Shabbat Parashat Devarim| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Besides refraining from forbidden activities, how should one spend Tisha B’av?
Answer: The answer depends on the individual for a few reasons. As usual, some matters depend on the local minhag. In this case, it is even more individualistic, as different people arrive at the correct frame of mind in different ways. Furthermore, we have to be realistic. Not everyone who will refrain from a given practice will be sitting all day, crying about the Beit Hamikdash. I remember a group of people who were careful not to learn Torah on Tisha B’av, but they used the afternoon for an annual softball game. A little “leniency” on something more appropriate might have done them better. In any case, we will use halachot to arrive at a general approach to that which is more appropriate or less so.
On Tisha B’av, two major concerns are behind various halachot that govern activities (other than those that are directly fast-related). One is to keep one’s mind on the aveilut (atmosphere of mourning) of the day. The other is to refrain from things that we categorize as joyful.
The mishna (Pesachim 54b) brings two minhagim on whether work is permitted on Tisha B’av and instructs to follow the local minhag. The main reason not to work is apparently the desire to keep one’s mind on aveilut (Mishna Berura 554:43). The Shulchan Aruch (OC 544:22) leaves the matter of the minhag open. (In the Beit Yosef, he reports a widespread practice of stringency, which some Sephardic poskim accept as a final ruling- see Torat Hamoadim 8:24). The Rama (ad loc.) brings clearly the Ashkenazic minhag to refrain from work of an even moderately serious nature until chaztzot (midday). (The halachot are similar to those of chol Hamoed and are beyond our present scope.)This leads us to the conclusion that until chatzot one should act in a way that keeps his mind on aveilut over national destruction. This is supported by the minhag to refrain from preparing the night meal until chatzot (Shulchan Aruch 559:10), to sit on or near the floor, and to recite kinot untilclose to chatzot (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, 559:3).
After chatzot, the main focus is on not doing things that are joyous. Of course, there are different levels of happiness and there is some distinction between activities that are formally forbidden and those that fall within the realm of the spirit of the law. Torah study is formally classified as something that makes one happy and is forbidden even for those who do not feel a strong, conscious joy. Only Torah topics that are objectively sad or aveilut-related are permitted (see a (partial?) list in Shulchan Aruch OC 554:1-2).There are sources and logic in either direction on the question of whether works of mussar (literally, rebuke) are permitted on Tisha B’av. The matter may depend on the nature of the work (the extent to which psukim, midrashim, and interesting philosophical insights are incorporated- see Riv’vot Ephrayim I, 386).
The spirit of the law is also expressed in the law. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.:21) says that one should not stroll in the marketplace, lest he come to frivolity. The Mishna Berura (559:41) urges those with the minhag to visit the cemetery to do so in small groups to avoid it turning into “a happening.” These are just a couple of halachot which help set a tone and direction.
A practice has developed to have daylong programsoftalkson topics of soul-searching. While Tisha B’av is intended to be more a day of sadness than of self-improvement, most people are better served by taking part in such forums than staying home, attempting the difficult task of maintaining the proper frame of mind on their own. While the morning should focus on the kinot (recitation or explanation), the afternoon can be spent on forums of contemplation and soul-searching. Lecturers and participants should do their part to ensure that the content and atmosphere are somber and do not foster socializing, which is against the spirit and halachot of the day (Shulchan Aruch 554:20).
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