Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Ninth of Av
To dedicate this lesson

Why is Tisha B'Av Called a Festival?

Just before the somewhat sorrowful Tachanun prayer in our prayerbooks appears a small notation saying that we are not to say it on Tisha B'Av – because this day is a mo'ed, a festive day. How can it be that a day commemorating such a grave national calamity as the destruction of the Holy Temples and the exile of the nation could actually be considered, in any way, a festival?


Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Lipshits

Av 7 5781

Translated and adapted by Hillel Fendel

Just before the somewhat sorrowful
Tachanun prayer in our prayerbooks appears a small notation saying that we are not to say it on Tisha B'Av – because this day is a mo'ed, a festive day. 

How can it be that a day commemorating such a grave national calamity as the destruction of the Holy Temples and the exile of the nation could actually be considered, in any way, a festival? Let us look at the sources.

The Jewish People's most fundamental Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Arukh, states that Tachanun is not recited on Tisha B'Av because of the verse in Eichah/Lamentations (1,15), "G-d summoned [or: calledmo'ed against me to crush my young men."  That is, the verse is understood to be referring to Tisha B'Av, and therefore the mo'ed – festival – refers to Tisha B'Av.

The problem with this assumption is that in several places in the Talmud and Medrashim, this phrase is understood differently - referring not to Tisha B'Av, but to Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. For instance, let us consider the following seemingly-complex calculation. The Talmud states in Tr. Taanit 29a that it was Tisha B'Av when it was decreed on our forefathers in the desert that only their children - not they themselves - would be permitted to enter the Holy Land. This was derived from the facts that Moshe sent the 12 Spies on the 29th of Sivan and that they remained in the Land for 40 days. But this is problematic, for when we make the calculation – one day of Sivan, 29 of Tammuz, nine days of Av – this give a total of only 39! 

The Talmud therefore explains that Tammuz was made into a leap-month that year – as are approximately half of the Jewish months – with 30 days. As is written in the above-cited verse: "He called upon me a mo'ed," referring to an extra day proclaimed as Rosh Chodesh of Av, thus giving Tammuz 30 days, not 29 – and rendering Tisha B'Av the 40th day and the day of the sad decree.

There are other instances in the Talmud as well from which we learn that the month of Tammuz is intercalcalated, based on the verse in question as referring to Rosh Chodesh – not Tisha B'Av – as a mo'ed!

In fact, we see in a Mishna in Tractate Sh'vuot that this is a matter of dispute among the Sages: Rav Meir holds that Rosh Chodesh is a festival like Passover and Sukkot, because it is called "mo'ed," while R. Shimon does not attribute such a status to Rosh Chodesh. It is therefore likely that R. Shimon would say that the word mo'ed in our verse refers not to Rosh Chodesh as a festival, but to Tisha B'Av. 

The Shulchan Arukh, then, decides like R. Shimon. But why does there seem to be no mention of this dispute between two Mishnaic Sages? Why is R. Meir's opinion given such short shrift? 

I saw a reference to this question in the Chelkat Yaakov responsa by Rav Mordechai Yaakov Breish of 20th-century Zurich. He wrote that both opinions are right! Though the Talmud often explains the verse as referring to Rosh Chodesh, the plain meaning of the verse is as a reference to Tisha B'Av. It is thus logical that the law in this case follows the plain meaning of the verse, even though on a homiletic and aggadic level, the verse is also referring to Rosh Chodesh. 

Rav Breish concludes by reminding us that there are various ways of explaining the Bible, known collectively as Pardes: Pshat [plain meaning], Remez [hints], Drash [midrashic derivations], Sod [mystical meaning] – and all are true on different levels.

We seem to find an additional nafka mina, practical difference, between these two views, regarding the laws of oaths. If one vows not to eat for a week straight, and Rosh Chodesh happens to fall during that week, must he fast on Rosh Chodesh? The answer, it would seem, depends on how we understand our verse in Eichah. If we say that the word mo'ed is referring to Rosh Chodesh, then Rosh Chodesh is "officially" a festival on which fasting is forbidden – in which case the vow cannot be valid for that day, since it contradicts Torah law. But if we say that mo'ed in the verse is referring to Tisha B'Av, then it is not referring to Rosh Chodesh, thus rendering the latter a day on which fasting is permitted – in which case the vow not to eat is valid for that day.

Where do the 12 Spies fit in? According to the view that Rosh Chodesh Av was a mo'ed, let us read the verse in the context of the Spies as follows: The Prophet Yirmiyahu states in Eichah, "He called upon me a festival" – meaning that Tisha B'Av was the mo'ed [set time] of the Destruction, because it was set at the time of the Spies, centuries before the Destruction, when Rosh Chodesh Av became a mo'ed, a two-day festival." That is, as we explained above, if Rosh Chodesh had been only one day, the calamity of the decree not to enter the Holy Land would not have fallen out on the set day of Tisha B'Av.

Keep in mind that the Sages derived that when Israel wept upon hearing the above decree, G-d was not impressed: "You are crying for nothing! You should not have sinned by listening to the Spies in the first place! By crying now on Tisha B'Av, I will set this date for a day of real crying for you for generations!" 

The extra day of Tammuz was therefore pre-set by G-d, all in order that the "day of crying" should fall out on Tisha B'Av, the day of both the Destruction of the Temples, the decree not to enter the Land, and more. That is, G-d caused an extra Festival day of Rosh Chodesh in order to determine the day of mourning. 

Is this not a mockery? Why would G-d add for us a day of rejoicing simply to set a date for the destruction and other calamities? It seems unfair! 

But if we say, as the opinion of R. Shimon above, that Tisha B'Av has aspects of "mo'ed festival" to it, then it is understood: The mo'ed  of Rosh Chodesh brought about the mo'ed of Tisha B'Av!

We must then understand: What can possibly be festive about Tisha B'Av? Rav Dessler explains that it has an element of rectification of the Sin of the Spies: Israel wept without justification at that time, but now, when we cry on Tisha B'Av over the Destruction and Exile, we are no longer crying for no reason, but rather as a way of preparing for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. 

Another way of looking at the "festive" aspect of Tisha B'Av is via the following Medrashic teaching that the Mashiach was actually born on the day of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. The Medrash states: 

"On the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, a Jew was plowing his field when his cow suddenly fell down and lowed [mooed] repeatedly. The Jew struck the cow and tried to urge him to get up, but to no avail. A non-Jew passing by saw what was happening and said, "Jew, Jew! Unyoke your cow and release your plow, for your Holy Temple has now been destroyed!" The Jew rent his clothing, tore out his hair, placed ashes on his head, and began to weep over the destruction. Some hours later, the cow arose and began to dance. The non-Jew said, "Resume your work, for just now the Mashiach has been born." The Jew arose and began to rejoice. He then traveled to Jerusalem to seek out the new-born Mashiach. He found a mother who had given birth that day, and offered to sell her a ribbon for her son. She refused: "I will not buy him a ribbon, for he was born on this accursed day on which the Temple was destroyed." The man kissed the baby on his head and gave him a ribbon, and every year would come to Jerusalem to see him. The baby was named Menachem [consoler]. One year he came to the house, and the woman raised her voice and said, "There is no more Menachem; he has been hidden" – as is written, "She [Jerusalem] has no consoler."

One message that we can glean from this enigmatic Medrash is that the destruction itself begat the beginning of the consolation – just as a seed must rot away under the ground before it begins to sprout a new plant. The very fact of the punishment means that a new process of growth has begun – and this is the joyousness of the tragic day of Tisha B'Av.

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