Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

When and how to mourn:
Judaism's many contradictions

By Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz

AS A PEOPLE, we never were very good at mourning.

The Jewish nation, even as our history was only beginning, seems to have innately come to recognize that it is possible -- and self-defeating -- to mourn too much.

At our very outset, when we find our forefather Abraham weeping for Sarah, the Hebrew word for "and to cry for her" has one of its letters written small, implying limitation. His recognition of his wife's greatness was diminished not a whit and neither are any letters of the word for "to eulogize her"--- for such recognition can never be excessive: it is a positive experience. Crying, though, is a negative one: one can indeed cry too much, with no beneficial result at all.

TheTorah impresses us elsewhere with the absolute necessity of preserving happiness. Strangely, unexpectedly, almost shockingly, in the midst of the most horrible description of Divine punishment in the Torah, the reason, for it is slated: "For your not having served G-d your G-d in happiness..." (Deut. 28:47).

Abraham's people have learned from his example, and from the Torah's exhortation. While we have had much to mourn over in our history, we are careful to always honor the necessary limits to tears.

When we regard the terrible cataclysm of WWII, we can do no less. We can do no better than to model our response after the response to the quintessential Jewish tragedy, the destruction of the Holy Temples.

Each year the sad commemoration of that catastrophe, as mandated by Jewish Law, begins with the arrival of the month of Av. "When Av enters." the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) codifies, we lessen our happiness." Tellingly, though, we are exhorted to "lessen." Not to discontinue.

The actual week containing the Destruction's anniversary arrives, and we intensify our awareness of the sad events. But we still push off the actual signs of mourning -- like sitting low and eating eggs with ashes until the very last moment before the day of Tisha B'Av itself.

The day arrives. We sit low and recite kinos, prayer of lamentation. We fast, we pray, and we cry. But even here, on the day itself, there seems to be a limit. When the afternoon arrives, it finds us permitted to sit on regular furniture, even donning our tefilin, the "beauty" we were denied the first half of the day.

There cannot be, it seems, even a full day of national mourning --- even for the paramount tribulation of Jewish history.

But more. In the dark humus of Tisha B'Av is the day on which Moshiach, the Messiah, is born. The Munkatcher Rav would write personal letters on Tisha B'Av afternoon, and would date them "the day of Moshiach's birth."


Telling, too, is how Rabbi Yehoshua felt the Jew might most effectively mourn the Temple's destruction. There were a group ofJews, after the Second Temple's destruction, who refrained from eating meat and drinking wine.TheTalmud ( Tractate Bava Basra), relates their rationale as they explained it to Rabbi Yehoshua:

"Can we really eat meat, like that which was brought on the altar, and is now destroyed? Can we drink wine like that which was poured on tle altar...?"

"But then we should not eat bread either," Rabbi Yehoshua told them, "as the flour-offerings are no more!"

"We can survive on fruit," they responded.

"But we should not eat fruit either, since the first-fruit offering exists no more!"

"We can eat other fruits (than those species brought as first-fruits]."

"Well, then, we should drink no water, as the water-offering (on Sukkos) has been abolished too!"

They were silent.

"My children," Rabbi Yehoshua continued, "come let me talk to you. To not mourn at all is impossible; the (Heavenly) decree (of the Destruction) has been made. But to mourn too much is impossible too, for no decree may be made that will prove too difficult for most of the populace to observe... So the Sages said (what must be the exclusive expression of mourning): When a person whitewashes his house, he should leave a small piece unpainted... Rebbe Yosef said one square cubit.... A person may prepare all the needs of a meal, but he should leave one condiment (off the table).... A woman may adorn herself with all adornments, but should omit one type of makeup... Ashes are (to be) placed on the heads of bridegrooms ..."

What Rabbi Yehoshua told the anguished mourners was that a human being can --- will --- destroy himself by mourning too much. While the tragedy might theoretically require a limitless expression of grief, our Creator has made us in such a way that we would perish with out limits on our tears.

And by creating us so, He has revealed His will that we recognize those limits.


Indeed, we find two distinct means of remembrance instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud: zecher I'Churban and zecher I'Mikdash. The former recalls the destruction of the Temple. It is the sad remembrance, and is usually observed passively, The emphasis, of zecher l'Churban is less on forms of active mourning, than on keeping unbridled happiness in check, decorating one's home, preparing a meal, self-beautification, weddings....

The second means, though, zecher l'Mikdash, recalls the Beis Hamikdosh itself to the Jew, and recalls it as something alive, vibrant, real. And this form of remembrance is pointedly observed in an active, positive way, throughout the Jewish year.

And so it is that our people has come to deal with its need to mourn in an unusual, almost paradoxical way. The same Jew who spends his midnight hours reciting Tikkun Chatzos in tearful memory of the Destruction, nevertheless marches proudly and happily around the bimah in shul with his esrog and lulav on Sukkos --- in commemoration of Temple times. So he not only cries, in remembrance of the Temple; he dances, too. The same family that sits on the door on erev Tish'a B'Av eating eggs and ashes, several months later sets a luxuriant table for its Pesach meal --- and, leaning in a kingly manner, eats matzah and marror (bitter herbs) wrapped together to remember how Hillel ate it in the time of the Temple. Matzah and Marror are not the only things wrapped together at the seder; our joy and our remembrance are intertwined too, not only in korech (Matzah Sandwhich), but in the roasted egg and shankbone on the seder-plate and in the afikoman as well, all commemorations of what we had in the Beis Hamikdosh that is no longer standing.

And our happiness is not lessened for our remembrance. Despite our recalling of the times of old, our tears are not allowed entrance to the Passover seder. That is zecher l'Mikdash. We remember, most certainly, but in a positive, constructive way.

Jews in Upper Hungary, the Oberland, had the custom of wearing ragged, torn clothing on Shabbos Chazon, the Sabbath before Tisha B'Av. They empathized with the Destruction in a special way. But the same Jews, when Yom Kippur arrived, felt themselves (as do all Jews) actually in the Beis Hamikdosh, as they fell to the floor during the reading of the ancient Temple service. The past was still excitingly, happily alive.

When we think of it, our year is virtually filled with positive, even joyous, reminders of what we could easily be mourning in tears. Our tradition, though, mandates that our active emphasis be put on the first way.

We place the Chanukah menora in shul in such a way that it reflects the menora's placement in the Temple. We re-enact the chibbut arava ceremony on Hashana Rabbah, and hoshana-sellers provide us not only with the objet d'mitzva but with a memory of Temple times, when they likewise abounded, providing the people with willow branches for the holiday. One of the four "special Shabbosos" recalls the annual collection of the half-shekalim for the needs of the Temple. The very taking of the arba minim each of the days of Sukkos is zecher l'Mikdash, a remembrance of the Temple, as are the circuits we make around the bima, which we visualize as the altar.

All those emphatic, active remembrances do not recall the Temple's destruction, but its functioning, and therein lies the important lesson to us. To constantly, actively focus on the loss itself would be counterproductive and unhealthful for a human. That was Rabbi Yehoshua's point to the abstainers. The proper approach to hallowing the past is not only properly mourn it at specific times, but to honor it in a positive, determined way the rest of the time.


In truth, this approach is more than merely healthful, more than simply necessary. It is, in the final analysis,the most real way of remembering.

For it is interesting that no word for remembrance is appended to Yitzchok's (Isaac) name, as it is to Avrohom's (Abraham) and Yaakov's (Jacob), in the verse:

"And I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchok, and also My covenant with Avrohom will I remember, and the land will I remember." -- Lev. 26:42

Rashi points out the oddity, and remarks that G-d doesn't need to "remember" Yitzchok, for "the ashes of Yitzchok are (always) before Me, piled upon the altar," a reference to that forefather's readiness to be offered as a sacrifice.

The commentaries ask: "Ashes? --- But Yitzchok was saved, the order for his death rescinded!" The answer some offer is that Rashi's reference is to all those who, in later times, demonstrated Yitzchok's willingness to die for G-d, and indeed lost their lives for their convictions --- to all the sacrifices of all the future generations of Jew.

That thought speaks to us loudly. Just as G-d needs no "memorial" for Yitzchok, so too is there no need for memorial institutions when the "ashes of Yitzchok" are right before our very eyes. The true Jew remembers almost without effort, for every thing is right there before him! What we are doing when we re-enact the service and practices of the Beis Hamikdosh is not memorializing, but connecting with an aspect of the past still very immediate to us.

The Midrash Rabba comments on the phrase re'ach nicho'ach, "a pleasant fragrance," which the Torah uses to refer to Noach's sacrifice after the flood: "... the fragrance of our father Avrohom as he emerged from the fiery furnace (into which Nimrod had cast him) ... the fragrance of Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah as they emerged from the fiery furnace (into which Nevuchadnezzar had cast them) ... the fragrance of the generation of destruction ...."

The first two examples of willingness to die for G-d represent destructions that almost were, but never happened. Not so the third; it refers to a sacrifice that was real. In our generation we have both examples before us.

Six million souls, sadly, were our own "generation of destruction." But we have the survivors too, those who exist today in spite of the evil that aspired to destroy us all. And the message of the survivors, the message they brought us from the destroyed generation, is that we who follow must not so much mourn as continue.

A Talmudic passage( Tractate Taanis), has Rabbi Yochanan asserting that our forefather Yaakov never really died.

Others present retorted: "Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?"

Rabbi Yochanan responded:

"I am (simply) analyzing a verse. It says (in Jeremiah 30):

'And you, fear not, My servant Yaakov, says G-d, and tremble not, Israel, for behold I am your savior from afar and (that of) your descendants from the land of captivity.' -- The pasuk compares him (Yaakov) to his descendants. So, just as his descendants are alive, so is he."

There are always those who insist that "Yaakov has not died." We are those people. Other Jews, though, witnessing the terrible destruction our people has undergone, cannot fathom our attitude. "Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him?" they ask. And then they proceed to perpetuate their sense of loss, with memorials of stone and barbed wire, with special days of commemoration of what they think is no more.

We, though, have not become eternal mourners --- it was only with difficulty, and years later, that we came to compose a special kinah for the destruction of European Jewry. For we remember in a more meaningful way; we remember with things other than tears. Our interest is not in burying the past --- even with the most lavish funeral --- but in salvaging, continuing, it.


Something I remember is my uncle's small stone. It was before there was Jewish control over the Western Wall. He had a small stone that he had found near the Wall, which he kept in a box in his small home in Jerusalem's Me'ah Sh'earim neighborhood. The Creator had "poured His wrath upon the wood and stones," yet the stones of the Wall had still managed to survive. My uncle found solace in that bit of stone. It was not a gravestone to him, and not a monument, but a survivor. Yaakov, he knew, had not died. To him, his small stone was a reminder that Jews would once again daven (pray) at the Wall --- and they do. And to him it meant that the Holy Temple would once again stand --- and it will.

Our solace no less must be in the surviving wood and stone, the wood and stone that are the walls of the batei midrash (Study halls) of our own times, that which survived the terribleDestruction of fifty years ago into our day. Realizing that Yaakov has not died, we pick up the broken pieces of stone and, with them, build anew.

Our "Holocaust memorials" are regular Torah study sessions the Beis Yaakovs woman's education movement, the reconstructed yeshivos of Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in other places, the replanted gardens of the Chassidic courts of the past. The most meaningful remembrance of the European world of our parents lies not in its epitaph but in its continuance, in the modern sight of the little three-year-old boy's payos (sidelocks), in his first procession to the cheder with his new tzitzis on, in his lick of the honey his elders placed on the page of Chumash for him, just as was done in Budapest of old. Our memorial is the kittel, not enclosed in some glass case in a museum, but worn, just as it was in Poland, by living, determined Jews today.

After tragedy struck, our response was not merely to eulogize or to construct a museum, but a continued Jewish life, a Jewish future, an insistence that Yaakov had not died.

Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz is the Bostoner Rebbe. He resides in both Boston and Jerusalem.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America