In Pursuit of Happiness – Simcha Secrets in Hilchos Tisha B’av?

By Rabbi Avraham Y. Heschel

On a Tishah B’Av afternoon in Camp Ohr Shraga, a bachur approached me with a request from Harav Label Katz, zt”l.

“Harav Katz heard that you have the sefer Sichos Mussar here in camp and wants to know if he can borrow it,” the bachur relayed.

The fact that he had somehow discovered I brought the sefer, containing the shmuessen of Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, to camp didn’t surprise me. My grandmother, a”h, often pointed out — alle soides kimmen arois, all secrets will eventually emerge — and in this case, I never even sought to keep it a secret. What I did find perplexing was that Harav Katz, who along with, ybl”c Harav Label Wulliger, shlita, served as the camp’s two Poskim, wanted to learn from this sefer on Tishah B’Av, a time when most types of Torah learning is prohibited.

Curious, I told the bachur I would personally bring the sefer to the Rav, and when I did so, I respectfully asked if he meant to learn from it that very afternoon.

“It is a mussar sefer,” Harav Katz stated.
“But learning from Sichos Mussar brings simchah.” I remarked.
The Rav looked at me, and simply repeated what he had said earlier. “It’s mussar!”

(Later, I discovered there is a difference of opinion among the Poskim regarding the permissibility of learning mussar on Tishah B’Av, and if so, which types of mussar are permissible. When I later discussed it with another Posek, he responded that the only sefer of mussar that was permissible was the frightening words of the Reishis Chochmah in the section titled Shaar Hagehinnom. As with all matters of halachah, readers are urged to ask their own Posek.)

What struck me at the time was how the way Harav Katz learned Sichos Mussar was entirely different from the way I did. He clearly took the words of Harav Shmulevitz very much to heart, and applied the teachings in an earnest way, making it permissible, in his opinion, to learn on Tishah B’Av. While Harav Katz’s level of learning was something I could not even attempt to emulate, and parts of his derech in avodas Hashem, including the way to learn mussar, was different from the one I received from my mentors, the intensity and loftiness exhibited by Harav Katz was an inspiring lesson.

In the past, when the regular rotation of articles caused this column, themed “in pursuit of happiness,” to be scheduled for the Nine Days, I would request that it be postponed. It seemed inappropriate for an article about happiness to appear during days of mourning. This year, I reconsidered. For there is much about the subject of happiness that can actually be derived from this time of year in general, and from Tishah B’Av, in particular.

The reason given by Chazal (Taanis 30a) for the prohibition against learning Torah on Tishah B’Av is that it causes simchah. As the opening anecdote illustrates, which Torah topics are the exceptions to this rule, is a matter of discussion among the Poskim, and much depends on how a sefer is learned. Other than the handful of exceptions such as learning about the Churban, all agree that Torah learning is a sure path to attaining simchah.

One person who epitomized this concept was Harav Moshe Shimanowitz, z”l, who at the time of his petirah five years ago, was one of the last surviving talmidim of Hagaon Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l. He suffered much tribulation during his long life, and left no surviving descendants. Yet from the moment I first met him, he struck me as an unusually happy person.

He once mentioned to me, during an unrelated Torah conversation, almost as an afterthought, how he had achieved such happiness.
“‘Pikudei Hashem yesharim, mesamchei lev.’ What keeps me going is the learning,” he said. “But that isn’t the reason why we learn!” he quickly added.

When I would come visit him in the Novardok shul where he learned, he was often so deep into the sugya he was studying, that it took several long moments until he even noticed me. Yet it was never a matter of distracting himself from his circumstances, a way to escape his challenges. He derived enormous joy from his learning, but that wasn’t why he learned. He learned Torah because it was a fundamental part of his mission as an eved Hashem. This in turn ensured that his Torah learning would indeed lift him to great heights of joy.

In the Sefer Imros Tehoros (on Chodesh Av) the Rachmastrivka Rebbe, shlita, suggests an additional explanation why it is prohibited to learn Torah on Tishah B’Av. The Rebbe, quotes a teaching of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh in Parashas Eikev, which states that Torah must be learned with joy, for an avel is forbidden to learn Torah.

Similarly, the Rebbe explains, since we are prohibited from being b’simchah on Tishah B’Av, Torah learned on this day would invariably be without joy — and since Torah without obligatory simchah is an impossibility, we are not permitted to learn…

(As these words are being written, the Rebbe is hospitalized in serious condition, and Klal Yisrael is asked to please daven for a refuah shleimah for Harav Chai Yitzchok ben Esther Rivkah.)

At this point, we continue to hope and be mispallel that these days of mourning will be turned into a time of joy, and Tishah B’Av 5782 will be a Yom Tov. If, chas v’shalom, the Ribbono shel Olam will see fit otherwise, it may be worthwhile to spend a few minutes before and after the fast day contemplating the dual simchah lesson Tishah B’Av teaches us: Torah learning is a pathway for happiness, and Torah must be studied with a heart filled with joy. 

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!