SUMMER 2019 The Summer of Torah, Hesed, and Charity

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 21

By: Words Of Eli J. Mansour



One of the surprising features of Tishah B’Av, the annual day of mourning for the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash and our banishment into exile, is that we omit the solemn “tahanunim” prayer from our service, just as we do on joyous occasions.  The reason given in the halachic sources is astonishing – they explain that Tishah B’Av, despite being a day of mourning, is referred to as a “mo’ed” – a “festival”!  And therefore, we omit the section of the prayer service that is omitted on joyous holidays.

A festival?  Tishah B’Av?!?

Tishah B’Av – the day when we sit on the floor and read in a mournful tone the Book of Echah and the Kinnot, describing the horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem, the day when we abstain from food, drink, and basic comforts such as wearing shoes in order to lament the calamities that have befallen our nation – is a “festival”?!?

The 21 Days

The explanation of this concept may be found in a remarkable passage in one of the classic Hassidic works – the Ohev Yisrael, written by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, one of the great early luminaries of the Hassidic movement.

Commenting to Parashat Pinhas, the Rebbe of Apta raises the question of why this parashah is almost always read at the beginning of the “Three Weeks,” the period when we refrain from joyous activities in preparation for Tisha B’Av.  Undoubtedly, he writes, there must be some connection between this parashah and the period of the Three Weeks.  To explain the connection, the Ohev Yisrael advances a fascinating theory.  The latter part of Parashat Pinhas, he observes, discusses the various occasions when a special mussaf sacrifice was offered in the Bet Hamikdash.  The daily tamidsacrifice was offered every day of the year, but on special occasions, additional sacrifices – called the “mussaf” offerings – were brought.  The Ohev Yisrael enumerates the 21 days that featured mussaf sacrifices, in the order in which they are mentioned in Parashat Pinhas:

1) Shabbat; 2) Rosh Hodesh; 3-9) the seven days of Pesach; 10) Shavuot; 11-12) the two days of Rosh Hashanah; 13) Yom Kippur; 14-20) the seven days of Sukkot; 21) Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah.

These 21 days, the Rebbe of Apta posits, correspond to the 21 days of the Three Weeks – from the 18th of Tammuz through Tishah B’Av.

Strange as it sounds – these 21 days of mourning are actually rooted in the 21 joyous occasions that we celebrate throughout the year.

The Apta Rebbe explains that these 21 days are potentially days of immense joy and festivity.  They share the same root and essence as the 21 joyous days.  Unfortunately, though, we are as yet unworthy of unlocking this potential.  Since we have not yet earned our nation’s redemption from exile, these 21 days are a time of mourning.  But in the future, once we experience redemption, the root essence of these days will surface – and they will be celebrated as festive occasions.

This might be the explanation of the concept of Tishah B’Av being a “mo’ed.”  Because indeed – at its core, Tishah B’Av, like the previous 20 days, is a festive occasion.  Our omission of “tahanunim” on Tishah B’Av reflects the root and essence of this day, which is, in truth, a holiday!

Tishah B’Av and…Mlabas

After studying this passage in the Ohev Yisrael, I decided to do a little “experiment,” and see if perhaps we can develop this correspondence one step further.

If, indeed, the 21 occasions listed in Parashat Pinhas correspond to the 21 days of the Three Weeks, then we should expect to find connections between specific holidays and the corresponding day of the Three Weeks.  For example, the 18th of Tammuz, according to the correspondence established by the Ohev Yisrael, is associated with Shabbat, and so we might anticipate some link between this date and Shabbat.  The same is true of the 19th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh, and so on.

Happily, my experiment worked: at least with regard to some of the 21 days, I found a connection.

The 13th occasion listed by the Ohev Yisrael is Yom Kippur – which thus corresponds to the 13th day of the Three Weeks, which is Rosh Hodesh Av.  This is the yahrtzeit of Aharon, the first kohen gadol, the brother of Moshe Rabbenu, one of the greatest tzadikimwho ever lived.  (The Torah tells us in Parashat Maseh that Aharon passed away on Rosh Hodesh Av.)  Our sages teach that the death of the righteous brings atonement like sacrifices.  And so Rosh Hodesh Av – the day of Aharon’s passing – is a day of atonement, resembling Yom Kippur.  Appropriately, then, these two occasions are associated with one another, and are both the 13th day of their respective series of 21 special days.

The festive days that come after Yom Kippur, of course, are the days of Sukkot, which are called “zeman Simhatenu – the time of our joy.”  These correspond to the first week of the month of Av, about which halachah instructs, “Mishenichnas Av mema’atin besimhah – When Av arrives, we reduce our joy.”  The first days of Av, like the days of Sukkot, are, at their core, “zeman simhatenu” – a time of special joy and festivity.  However, in our state of exile, when we are undeserving of experiencing the festive nature of this period, we are compelled to do the opposite, and to reduce our level of joy on these days.  But in the future, the festivity of these days will be restored, and they – like Sukkot – will be exuberantly celebrated as “zeman simhatenu.”

Another “match” which I found has to do with the final day of each of these two 21-day periods.  The final day of the Three Weeks is Tishah B’Av – which thus corresponds to Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah.  The saddest day of the year – Tishah B’Av, which we spend in the synagogue sitting on the floor and mourning, is associated with the most joyous day of the year – Simhat Torah, which we spend in the synagogue dancing with great excitement and joy.  In our state of exile, these two days are polar opposites of one another, but in the future, Tishah B’Av will be returned to its original state, to its essence, and will be observed as a day of great festivity, like Simhat Torah.

In truth, the association between Tishah B’Av and Simhat Torah is even more fascinating.

When Gd speaks to the prophet Yirmiyahu to inform him about the impending destruction, He shows him the image of a branch of an almond tree – “makel shaked” (Yirmiyahu 1:11).  The meaning of this vision, Gd clarifies, is that the destruction would unfold rapidly.  Rashi explains that the almond grows very quickly, and thus symbolizes the haste with which Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians.  Specifically, Rashi writes, it takes an almond 21 days to grow on the tree after the tree’s blossoming – and thus the “makel shaked” shown to Yirmiyahu symbolizes the 21 days from the siege of Jerusalem, on the 17th of Tammuz, until the city’s destruction on Tishah B’Av.

On this basis, we understand the cherished custom in our community to distribute mlabas– sweetened almonds – to the children in the synagogue on Simhat Torah.  We firmly believe that our sacred, ancient traditions are not random or arbitrary; they are all anchored in Torah principles.  And in light of what we have seen, we can explain why this particular food was chosen as the treat given to children on Simhat Torah.  This holiday is the 21st and final of the 21 special days – and is linked to Tishah B’Av, the culmination of the period of the destruction, which unfolded rapidly like the growth of an almond.  And so we coat the almonds in sugar – representing our hopes and prayers for the “sweetening” of the harsh exile which we now endure, that Tishah B’Av will become a day of fervent celebration like Simhat Torah, and the bitter “almonds” of Jerusalem’s destruction will be transformed into the sweet “almonds” of joy and festivity.

The Rabbi Who Wanted to Cancel Tishah B’Av

The Gemara in Masechet Megillah tells that once, when the 9th of Av fell on Shabbat – as it often does (and as it does this year, 5779) – Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, wanted to “cancel” the observance of Tishah B’Av.  His view was that if Tishah B’Av cannot be observed on its actual date – the 9th of Av – then it cannot be observed at all.  And so in his opinion, in a year when the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, when it is forbidden to fast and mourn, we get a “break” from Tishah B’Av, and do not need to observe the fast that year.

Before you get too excited… the Gemara adds that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s view was rejected.  The Gemara writes, “velo hodu lo hachamim” – the other sages did not agree, and maintained that when the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, the fast is moved to Sunday, which is, of course, our practice.

Why did Rabbi Yehuda not approve of this solution?  What did he find wrong with moving the Tishah B’Av observance to Sunday?  It goes without saying that a saintly, pious tzadik like Rabbi Yehuda Ha’nasi was not looking for a loophole to get out of fasting… Why, then, did he not want to move the fast to the next day?

The answer becomes apparent in light of the correspondence established by the Ohev Yisrael

The 9th of Av corresponds to the 21st festival – Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah, and thus the roots of Tishah B’Av lie in this festival.  As such, Rabbi Yehuda felt, Tishah B’Av cannot be observed on any other day.  Tishah B’Av cannot simply be moved to a different day – because its essence is bound to the date of the 9th of Av, which parallels the occasion of Shemini Atzeret.  Therefore, in Rabbi Yehuda’s view, if Tishah B’Av cannot be observed on the 9th of Av, it cannot be observed at all.

As cited earlier, the Gemara concludes, “lo hodu lo hachamim” – which, according to the simple reading, means that Rabbi Yehuda’s contemporaries disagreed.  In light of what we have seen, however, we could suggest a deeper interpretation – that the Gemara refers here to the sages’ institution of Yom Tov Sheni, the second day of Yom Tov observed in the Diaspora.  This institution results in a second day of Shemini Atzeret – which we celebrate as Simhat Torah.  And so if Tishah B’Av cannot be observed on the 9th of Av, the 21st day of the Three Weeks, it can be observed the next day – which corresponds to Simhat Torah, the 22nd festival day which we celebrate here in the Diaspora.  Hence, “lo hodu lo hachamim” – the sages, through their institution of Yom Tov Sheni, negated Rabbi Yehuda’s argument, yielding the conclusion that Tishah B’Av is observed on the 10th of Av when the 9th falls on Shabbat.

Simhat Torah & Tishah B’Av in Our Generation

In conclusion, I would like to make a simple observation – one which should bring us a great deal of consolation and hope during the otherwise disheartening season of the Three Weeks and Tishah B’Av.

In our generation – and particularly in our community – the connection between Simhat Torah and Tishah B’Av has taken on greater meaning.  Both are occasions when our youth flock to the synagogue and remain there for many hours.  On Simhat Torah, of course, the children play a central role in the festivities, dancing, waving their flags, and enjoying the special treats.  And in our day and age, Tishah B’Av has also become a time where youngsters come in large numbers to the synagogue, albeit for a much different reason – to hear classes and somberly reflect on the destruction and our hopes for redemption.

This was not always the case.

I – like, I assume, many readers – am old enough to remember the time when Tishah B’Av did not receive much attention in our community.  Heaven forbid, my intention is not to judge the previous generations, which faced enormous challenges in preserving our traditions and educating the youth, challenges that we, baruch Hashem, cannot even begin to imagine.  I stand in awe of the resolve of previous generations and the great sacrifices they made in their struggle to build Jewish life on these shores against all odds.  It is to their credit that we can take pride in how Tishah B’Av looks today in our community.  I generally speak in several different synagogues in and around Deal on Tishah B’Av, and each year I am amazed by what I see.  Enormous rooms are filled to capacity with adults and youths who have come not for food, and not for entertainment, but for learning, prayer and reflection.  Especially in contrast to the memories of Tishah B’Av in my childhood, this is simply astonishing.  What a blessing!

And this is the blessing that will, please Gd, transform Tishah B’Av into Simhat Torah.

The Midrash (Pesikta DeRav Kahana, 15) relates that the gentile nations once approached the leading gentile thinkers of their time – the prophet Bilam, and a man named Avnimus Hagardi – to inquire about the likelihood of defeating the Jewish People.  These two experts replied, “Go around to their synagogues and study halls.  If you find there children making noise, you are unable to defeat them; if not, then you are able to defeat them.”

Bilam and Avnimus noted Yitzhak’s proclamation, “Hakol kol Yaakov vehayadayim yedeh Esav – The voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Esav” (Beresheet 27:22).  This means that when “the voice is the voice of Yaakov” – when we are using our voices for prayer and Torah study – then the “hands of Esav” are powerless against us.

We can feel encouraged by the beautiful sounds of Torah and prayer produced by our community’s youth, particularly on Tishah B’Av.  We are seeing with our own eyes how Tishah B’Av is slowly becoming more and more like Simhat Torah, how the first steps of Tishah B’Av’s transition from a day of mourning to a day of festivity have already been taken.  It’s only a matter of time until this process will reach its ultimate goal.

The Ohev Yisrael writes that the 21 days of the Three Weeks will, in the future, be celebrated as “yamim tovim gedolim venora’im asher en leha’arich – inestimably great, awesome holidays.”  And Tishah B’Av, he adds, will be the most joyous day of them all.  May we soon be privileged to experience this great celebration, when Tishah B’Av will be a day of festivity, of singing and dancing together, young and old, with the Torah scrolls as on Simhat Torah, rejoicing together over the final redemption and the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash, amen.