative has recently passed away. We abstain from washing ourselves, putting on perfume, and wearing leather shoes. Instead, we sit on the floor or a low chair and solemnly contemplate the loss of the Beit HaMikdash.
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 17th of Tammuz, 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 shaving and wearing freshly laundered clothing. Tisha B’Av is certainly the most restrictive of the entire Three Weeks period, but the observances of mourning are not limited to that day alone.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known to his many students as the Rav, used to say that these three periods of time mirror the three periods of mourning a child observes after 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, is similar to the period of shloshim (30 days of mourning), in which we observe laws of mourning similar to the 12-month period of mourning 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 12-month period, while during the Three Weeks we first observe the 12-month mourning, 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?
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 mourning with shiva, the most intense expression. As time passes and the mourner’s sorrow lessens, he reduces his observances.
In the case of aveilut yeshana, on the other hand, this progression is out of place. We have become so used to living in a world without the Beit HaMikdash it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to begin the Three Weeks with the observances of shiva. It simply would be unnatural to suddenly break down and cry over the loss of the Beit HaMikdash.
The sense of mourning for the Temple’s destruction can be internalized only through gradual increments. Only by slowly increasing our observances of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz 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 so that when Tisha B’Av finally arrives we are ready to grieve appropriately.
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 during the first three days of shiva it is natural for a mourner to want to cry, there is no obligation to do so. 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 we read the morning of Tisha B’Av, “Summon the dirge singers…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.
Moreover, the rabbis never placed any limitation on how much a person is allowed to mourn for the Beit HaMikdash. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:6) records that some sages of the Talmud fasted on both the ninth and the 10th days of Av because the Beit HaMikdash was set on fire on the ninth day of Av but it continued to burn on the 10th. How was it permissible for these rabbis to add an extra fast day — aren’t we prohibited from adding to any mitzvot?
The Ramban (Torat Ha’adam, Chavel ed., 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. A mourner who cries or mourns too much for his relative is criticized (Moed Katan 27b). But one who weeps bitterly for the Beit HaMikdash is rewarded. What is the difference between these two types of mourning?
The Rav explained that a mourner is enjoined from crying too much for his relative because, as the Rambam writes (Hilchos Avel 13:11), death is minhago shel olam — part of the natural course of events in this world. But the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was an unnatural event.
Without the Beit HaMikdash, we feel estranged from God. We no longer see His presence as clearly in the world. Mourning for the Beit HaMikdash is an expression of our longing to reconnect with God and return the world to its natural spiritual 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.
And yet, after midday on Tisha B’Av, we get up from the floor, put on our tefillin and recite the blessing of Nachem, asking God 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 God took out his wrath on the Beit HaMikdash and not on the Jewish people.
Paradoxically, it is precisely at the time of the mincha prayer, when the Beit HaMikdash started to burn, that we feel comforted because that act of destruction was really a demonstration of love. It showed that God wants the Jewish people to survive: he wants them to flourish and ultimately to reunite with Him. If God 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 God will return to us and reveal His glory to the entire world.
Rabbi Koenigsberg is a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, and the author 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.