Tisha beAv is unique among post-Mosaic fasts in that it lasts a full twenty-four (and-a-half) hours, from sunset until nightfall. But one aspect of it starts earlier: not studying Torah. Let’s consider the prohibitions of 9 Av, as recorded in the Talmud (Taanit 30a):
One must not eat, drink, anoint himself, wear shoes, or have sexual intercourse. The Torah, Prophets and Writings must not be read. The Mishna, Talmud and Midrash must not be studied, neither law nor lore… one may read Job, Lamentations and the bad prophecies of Jeremiah, but the schoolchildren must be idle on that day, for it says, “God’s directives are upright; they make the heart rejoice” (Ps. 19).
However, this refers to 9 Av itself. What about the 8th? Let’s turn to the Rema, R. Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazi half of the Shulchan Arukh, specifically OC 553:2:
It is permitted to wash, anoint and to wear shoes until twilight… However, the custom has been not to study on the day preceding 9 Av from midday onwards, unless it is something permitted on 9 Av. Therefore if it falls on the Sabbath, one does not recite Ethics of the Fathers. Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av.
So, even though one may eat until sunset, one must put down the Talmud at halakhic noon (which is usually closer to 1 PM, what with DST and all). Indeed, I remember well in camp how the books would slam shut at midday: no more hermeneutics of torts, ports and warts — it was time for sports! Surely, what better preparation for a full-day summertime fast could there be than running around chasing balls?
Indeed, this custom is so powerful that it trumps the Sabbath itself: though many have the custom to learn a chapter from the mishnaic tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 9 Av’s imminence trumps the eminence of Shabbat.
This is particularly astounding when we consider what the previous page of Talmud (Taanit 29a) tells us about the encounter between 9 Av and Shabbat. Of course, the fast is pushed off if they fall on the same day, but what of the Sabbath afternoon which immediately precedes the Fast of 9 Av (Observed)? The Rema tells us not to study Avot, but what of the traditional third meal?
If 9 Av falls on a Sabbath, or even if the eighth falls on a Sabbath, one may eat and drink whatever he chooses, and may place on his table even such viands as were eaten by Solomon while he was yet king.
So, you may eat your Beluga caviar, foie gras and venison, with a tankard of ale to your left and and a Burgundy glass of Pinot Noir to your right, but if you dare to talk about the weekly Torah portion, you are a sinner!
The problem, of course, is that people do not read that last line of the Rema’s ruling: “Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av.” The term in Hebrew is tiyul, which has come in modern Hebrew to refer to hikes and school outings. However, that is not its original meaning, as we find it listed in OC 639:1 as one of the activities to be performed in one’s sukka. Certainly, an ad hoc dwelling in a booth/ hut/ tabernacle is no place for wide-ranging travels. Rather, the term refers to relaxing, hanging out, enjoying leisure time. You know, the sort of things that people do instead of studying Torah.
Why are people so eager to apply the first half of the Rema’s ruling? Perhaps there is a psychological element, the gotcha syndrome. There is something deliciously ironic about the Torah crying, in Carrollesque fashion, “Don’t read me!” on Tisha beAv. It reminds me of the monomaniacal obsession that grips some people when Passover begins on a Saturday night. We stop eating leaven by the late morning, and touching matza before the Seder is akin to deflowering one’s bride before leaving for the wedding hall, so with neither challa nor matza, how can we eat the third meal on Shabbat afternoon? Never mind that people are fine making do with a piece of cake, fruit, water or air on many a wintry Sabbath afternoon — now that Halakha says that we simultaneously must and mustn’t eat bread, the game is afoot.
So maybe we just don’t accept this ruling of the Rema. It wouldn’t be the first time. However, I like to turn to the words of the Chafetz Chayim (BH 553), who writes:
I am inclined to allow, even on a weekday, to study until near twilight, and were I not apprehensive of my colleagues, I would say that even on the day of 9 Av itself, we should be lenient; for in our great sins, the generations have become corrupted, and on the day of 9 Av they loiter in the streets and engage in idle chatter, and even those who are literate and some of the scholarly are lenient about this.
If this sage had lived another century and witnessed Instagram, Twitter and Facebook loitering, I think he would have overcome his apprehension.