Mourning Through “Bitul Torah”

Here’s an article that I wrote several years ago, published originally on; as today is the beginning of the Three Weeks, the 17th of Tammuz…culminating in Tisha Ba’av, I think it’s a timely piece:

Tisha B’Av: Mourning Through “Bitul Torah” 

1. Learning Curtailed
2. Pre-Natal Classes
3. Applying The Lesson
4. The Fervent Learner: Role Model or Transgressor?

Learning Curtailed
The traditional three-week mourning period marking the process of the destruction of our two Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples) culminates in probably the most difficult day, both spiritually and physically, of the Jewish year. On Tisha B’Av, the Jew is bidden to internalize the great national tragedy of the Temples’ destruction by adhering to the same restrictions as a person who, God forbid, suffers the loss of a close relative. To this end, the Shulchan Arukh rules that on Tisha B’Av it is forbidden “to wash, anoint oneself, wear leather shoes, and have intimate relations. It is also forbidden to read from the Tanach (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim) and to learn Mishna, Midrash, Talmud – including both halachic and allegoric passages.”

Why the prohibition on learning? Basing himself on the Talmud, Rabbi Yosef Karo cites the verse in Tehilim (19:9): “The statutes of God are upright, rejoicing the heart…” Since Tisha B’Av is a day of immense sadness, it is inappropriate to experience the joy that comes with learning Torah.

In his commentary on Tehilim, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezrah notes that the Hebrew term for the “statutes of [God]” employed by the above verse is “pekudei” – and that this word shares the root of the term “pikadon”. A “pikadon” is an object entrusted by one to another, generally for purposes of safekeeping. “They [the mitzvot of the Torah] are present in potential within the soul of everyone obligated in commandments,” Ibn Ezrah explains. “God entrusted [the mitzvot to us by placing them] in [our] hearts.”

Pre-Natal Classes
The concept that all of Torah is embedded deep within every Jew is a famous theme of the early Talmudic period. In Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit Ch. 38), for instance, the sage Shmuel states that while in his mother’s womb, the fetus is taught the entire Torah. Upon birth, an angel appears, strikes the baby on his mouth, and causes him to forget all of his learning. (A lengthier version of the same theme appears in Talmud, Tractate Nidda 30b)

According to the commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, the midrash is effectively saying that from the very earliest stages of his development, the Jew has the potential to achieve a high degree of spiritual perfection, the kind gained through knowledge of Torah. “Nevertheless,” explains Akeidat Yitzchak, “this potential may never be actualized. It depends on the degree of effort and toil invested in learning.”

These pre-natal Torah lessons, he adds, also help explain the conclusion of the midrash: At birth, the baby takes an oath, committing himself to be a Tzaddik (righteous person) and not a Rasha (wicked person). Although the child has forgotten his learning, says the Akeidat Yitzchak, he can confidently take the oath, since Torah absorbed by him in the womb creates within him a predisposition towards righteousness.

That said, what is the connection drawn in the verse in Tehilim between the concept of Torah as a “pikadon” in our hearts, and the simcha – or joy – experienced by us during Torah study?

The joy of learning Torah stems from the Jew’s rediscovery of the Torah he internalized prior to birth, the Torah entrusted to him, the Torah that until now, has been lying dormant in his heart and mind, waiting to be given new life.

This is the kind of exciting spiritual experience denied the Jew on Tisha B’Av.

Chazal – our sages of blessed memory – understood that in the course of time, it would be increasingly difficult for Jews to comprehend what was actually lost with the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash. The longer the exile, the harder it would be to appreciate the significance of the korbanot (sacrifices) or, for example, the Avoda (service) of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. One thing that would remain with the Jews throughout the Galut, however, is the Torah. Chazal understood that the committed learner of Torah would feel a great sense of loss and intense sadness when denied the opportunity, for even a 24-hour period, to pursue his daily, lifelong task of rediscovering his Torah.

Applying the Lesson
Many of us may now be asking ourselves: “This kind of halacha may have an impact on seasoned Talmidei Chakhamim – great Torah scholars, but what about the majority of us who are simply not on such a lofty spiritual level? How are we to relate to the prohibition of learning Torah on Tisha B’av?” The western concept that says everyone is entitled to monthly, weekly, even daily allotments of leisure time has taken its spiritual toll on us all. As hard as a person studies at yeshiva, if he grew up in a popular culture that values spending hours in front of the television watching football, relaxing on week-long Caribbean luxury cruises etc. – it’s a real challenge for even this dedicated yeshiva student to truly internalize the pain of being denied the ability to learn Torah for the 24-hour period of Tisha B’Av!

A possible approach to this dilemma may be found in the hashkafa, or conceptual outlook, conveyed by the halacha: The reason Torah is denied to us on Tisha B’Av is so that we feel a loss, a sense of mourning, on that day. Torah learning engenders joy because, as explained earlier, it is a process wherein the Jew rediscovers the gift bestowed upon him prior to birth. When the Torah scholar is held back from engaging in this process of self-actualization, he feels a vacuum in his life, he feels denied.

It may very well be that our sages wished to convey this hashkafa even to those of us who cannot yet totally internalize this sense of loss. In other words, the very formulation of a halacha which declares that, in order to feel a sense of mourning, one just refrain from learning on Tisha B’Av – is, in and of itself a powerful Torah message! With this halacha, our sages are not simply instructing us to refrain from learning on Tisha B’Av – they are simultaneously impressing upon us the need to view Torah learning as fundamental to our own personal happiness, our sense of self-fulfillment as Jews.

The Fervent Learner: Role Model or Transgressor?
The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan, rules that, despite the prohibition of Torah learning during the week of Aveilut (mourning), “if he (the mourner) was fervent in his need to learn Torah, it is permissible.” The same leniency would seemingly apply to Tisha B’Av, as well, since its prohibition of Torah learning is modeled on the laws of mourning. Rabbi Yosef Karo, after quoting this Talmudic source in his work, “Beit Yosef”, concludes: “But the poskim (rabbinic decisors) did not record [this leniency].” It was not accepted in normative halacha.

However, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef – in his monumental work of responsa, “Yabiah Omer” – writes that he did succeed in tracking down one noted (lone) posek, the Shibolei Haleket, who adopts the leniency, and permits particular fervent Torah learners to learn as usual during Aveilut.

Rabbi Yosef thereupon cites an anecdote (initially recorded in Sefer Binayahu, Berachot 24) that illustrates an application of the principle of the very devoted Torah scholar. “A particular scholar had such a wondrous drive to learn Torah, that when he became a mourner, he continued to secretly immerse himself in Torah. His colleagues reproved him for doing so, [reminding him] that a mourner is forbidden from learning Torah. His response: ‘I know that I am transgressing the words of the sages, and that I will surely receive my punishment for this on Judgement Day, but I am prepared to suffer the consequences and to gladly accept my punishment, because I simply cannot hold myself back, I cannot tolerate the anguish I feel from Bitul Torah – that is as difficult for me as death itself.”

Certainly, the above story presents a serious philosophical problem for the religious Jew. Normative halacha rejects such an approach: namely, knowingly committing even a rabbinic transgression, while declaring that one is willing to “suffer the consequences.” Such an attitude undercuts the very authority of halacha itself! Of what value is the Torah study of such a person if he does not put his study into practice? And yet, this story is cited in a reputable halachic work, and repeated by the most prolific and prominent Sephardic halachic authority of our day, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef!

Halacha recognizes the principle of “Oness, Rachmana Patrei” – one is not held responsible for situations beyond one’s control. A typical example of this rule: I am stuck in a traffic jam and arrive too late to pray with a minyan. Since I allotted plenty of time to reach the synagogue, I am not held responsible for missing Mincha with a minyan.

The scholar in the earlier story was similarly, not in control. So much was Torah a part of his essence that the halachic imperative for him to stop learning was like commanding him not to breathe!

This Tisha B’Av, when we refrain from our daily routine of Torah study, let us try to internalize the loss of Torah on a personal level – and from there move to an awareness of the loss on a national level, the loss of our Beit Hamikdash.

And may our mourning soon turn to joy.

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