Taanit 30

Torah study on Tisha B'Av.

As we saw in chapter four of Taanit, there are several restrictions on Tisha B’Av that mirror those we observe on Yom Kippur: no eating and drinking, anointing, bathing, wearing leather shoes or engaging in marital relations. Some of these restrictions — refraining from bathing for pleasure, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations — are also typically observed by mourners

On today’s daf, we find an additional restriction observed both on Tisha B’Av and when in mourning, but not on Yom Kippur:

It is prohibited to read from the Torah, from the Prophets, and from the Writings, or to study from the Mishnah, from the Gemara, and from midrash, and from collections of halakhot, and from collections of aggadot.

Among the practices unique to Tisha B’Av is a prohibition on the study of Torah. But immediately after sharing this ruling, the Gemara introduces some clarifications:

However, one may read from a place in the Bible that he is unaccustomed to reading, and he may likewise study from a place of the Talmud that he is unaccustomed to studying. And one may read from the book of Lamentations; from the book of Job; and from the evil matters in Jeremiah, i.e. his prophecies of doom. And schoolchildren interrupt their studies for the day because it is stated: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” (Psalms 19:9)

As the prooftext from Psalms makes clear, Torah study is a joyous activity, and one is supposed to abstain from joyous activities on Tisha B’Av and during periods of mourning. As Rashi points out, the reason why one may study unfamiliar material on Tisha B’Av is because the learner will likely be confused and therefore distressed by the struggle to readily understand it, contributing to the overarching misery of the day. 

In Tractate Moed Katan, which we will begin learning less than two months from now, we find a related passage about Torah study restrictions observed by a mourner, with one important exception: 

And he is prohibited from reading in the Torah, and in the Prophets, and in the Writings, and from studying in the Mishnah, in the midrash, and in the halakhot, and in the Talmud, and in the aggadot. But if the public needs him to teach them these things, he need not refrain from doing so. There was an incident that the son of Rabbi Yosei died in Tzippori, and Rabbi Yosei entered the study hall and expounded there for the entire day.

This related narrative begs the question: If Torah study is inherently pleasurable, and those in mourning are meant to refrain from pleasurable activities, why is there an exception carved out in the case of public need?

To understand this apparent disconnect, we need to appreciate that there is something fundamentally different between a community in mourning and an individual in mourning. 

Tisha B’Av, at its essence, is a communal mourning event — not a private one. For a community in mourning, pleasurable activities — including Torah study — are suspended for everyone. And if no one is studying Torah, there’s no reason for anyone to teach it either. 

But mourning a departed loved one is a private event. This makes it all the more surprising that a leader in mourning might be called upon to teach Torah to the community. But when a community needs guidance that can only be given by their rabbinic leader, their needs override the needs of a mourner. In this case, the public persona of the scholar supersedes the private persona of the mourner. 

While halakhah might be fixed, exceptions often occur, particularly in service of public need. That’s a particularly meaningful takeaway from our study of Tisha B’Av, a day on which we mourn the destruction of the Temple. While we might be grieving for that loss, our modern Jewish collective is still going strong, producing leaders, and studying Torah — just not on the ninth of Av. 

Read all of Taanit 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 12th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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