A Non-Prayer Day

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We spend so much time in synagogue on Tisha B’Av yet it is not a day of prayer. As we shall see, we say the minimal amounts of prayer, less than on a regular weekday. Our time is spent mourning, remembering. Prayer is about the future; Tisha B’Av is about the past.

R. Menachem Genack (Birkas Yitzchak Al Ha-Torah, Deut. 1:45) finds a hint to this unique status in the Torah reading that always precedes Tisha B’Av. R. Genack quotes his mentor, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who connected a number of Tisha B’Av rules with an underlying theory. Lamentations (3:8) states:

גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי

Even when I cry and shout, He shuts out my prayer.

The final phrase implies that on Tisha B’Av, our ability to pray is limited. Due to the overwhelming sorrow, we are unable to look to the future. We cannot even fathom what we have lost, much less look for a path out of the darkness.

The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 559) quotes the Rokei’ach, who cites this verse as an explanation why we do not recite the Tachanun prayers on Tisha B’Av. Of course, we cannot avoid obligatory prayers such as the Amidah but Tachanun is technically optional, even though we say it (almost) every day. On Tisha B’Av, when prayer is out of the spirit of the day, we omit this optional prayer.[1. Others suggest an entirely different reason for omitting Tachanun: Tisha B’Av is considered a holiday and we do not recite Tachanun on a holiday.]

Similarly, on all other fast days we recite Selichos. Why is Tisha B’Av the one fast day on which we skip Selichos? R. Soloveitchik attributed this omission to the same reason, the absence of prayer on this day of mourning.[2. Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik connects Selichos to prayers. See Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 199.]

Talmudic law requires the addition of an extra prayer service to a fast day. We are accustomed to thinking of Ne’ilah as unique to Yom Kippur but it is supposed to be part of any full fast day. All our other fasts only begin at sunrise and are not complete fasts. But why don’t we recite Ne’ilah on Tisha B’Av? Again, R. Soloveitchik returns to the theme of the cessation of prayer.

And similarly, we do not recite the paragraph Tiskabel in the full Kaddish. That paragraph asks God to accept our prayers. On a day when prayer is shunted, we cannot recite Tiskabel.

While R. Soloveitchik bases his analysis in the scroll of Eikhah, R. Genack sees a hint to this in the Torah. After retelling the story of the Spies and its aftermath, the Torah (Deut. 1:45) describes the Jews’ attempt to forestall their punishment through prayer. “Then you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord would not listen to your voice nor pay any attention to you.” The aftermath of the Spies episode, which the Gemara (Ta’anis 29a) tells us continues throughout the generations, includes dismissal of prayers.

On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor all morning and try to fathom the magnitude of the disasters we have encountered over the centuries. We spend all year planning for the future, charting our personal and communal paths. But if we are not grounded in our past, if we fail to carry our history with us, we have no rudder to faithfully guide us. All year we pray; today we remember.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Ah, the kinot are zaakah, not tefillah? IIRC, RYBS has an essay on tefillah vs. zaakah. It would also fit with the quoted verse, when my prayer is limited, I can only cry out, esp if you switch “ki” around, “also, for I can only scream and shout for he has shut out my prayer”

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