Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tisha B'av - Torah Study

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Tisha B’av is, of course, the infamous day of Jewish national tragedy and destruction, particularly over the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and the subsequent exile of our nation. Although it’s a very sad and depressing day, it is actually known in Torah literature as a “holiday.”[1] This oddity expresses our confidence that this annual period of mourning is only temporary, soon to end with the arrival of the Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. The ninth of Av is also the birthday of the Mashiach.[2]

An intriguing restriction of the day worth exploring further is that of the prohibition on studying Torah. That’s right – with the exception of certain sad and depressing subjects, Torah study is prohibited on Tisha B’av. Why such a prohibition? For fear that Torah study will cause one to be happy, because “the Torah of Hashem is perfect; it refreshes the soul, it makes people become wise, it makes one’s heart happy.”[3] Therefore, on a day meant to focus on mourning, it would be inappropriate to pursue activities that make us happy.

Click here to read morePerhaps you may be thinking to yourself – sure, maybe great scholars feel happiness and are put into good cheer from studying a difficult piece of Talmud, but most other laymen don't feel a particular "happiness" at Torah study, especially mental crunching over difficult pieces of Talmud. Let’s face it, in all probability, most people don’t feel such a tangible happiness when studying Torah.

There is a beautiful interpretation as to why Torah study makes person happy – even if they don’t truly feel it. Torah study is considered the rediscovery of lost knowledge. We are taught that before a child is born, the fetus is taught the entire Torah in the womb by an angel specially appointed for the task.[4] At birth, the child is slapped above his mouth by this angel, and all the Torah that was studied throughout the previous nine months is then forgotten, to be relearned during the child’s lifetime. Torah study, then, is none other than reclaiming a lost “object”! Surely one is overjoyed when finding long-lost objects!

Another angle can be suggested as well. Knowledge, especially practical knowledge, arouses intellectual enjoyment. Even something minor like discovering a new way of maximizing one’s time brings a person some measure of joy. How much more so should the same apply when people rediscover and better appreciate their own heritage! Yes, all Torah study somehow qualifies as excitement and happiness.

Although the halacha is quite clear that Torah study is prohibited on Tisha B'av, those who are simply unable to endure twenty-four hours without opening a Jewish book would enjoy the following story told over in the name of Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun of Vilna, known as the Rashash. The Rashash was once “caught” studying Torah on Tisha B’av by some of his students. Sure enough, the students quickly rebuked the rebbe for studying Torah on the day of mourning, thereby violating the halacha, as well as what he had taught them. The rebbe, not to be outdone, quipped back: “Yes my students, you are correct, Torah study is forbidden on this day and I have violated the law. But let me ask you, how could God possibly punish us for studying His Torah?”


[1] Eicha 1:15.
[2] Yerushalmi Berachot 2:4; Eicha Rabba 1:51.
[3] Tehillim 19.
[4] Nidda 30b.

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