by R. Gil Student
One of the prohibitions of Tisha B’Av is learning Torah, which brings you joy. You may only learn certain sad parts of the Torah. The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 553:2) records a custom to refrain from learning Torah on the afternoon before Tisha B’Av. Presumably, if you enter the mournful day with these Torah thoughts on your mind, the joy will linger with you. He adds that when the observance of Tisha B’Av falls out on Sunday, we maintain this practice and refrain from studying Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoon.
Mishnah Berurah (ad loc., 8) points out that this can only be a stringency. On the afternoon before Tisha B’Av, we are allowed to eat, drink, wash and other practices forbidden on the day itself. Certainly, on a technical level we are allowed to learn Torah. He also quotes a number of authorities who felt this was a bad stringency, including Maharshal, Vilna Gaon and Chayei Adam. The Mishnah Berurah concludes that whoever wishes to act leniently may do so.
Another important view on this was expressed by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the author of Beis Ha-Levi and namesake for his famous American great-grandson. The story is told1 that one time when Rav Soloveitchik was visiting Minsk, a wealthy businessman associated with a group of maskilim (“enlightened” religious reformers) approached him. This gentleman told Rav Soloveitchik that their generation requires rabbis to rule leniently, in order to prevent Jews from leaving the path of observance (some arguments never change). Rav Soloveitchik replied sarcastically that, indeed, he agreed and rules leniently on a number of matters. The businessman asked for examples and Rav Soloveitchik provided the following seven, all of which are really stringencies formulated as leniencies:
- Some rule that if you fail to pray by halakhic midnight (chatzos), you have lost the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah (this is the view of Rabbenu Yonah). Rav Soloveitchik said that he rules leniently, that if you failed to pray by midnight, you may pray any time throughout the night.
- Some only allow people to wear two pairs of tefillin (Rabbenu Tam in addition to the standard Rashi) if the individuals are extremely pious (this is the view of the Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 34:3). Rav Soloveitchik is lenient and allows anyone who wants to wear the second pair of tefillin.
- Some people are careful not to recite piyutim (liturgical poems) during the regular prayer service because the poems serve as interruptions (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 68:1). Rav Soloveitchik permits these additions to the prayers.
- Some forbid learning Torah on Shabbos afternoon before Tisha B’Av (the Rema, discussed above). Rav Soloveitchik rules leniently and permits learning any kind of Torah until Tisha B’Av begins.
- Some forbid fasting on Rosh Hashanah (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 596), even for the sake of repentance. Rav Soloveitchik permits repentant fasting.
- Some forbid people from fasting two consecutive days of Yom Kippur (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 624:5), as we observe all other holidays in the diaspora. Rav Soloveitchik permits observing two days of Yom Kippur.
- Some rule that if you forget to count one night of the Omer, you cannot count future nights with a blessing (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 489:8). Rav Soloveitchik rules that even if you miss one night, you can continue with a blessing.
Of course, these were not the kinds of leniencies the Maskilim desired. They wanted a life less bound by halakhah, allowing more personal freedom. Rav Soloveitchik did not believe in watering down religion in an attempt to keep people from drifting away.
(reposted from Aug ’16)