A Day Without Torah
By Rabbi David Kasher
These last three weeks have marked the saddest period in the Jewish Calendar; they commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. The Mishna in Tractate Taanit tells us that calamity befell our people not only then, but always during this time of the year, even as far back as the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel. And alas, it seems that this year, these three weeks have once again been time of great suffering.
Today marks the culmination of this period, Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Month of Av, on which the Great Temple was actually finally destroyed. This day is traditionally observed with the same mourning rituals that serve as the Yom Kippur afflictions, abstention from: food and drink, moisturizing oils for the skin, bathing, leather shoes, and intimate relations.
But there is another mourning ritual, unique to the Ninth of Av – to refrain from studying Torah. This is quite a striking pronouncement from a tradition that has often encouraged every free moment to be filled with Torah study. The rationale, however, is that Torah study is inherently such a pleasurable activity that it will inevitably produce a joy that is contrary to the spirit of the day.
There are, however some notable exceptions to this one-day ban on Torah. The study of the book of Lamentations, for example, is permitted, because it specifically deals with the destruction of Jerusalem and the themes of the day. It is such a sad book that there is no worry it will cause undue joy.
There are many things to say about Lamentations, a book of poetry attributed to Jeremiah, the prophet of anguish. But perhaps the first thing a quick scan of the work will uncover is the exceptional opening of its third chapter. The first two chapters begin with the word “Eicha” – “How” or “Alas” – an exclamation from which the Hebrew title of the book takes its name. Then those chapters go on to describe the terrible state of affairs in the once-glorious, now-desolate Jerusalem.
The third chapter, however, begins quite differently: “I am the man who has seen affliction.” The sudden first-person voice startles us, and continues throughout the chapter. “He has worn away my flesh and skin; He has shattered my bones.” This is no longer just the account of a national tragedy; this is a cry of personal suffering. The message of the chapter is clear: we cannot separate the two.
And the directive of the chapter? For that I would pick out especially verse 40: “Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord.” Let us, each and every one of us, take a serious accounting of ourselves and see where we have failed, and how we have contributed to the destruction of our people.
That kind of work is personal and it is individual. No one can tell anyone else how to do it. I would venture to offer one suggestion, however, given what we just learned about the practices of Tisha B’Av. If truly feeling the destruction of Jerusalem means ceasing Torah study, I propose that the rebuilding of our people must come about through the study of Torah.
The solution will not only – not even primarily – be political. Our people’s salvation must be built on the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual vitality of our heritage. And those resources are found and developed through the study of our sacred wisdom literature.
A famous Talmudic teaching has it that “Torah scholars increase peace in the world … they are called ‘builders’.” It is only through the study of Torah – in the broadest and most capacious sense of the word—that a peaceful Jerusalem can be rebuilt.
So let us take a day off from our studies, to search our broken souls and struggle to return to our highest understanding of God. And then let us open our books again, and begin to rebuild.
Rabbi David Kasher is the Senior Rabbinic Educator at Kevah, a Berkeley-based organization that supports Jewish learning groups. Subscribe here to ParshaNut, his weekly commentary on the Torah portion.