Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

Torat Tisha Be’av, Torat Timahon: The Confused Torah of Tisha Be’av by David C. Flatto

July 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts

The core prohibition of learning Torah on Tisha Be’av permits certain narrow exceptions (see Taanit 30a).[1]  Most well known is the allowance to study tragic material, such as Jeremiah and Job.  This makes much sense.  As the Talmud explains, the ban on learning during Tisha Be’av derives from the joyous nature of Torah study (“The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart (Psalms 19:9)”).  But depressing subject matter does not have this quality, and therefore its study is entirely consistent with this day of historic mourning.[2]

Yet a lesser known dispensation is more difficult to fathom.  According to one tannaitic opinion a person may study material that is unfamiliar on Tisha Be’av: koreh hu be-makom she-eino ragil likrot, ve-shoneh be-makom she-eino ragil lishnot (he may, however, read sections which he does not usually read and study portions which he does not usually study).[3]  What is the basis for this leniency?  Rashi offers a similar explanation to the one above: keivan delo yada it le tsara (since it is unfamiliar to him, it causes him distress).  The difficulty (tsaar) of studying unknown material diminishes the joy.  Therefore, such learning is permissible on Tisha Be’av.   

Rashi’s widely-held explanation is not entirely satisfactory.  On an experiential level, exploring fresh material and encountering novel Torah concepts often generates much joy for a Torah student.[4]  Perhaps more to the point, Rashi’s explanation seems halakhically objectionable as well.    Consider the discussion in poskim about whether one can read Torah verses as part of a set recital (i.e., as part of davening, or in preparation for Torah leining, etc.).[5]  The thrust of the lenient viewpoint is that when material is sufficiently familiar to a person, and its study or recitation are essentially routine, it engenders less joy.  Why does the gemara not state that leniency here?  Further, the relaxation of the prohibition for routine study cuts in the opposite direction of Rashi’s explanation of the allowance to learn unknown material.  In the former case, the argument is that the more familiar the subject matter the lesser the joy, while in the latter case the argument is reversed.  Although both positions have a certain internal logic, their opposite orientations seem inconsistent, and difficult to harmonize.  Moreover, in another context, the gemara discusses when one is obligated to study Torah inside of a Sukkah and when one is exempt under the rubric of mitstaer.[6]  Distinguishing between different kinds of study, the gemara states that learning be-iyun can take place outside of the Sukkah, for—as Rashi explains there—one who has to exert much mental energy to plumb the depths of a (no doubt familiar) topic is mitstaer.  Why do we not have a similar dispensation to learn a familiar topic be-iyun on Tisha Bav?[7]    

As an alternative to Rashi, therefore, I would suggest that rather than focusing on joy, or the tsaar which cancels the joy, the crux of this leniency lies elsewhere—in the very nature of learning unfamiliar material.  When a person is koreh be-makom she-eino ragil likrot his or her primary experience is confusion.  Studying alien material is disorienting, and one of the few forms of learning that is allowed on Tisha Be’av is confused Talmud Torah![8]

*  *  *

Why may one study confused Torah on Tisha Ba’av?  What is the origin of this idea?[9]

A Talmudic source from a different context may shed light on this concept.  Offering a dramatic description of the aftermath of Moshe’s death, Temurah 16b states: 

Rab Judah reported in the name of Samuel: Three thousand traditional laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moshe…It has been taught: A thousand and seven hundred kal va-homer and gezerah shavah and specifications of the Scribes were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moshe. 

What this remarkable gemara captures is the pervasive confusion triggered by a national cataclysm and widespread grief (in this case precipitated by the death of Rabban shel Yisrael).  The intensive trauma of Moshe’s death ruptures tradition, and leads to an erosion in the understanding of Torah.

Another poignant gemara about Moshe’s death may subtly reinforce this same theme.  In the context of analyzing the distinct halakhic status[10] of the final eight verses of the Torah which describe Moshe’s death, the gemara (Bava Batra 15a and Menahot 30a) debates whether Yehoshua or Moshe authored these epilogue verses.  If Yehoshua authored them, then it is apparent why they have a different halakhic status.  But what if Moshe authored them?  R. Shimon offers the following explanation:

Said R. Shimon … what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moshe repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moshe wrote bedema (with tears)…

Similar to the Temura passage, this gemara likewise understand that mourning over the death of Moshe—even Moshe’s own mourning—affects the transmission of Torah.  Instead of following the usual protocol of repeating the Torah and then transcribing it, a distraught Moshe does not reiterate the final verses.  Moreover, instead of ink, Moshe uses less permanent tears to record these sorrowful verses.  Intensive mourning interferes with the process of revelation.  Another interpretation of this passage offered by the Vilna Gaon[11] may have a similar connotation.  According to the Gra, Moshe wrote the final verses bedema-bedimua—that is, in confusion and out of order.  Perhaps these two interpretations of R. Shimon’s teaching converge: Moshe, writing in tears of sorrow, wrote a confused Torah.  For the Torah of trauma and irreparable loss is one of chaos and confusion.

Returning to the context of the destruction of the Temple, traces of the same theme can also be discerned.  Already beginning with the advent of the Three Weeks, a striking Yerushalmi revolves around this notion.  Reacting to the Mishnah’s explanation of the 17th of Tammuz as the day when the Temple walls were breached, the Talmud asks why Jeremiah (52:6) records a different date, the 9th of Tammuz.  Responding to this inconsistency, the Yerushalmi provides a startling response.[12]  Even though the tradition of the 17th as recorded by the Mishnah is correct, there was kilkul heshbonot (a breakdown in the calculation) which led Jeremiah to record the wrong date.  But this is difficult to comprehend:  how could Jeremiah, who writes with prophetic accuracy, record the wrong date?[13]  In light of the above theme, however, one could suggest that Jeremiah’s prophecy reflects the chaos of churban where inspired traditions are confused.  A jarring miscalculation reminds the biblical reader that even the steadfast prophet cannot withstand the turmoil of catastrophe.

In the throes of destruction, at the nadir of Tisha Be’av, the helpless bewilderment knows no bounds.  Midrash Eichah Rabbah (Petihta 23) reads as follows:

…one finds that all the difficult and tragic prophecies that Jeremiah prophesied did not come about upon them until after the destruction of the Temple, “on the day when the guards of the house tremble (Kohelet 12:3)”…” and those who grind cease working (Ibid.),” this refers to the great Mishnaic collections, such as the Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva and the Mishnah of Rabbi Oshaya and the Mishnah of Bar Kappara, “because they are few (Ibid),” this is the Talmud which is included in the them, “and those who look through the windows see dimly,” one finds that when Israel went into exile among the nations not one of them could recall his own learning …(emphasis added) 

A harrowing depiction of the unraveling of tradition in the wake of disaster, the ultimate line captures the paralyzing confusion of the exiled sages.  Likewise, Midrash Eichah Rabbah (Petihta 25) sounds a similar motif:

…regarding that hour he says, “Give glory to the Lord your God before He brings darkness (Jeremiah 13),” before He brings darkness onto you from the words of Torah, before He brings darkness onto you from the words of the prophets…

An ominous destruction extinguishes the illumination of Torah.  Instead of clairvoyance, the Torah student struggles to make sense of tradition through a dimming darkness. 

The very layout of Eichah’s lament displays the same essential theme.  As Rav Soloveitchik often stressed, the first four chapters of this book adheres to a strict aleph-bet acrostic structure (with the third chapter following a triplet for every sequential letter).[14]  However, at the apex of the book—at the culmination of catastrophe and destruction—this structure crumbles.  A chaotic dispersal of verses overwhelms the fixed control maintained throughout the early chapters of misfortune.  Commotion and upheaval are unleashed in the heart of calamity.

Thus, the baraita’s allowance to study confusing subject matter is a pained invitation to experience the tragic Torah of Tisha Be’av;[15] to enter into the trauma of churban where one is afflicted with “…madness, blindness, and confusion of mind.”[16] 


[1] These leniencies are never delineated by the Bavli in the analogous context of a mourner (see Bavli Moed Katan 15a and 21a) which leads rishonim to debate whether they extend to a mourner.  See, e.g., Tosafot MK 21a, “veasur,” which records the changing views of Rabbeinu Tam on this issue.  See also Bet Yosef Yoreh Deah 384.  Various rishonim (the RI, Rambam, Meiri, etc.) distinguish between Tisha Bav and a mourner, which makes much sense in light of my analysis below (which is more relevant to the context of national trauma and mourning).  But see Yerushalmi Moed Katan 3:5 discussed in fn. 3.

[2] Indeed, the Rav argued that such study constitutes a kiyum in the day of Tisha Be’av.  See Shiurei Harav on Avelut and Tisha Be’av, p.45.

[3] This opinion is first recorded in Yerushalmi Moed Katan 3:5 in the context of a mourner, but the Bavli may only apply this in the context of Tisha Be’av (see fn. 1).  This opinion is rejected lehalacha by most poskim.  But see Rosh Moed Katan 3:37, and the discussion in the Talmud Halakha Berura.

[4] See Taz Oreh Hayim 554:2.  See also the discussion of the Rav in Harere Kedem, volume 2, pp. 291-93.

[5] See Tur OH 559 and Shulkhan Arukh OH 554:4.

[6] Sukkah 28a-b and Rashi ad loc.

[7] One could respond that one has both simha and tsaar and the two are not contradictory.  But that would also apply in the context of koreh hu be-makom she-eino ragil likrot.  Indeed, that is another objection to Rashi’s explanation on Taanit 30a.  Namely, why does tsaar in the learning process negate the inherent simha of Talmud Torah?  One can have both simha and tsaar at the same time.

[8] Thus, it is less about the hefza of unfamiliar Torah, and more about the masseh (or kiyum) of this kind of Talmud Torah.

[9] While my explanation below may extend to all mourners, it makes most sense in the context of a pervasive national trauma.  See fn. 1 above. 

[10] See Rashi and Tosafot on Bava Batra 15a.  See also Rambam and Raavad Hilkhot Tefilah 13:6.

[11] See Aderet Eliyahu al Ha-Torah.

[12] Contrast this with the explanation offered in Bavli Taanit 28b.

[13] I thank Rabbi David Stein who brought this question to my attention (citing Rabbi J.J. Schacter), and noting the discussion of the Maharsha on Taanit 28b.

[14] See The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways (ed. Rabbi J.J. Schacter), pp. 134-136.  I believe that the above explanation which interprets the chaos of chapter five as reflecting the intensifying churban is also the insight of the Rav, but I have not been able to identify a source.

[15] Having lost a firm grasp over the Torah, the intensive mourner senses it slipping away in the bleak hour of destruction.  Indeed, a haunting ritual recorded in Masechet Soferim (likely of Geonic provenance) captures this feeling:

The reader of Tisha Bav says, ‘Baruch Dayan Ha-emet.  Some place the Torah on the ground in a black wrapping and say, ‘The crown is fallen from our head (Lam 5:16),’ and they rend their garments and eulogize as with a man whose dead lies before him.…

Instead of grasping the living Torah (Etz Hayim Hi le-mahaziqim Bah), this ritual demonstrates the Temple mourner’s loss of control over a lifeless one.  Indeed, the state of confusion described above is only the first phase in national mourning.  Afterwards, a more devastating silence sets in.  Numerous additional sources reflect this theme in the context of Tisha Bav mourning and Torah study, and require separate treatment.

For an additional analysis of the Soferim passage, see Rabbi Nati Helfgot, Or Hamizrach 42:2 (1994), pp.179ff.

[16] The full verse reads “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind (Devarim 28:28).”  I Thank Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Helfand for reminding me of the poignancy of this verse.  The Ramban (Vayikra 26:16 and Devarim 28:42) links the tockheha of Devarim to the churban of the Second Temple.

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