Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was less than enthusiastic about our practice to observe Yom Hashoah (see Nefesh Harav pp.197-198) on the twenty-seventh of Nissan. He felt that we should integrate mourning and remembering the Holocaust into our observance of Tisha Beav. In this essay, we seek to demonstrate how a seemingly peculiar opinion of the Rambam might support Rav Soloveitchik’s argument. This essay is based on studies with my cousin Yehuda Brandriss of Efrat, Israel.
Gemara Rosh Hashana 18b
The Gemara cites the verse in Zecharia chapter eight that states, “The fast of the fourth [month – Shiva Asar Betammuz], the fast of the fifth [month – Tisha Beav], the fast of the seventh [month – Tzom Gedalia], and the fast of the tenth [month – Asara Betevet] will be for the House of Judah [times of] joy and jubilation.” The Gemara notes the contradiction in the verse, as it describes these days as a joyous and yet as days of fasting. The Gemara cites Rav Papa’s explanation that the Pasuk alludes to three different historical periods. “When there will be peace – these days shall be for joy and jubilation; when there will be government decrees [against the Jews] – these days will be for fasting; when there will be no peace yet no government decrees, we will have the choice whether to fast or not.” The Gemara adds that these rules do not apply to Tisha Beav because of the many misfortunes that occurred on this day (see Tosafot ad. loc. s.v. Ho’il).
Accordingly, when there is neither peace nor government decrees, fasting on Tzom Gedalya, Asara Betevet, and Shiva Asar Betammuz is optional and Tisha Beav is mandatory. The Maggid Mishneh (explaining Rambam’s Hilchot Taaniot 5:5) writes “the Jewish People have accepted to fast on these days and thus we are obligated to fast [on Tzom Gedalia, Asara Betevet, and Shiva Asar Betammuz] until the Bait Hamikdash is rebuilt.” Thus, it is a rabbinic obligation to fast on Tisha Beav and a custom to fast on Tzom Gedalia, Asara Betevet, and Shiva Asar Betammuz.
However, during times of government decrees against the Jews, there is a rabbinical obligation to fast on these three fast days. This entails a much stricter observance of these fast days, including a greater reluctance to permit someone who experiences difficulties fasting, to eat. We treat rabbinical obligations with greater stringency than customary obligations. Moreover, the Biur Hagra (Orach Chaim 550:2) approvingly cites the Ramban who believes that in times of government decrees (when it is a rabbinical obligation to fast the three fasts) one must observe the three fasts the same way we observe Tisha Beav. This includes fasting a full twenty-five hour period and abstaining from bathing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations as well as refraining from eating and drinking. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh Harav p.197) reports that there were eminent rabbinical authorities that followed the Ramban’s view during World War II, when there were specific government decrees against the Jews. Rav Hershel Schachter clarified to me that this applied only to those Jews who lived in the countries whose government issued decrees against the Jews.
I have not heard of rabbis in Israel who have stated that the same applies today because of the Palestinian Authority’s encouragement to murder Jews. This is probably because Jews do not live under the sovereign authority of the Palestinian Authority. The Gemara refers to a tragic situation such as that which existed during World War II, where Jews lived in countries whose governments issued decrees against the Jews. The Palestinian
Authority’s actions are a serious problem, but do not seem to rise to the level of government decree against the Jews.
Ritva and Rambam
The Ritva and Rambam argue whether Jews observed Tisha Beav during the period when the Second Temple functioned. The Ritva (Rosh Hashana 18b s.v.U’farkinan) explains that “a time of peace” refers to a time when there is Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael and the Bait Hamikdash is functioning. He explains that “a time of government decrees” refers to a time when the Bait Hamikdash is destroyed and Jews are being persecuted. The intermediate period is when the Bait Hamikdash is destroyed and the Jews are not being persecuted. According to the Ritva, none of the fasts were observed during the period of the Second Temple. Rashi (Rosh Hashana 18b s.v. Detalinhu Bebinyan) appears to agree with the Ritva.
The Rambam, on the other hand in his commentary to the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:3) believes that the Jews did fast on Tisha Beav during the period of the Second Temple “because of the many tragedies that occurred on this day.”
Intuitively, the Ritva appears to be much more logical and convincing. It appears counterintuitive to observe Tisha Beav when the Bait Hamikdash is functioning. The Rambam, though, apparently believes that Tisha Beav is not a day devoted exclusively to mourning for the Bait Hamikdash. Rather, it includes mourning for all of the destructions and pogroms that occurred to the Jewish People throughout the ages. A proof to this is the venerated Ashkenazic practice to recite Kinot for the tragedies caused by the Crusaders to the German Jewish communities of Speyers, Worms, and Mayence and the venerated Sephardic practice to recite Kinot for the expulsion from Spain and Portugal. Therefore, since the establishment of the second Bait Hamikdash did not constitute an end to Jewish suffering, the Jewish People continued to fast on Tisha Beav. Of course, the Rambam (Hilchot Taaniot 5:19) agrees that when the Mashiach will arrive, all of the fasts will be transformed into days of rejoicing. My cousin Yehuda Brandriss adds that when the Mashiach will arrive we will recognize that all of our collective tragedies and suffering were part of the historical process that was necessary for the Mashiach to arrive. Thus, we will view our earlier sorrows as cause for celebration, because these tragedies set the stage for the arrival of the Mashiach.
According to this approach, we understand the aforementioned comment of the Maggid Mishneh, that we must observe all of the fasts until the Bait Hamikdash will be rebuilt. Why do not we say that when there is a serious presence of Jews in Eretz Yisrael that we may cease observing Tzom Gedalia (which mourns the loss of the last bastion of organized Jewish settlement in Israel, as explained by Rambam Hilchot Taaniot 5:2)? Why do we not say that when Jews enjoy sovereign control over Jerusalem we may cease observing Asara Betevet and Shiva Asar Betammuz? The question is strengthened by the accepted practice not to perform Kriah upon seeing the city of Jerusalem because it is under Israeli sovereignty (unlike the Temple Mount, for which we must still perform Kriah). An answer might be that these three fasts are essentially branches and extensions of the fast of Tisha Beav, since Tisha Beav is a day of mourning for all of the tragedies that befell the Jews. Thus, only when we will not observe Tisha Beav will we cease to observe the other three fasts.
Rav Soloveitchik and Yom Hashoah
Accordingly, we can appreciate Rav Soloveitchik’s attitude regarding Yom Hashoah. He felt that we should subsume Yom Hashoah into our observance of Tisha Beav, as Tisha Beav is the day that is designated to mourn for all Jewish tragedies. Indeed, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein related (at the 5760 convention of the Rabbinical Council of America) that the Rav convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to make this change, when Begin met the Rav during a visit Begin made to the United States in 1978. We should parenthetically note that I heard from Rav Aharon Soloveitchik (in a talk to students at Yeshiva University in 1986) that Menachem Begin’s father, Dov Begin, served as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s Gabbai in Brisk, Lithuania, and the two enjoyed a particularly close relationship. Thus, there is a history of a warm relationship between the families of the Rav and Prime Minister Begin.
Rav Lichtenstein relates that when Prime Minister Begin returned to Israel after meeting with the Rav, the former tried to convince the appropriate authorities to make the change. The Israeli government did not make the change due to pragmatic concerns such as the fact that the Israeli education system would not have an opportunity to teach about the Holocaust, since Tisha Beav is observed when Israeli schools are on vacation. Perhaps in the future a change will be made.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County (who is a devoted student of the Rav), notes that until the broader community makes the change we should observe Yom Hashoah on the twenty-seventh of Nissan. Rabbi Adler explains that until we properly integrate commemoration of the Shoah into Tisha Beav observances, we should observe Yom Hashoah on the twenty-seventh day of Nissan. He says that it is better to remember the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah with the rest of the Jewish community, than to neglect it altogether.
Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik once told me that one who studies about the Nazi Holocaust fulfills the Mitzva of remembering what Amalek has done to us. This comment is consistent with Rav Moshe Soloveitchik’s (the Rav told me that people inaccurately attribute this comment to Rav Chaim) celebrated comment that anyone who identifies with the ideology of Amalek (baseless hatred of the Jewish People) has the Halachic status of Amalek. Thus, it is vital for us to properly study and commemorate the European Holocaust, even if we do so on a less than ideal occasion.
Rav Soloveitchik believes that Tisha Beav is the designated day for mourning all Jewish tragedies, including the Holocaust. We hope that the broader Jewish community will agree to observe Yom Hashoah on Tisha Beav. Until then, we should observe Yom Hashoah on the twenty-seventh day of Nissan. We eagerly anticipate the time when Tisha Beav will be a day of rejoicing for the Jewish People, when we will no longer know of sorrow and tragedy.