Groundbreaking Day


The solemn, mournful observance of ben hametzarim – the three-week period of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem – which intensifies with the onset of the month of Av, and culminates with the fast of Tishah B’Av, is disrupted by Shabbat.  Halachah instructs us not to mourn at all on the three Shabbatot during this period.  In fact, even when Tishah B’Av itself falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed until after Shabbat, and Shabbat is celebrated as usual.  Even though Shabbat is then the 9th of Av, the day on which the Bet Hamikdash was set ablaze, nevertheless, we are to eat festively and wear fine clothing, just as on every other Shabbat. 


The Shelah Ha’kadosh (Rav Yeshaya Horowitz, d. 1630) was asked why this is.  Why should we not mourn the Bet Hamikdash on Shabbat?  Not one of the Shabbat restrictions (melachot) needs to be violated for the mourning practices to be observed.  Why, then, did the Sages suspend all mourning on Shabbat?  What precise aspect of mourning is inconsistent with the laws or spirit of Shabbat? 


The “Festival” of Tishah B’Av 


To introduce his answer, let us take a look at what is likely the most surprising feature of the annual Tishah B’Av observance – the omission of tahanunim (penitential supplications) from the prayer service.  The tahanunim are omitted on joyous occasions, such as Shabbat, holidays, Rosh Hodesh, and when a groom is present in the synagogue.  These prayers involve confession and humble requests for forgiveness, which are inappropriate on special occasions of festivity.  Startlingly, the Shulhan Aruch (O.H. 559:4) rules that tahanunim are omitted also on Tishah B’Av, the saddest day of the year, when we mourn Jerusalem’s destruction and other calamities that befell our nation.  If there was one day a year when we would assume that tahanunim are appropriate (with the exception of Yom Kippur and the days of repentance), it would be the somber day of Tishah B’Av.  And yet, specifically on this day of mourning, these sober prayers are omitted! 


The Shulhan Aruch explains that tahanunim are omitted on Tishah B’Av because a verse in the Book of Echah (1:15) refers to the day of the Temple’s destruction as a “mo’ed” (“kara alai mo’ed lishbor bahurai”).  The term “mo’ed” normally refers to a joyous, festive occasion, specifically, to our Yamim Tovim.  (Thus, for example, the section of the Mishnah that discusses the laws of Shabbat and the holidays is called “Mo’ed.”)  Since Tishah B’Av is called a “mo’ed,” it must be treated as such, and so tahanunim are omitted. 


As mentioned, this might be the most surprising aspect of the Tishah B’Av observance.  How can this day of calamity, destruction and mourning possibly be called a “holiday”?  What can be joyous about a day that has brought our nation so much suffering, and which for generations has been observed as a day of sorrow and grieving for national tragedies? 


The Somber Board Meeting 


The answer to this question lies in a closer examination of the word “mo’ed.” 


The root of this word is “va’ad” (vav, ayin, dalet), which means “meeting.”  For example, the Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot (1:4) urges a person to turn his home into a “bet va’ad lahachamim” – a place where scholars assemble to learn and discuss Torah.  The Mishkan in the desert is frequently referred to as the “Ohel Mo’ed” – “Tent of Meeting,” because it is there where the people “met,” or encountered, Gd (see Shemot 29:43 – “Veno’adeti shamah li’Vneh Yisrael”).  The holidays are called “moadim” because they are times of special “meetings” between us and Gd, when we celebrate our special relationship with Him. 


Once we understand that “mo’ed” means “meeting,” we can understand why Tishah B’Av is called a “mo’ed.” 


Let us consider the example of a business whose CEO convenes occasional staff meetings.  The meetings are held for a variety of different purposes.  Sometimes, the staff meets just for a routine progress report.  On other occasions, they need to strategize to address a certain problem, or because they are planning some change or an expansion.  They might meet to celebrate an encouraging report of quarterly earnings, or landing a large new client.   


But let us imagine that the business has suffered considerable losses due to a series of errors resulting from the staff’s laxity.  On the brink of bankruptcy, the CEO convenes a meeting to harshly scold the staff, and to devise a plan to save the business.  The atmosphere in the board room is tense and uncomfortable.  Everyone is worried and upset.  The CEO makes no attempt to hide his displeasure and frustration, not to the slightest extent.  The employees leave the boardroom feeling distraught, but with a strong resolve to get their act together and do what they can to right the ship. 


This is, in essence, what Tishah B’Av is all about.   


Tishah B’Av is a day-long “meeting” with Gd, who is clearly unhappy with us.  As we spend the day lamenting the tragedies our nation has suffered – specifically, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash – we are to reflect on the fact that Gd, the “CEO,” is angrily reprimanding us.  He has called us to this “meeting” to express His displeasure, and to demand that we get to work doing all we can to save the “business.”   


It is in this sense that Tishah B’Av is a “joyous” occasion.  Gd has called us for a meeting – and anytime He invites us and expresses interest in us, this is something to celebrate.  Of course, this meeting is not pleasant or enjoyable.  By no means.  We sit at this meeting feeling embarrassed, remorseful, pained and anguished.  We come to this meeting while fasting, not having showered, and not having shaved or taken a haircut in three weeks.  It is uncomfortable and humiliating.   


But there is one thing that we must not forget at any point during this unpleasant meeting: the “CEO” did not call us in to “fire” us.  He is not closing the “business.”  The purpose of this meeting is to motivate us to rebuild, to move forward, to learn from our mistakes, and to make the “business” flourish once again.  The very fact that this meeting is being held proves that Gd still believes in us, that He still wants us on His “team,” that He still regards us as His trusted “employees” who can turn things around. 


Tishah B’Av is a “mo’ed” because we spend the day with Gd, who wants, asks and expects us to rebuild the “business.” 


Destroying for the Sake of Rebuilding 


We do not mourn Jerusalem’s destruction on Shabbat, the Shelah Ha’kadosh explained, because this would, in a sense, violate one of the Shabbat prohibitions.  One of the categories of prohibited activity on Shabbat is soter al menat livnot – destroying in preparation to rebuild.  Destruction for the sake of destruction is not prohibited on Shabbat (on the level of Torah law), but destruction for the sake of construction is. 


The Shelah explained that Tishah B’Av is the day of “groundbreaking,” when we “break” ourselves so that we can rebuild.  We mourn and grieve not to wallow in helplessness and despair, but to motivate ourselves to recover and began the process of renewal.  It is a time of soter al menat livnot, to lament the tragedies of the past so that we can build a brighter future. 


This concept also answers a different question that has been asked, about the prophet Yirmiyahu.  He was the prophet who warned the people about the impending destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash, desperately urging them to repent.  Yirmiyahu personally experienced the fall of Jerusalem, and he composed the heart-rending Megilat Echah, the series of elegies which we read each year on Tishah B’Av.  Some rabbis raised the question of how Yirmiyahu could have received these prophecies, given the Sages’ teaching that prophecy can be received only in a state of joy.  How could Yirmiyahu experience prophecy during such a dreadful time?  Could he have possibly been in the joyful state of mind necessary for a prophetic revelation? 


The answer becomes clear in light of what we have seen.  Yirmiyahu knew that the destruction occurred “al menat livnot,” for the sake of reconstruction.  He retained a degree of joy even as Jerusalem burned, because he viewed this calamity as the “groundbreaking,” the laying of the foundations for the Jewish Nation’s future success and glory. 


This perspective not only enhances our understanding and appreciation of the observance of Tishah B’Av, but also provides us with a source of encouragement and hope during our periods of personal hardship and struggle.  No matter how painful the situation is, no matter what we have lost, we must remember that we can always rebuild.  If something is destroyed, something far better can be built in its place.  Just as the sorrow and torment of Tishah B’Av marks the “groundbreaking” for Am Yisrael’s glorious future, all our struggles in life can, if we approach them as such, lead us to great success and great joy.   


And, we must remember that no matter what we are going through, Gd remains our “CEO.”  He never “fires” us.  Even if we are occasionally reprimanded for our mistakes and failings, He continues to believe in our capacity to improve, in the great benefit we offer to the “company.”  As difficult a day as Tishah B’Av is, it reassures us of our potential to grow and to rebuild, and to become the truly outstanding nation that we are expected to become.