Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Coffee on the Fast
Q: Rabbi, I am used to drinking several cups of coffee every day, and as a result when I fast, I get terrible headaches. Is there anything I can do? Maybe I fall under the category of a choleh (an ill person), and exempt from fasting?
A: Since you need coffee to avoid headaches, you are permitted to take a teaspoon of instant or granulated coffee and swallow it without water. This is because in such a manner the coffee is not edible, seeing as it has a very bad, and even repulsive taste. True, on fast days it is forbidden to eat even inedible things, because by deciding to eat them, a person demonstrates he considers them food (Rosh). But in this case, when the goal is to relieve a headache, someone who swallows coffee does not consider it food, but medicine. A number of teaspoons of coffee can be taken in this manner throughout the day, as needed.
Afterwards, it would be advisable to brush one’s teeth thoroughly to prevent bad breath.
If one has Acamol (Tylenol, paracetamol) pills with caffeine, specifically designed for the purpose of relieving such pain, he can swallow them without water on the fast, and thus prevent headaches.
Rinsing One’s Mouth in the Morning
Q: Is one allowed to brush his teeth in the morning of Tisha B’Av?
A: In the past, people brushed their teeth less, and therefore the general instruction was to forbid rinsing out one’s mouth on fast days (S.A.567:3). Nevertheless, if by not washing his mouth a person was distressed, he was permitted to do so, as long as he made sure not to swallow any drops of water (M.B. 11). True, on Tisha B’Av, in addition to the prohibition of drinking, there is also a prohibition of washing, but if the dirt or sweat causes distress, one is permitted to wash that area of his body. Therefore, a person distressed by not brushing his teeth in the morning with water and toothpaste may do so on Tisha B’Av (on Yom Kippur, where the prohibition of drinking is from the Torah, one must be stringent and brush without water or toothpaste).
The Custom of Sleeping on the Ground
Q: Is one obligated to sleep on the ground on Tisha B’Av?
A: According to halakha, one is not obligated to sleep on the floor. Nevertheless, Jews traditionally expressed mourning on Tisha B’Av by doing so, and there are a number of different customs: Some sleep on the floor, others sleep on their bed without a pillow, while still others place a stone under their pillow (S.A. 555:2). One who finds it hard to sleep this way, may sleep as usual (M.B. 555:6). The accepted custom is to express mourning by placing one’s mattress on the floor, and subsequently, there is no need to remove the pillow. In this way, one fulfills the custom of mourning without having difficulty sleeping. Some people embellish the custom by also placing a stone underneath the mattress.
The Custom of Sitting on the Ground
It is customary to sit on the ground, similar to the minhag of mourners. Since this is not obligated by halakha, we are not stringent about doing so until the conclusion of Tisha B’Av (Bach, 559:1). Jews of Ashkenazi origin are customary to be stringent in this minhag until chatzot ha’yom (midday), and Jews of Sephardic origin, until tefillat Mincha [afternoon prayer] (S.A. and Rema 559:3). Those who sleep in the afternoon do not need to place their mattress on the floor.
According to Kabbala, some refrain from sitting on the ground without a chatitzah (separation) of fabric or wood between themselves and the ground (Birkei Yosef 555:8), but many poskim, halakhic decisors, say that if one sits on a tiled floor, even according to Kabbala, he does not have to be meticulous about this. Some people, nevertheless, are meticulous to place a chatitzah even on tiled floors.
Since halakha does not obligate sitting on the ground on Tisha B’Av, one is permitted to sit on a small pillow or on a low bench, but preferably, it should not be higher than a tefach (8 cm.) from the ground. If it is difficult to sit so low, one can be lenient and sit on a low chair which is not higher than three tefakhim (24 cm.). Someone who finds this difficult is permitted to sit on a chair a little higher than three tefakhim.
Sitting on steps is considered the same as sitting on the ground, since people tread on them (Makor Chaim L’Chavat Ya’ir).
Pregnant women, elderly, sick, and people suffering from back pain who find it difficult to sit on a low chair, are permitted to sit on regular chairs (Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 387:3).
Remembering the Holocaust
The ‘Three Weeks’, and especially the ‘Nine Days’, are appropriate times for remembering the Holocaust and its lessons. This is the reason I wrote about it in last week’s article.
The awesome question which constantly arises is: Why did this terrible disaster happen to us?
Once, during a class I gave in my early years as a rabbi, I mentioned something I had heard from my rabbis – that as a result of the Holocaust, the State of Israel was established. Among those present was the grandfather of one of the residents. At the end of the lecture, he gently said to me with tears in his eyes: “Is the State of Israel worth all those sacrifices?” Then, trying to speak about the Jews he had known from his town who had been murdered, he truly cried.
I was silent and ashamed, and tears filled my eyes as well. Indeed, the question is far greater than all the answers. Nevertheless, an historical fact cannot be ignored: In all of Israel’s history, there was never a period where so many Jews abandoned the path of Torah and mitzvoth, with many of them actually assimilating. Within the span of fifty years, the majority of the Jewish population in Europe stopped observing Torah and mitzvot. If not with regard to a situation like that one, why were the curses written in the Torah?! This is also connected to an additional fact: There was never a generation in which the gates of immigration to the Land of Israel were so widely open, but nevertheless, European Jews refrained from making aliyah. This was the subject of the book “Eim Habanim Semakhah”, and this is also why the curses are written in the Torah.
And yet, the question is still agonizing, because the trials European Jewry faced were horrifying. Jewish life became unbearable in the hundreds of years before the Holocaust. Many felt they had come to a dead end; faced only poverty and hardship. The future held nothing but persecution and oppression, to the point where many felt they had no choice but to assimilate, or at the very least, abandon religious observance. The idea of Eretz Yisrael, after 2,000 years of exile, also seemed distant and unrealistic. Nevertheless, Maran HaRav Kook ZT’L, Israel’s illuminating and holy light, foresaw this, and from the depths of Torah, charted a course. However, many did not listen to him; perhaps they were unable. And furiously, God uprooted us from the exile, and cast us into the Land of Israel.
Today as well, we are also helpless in many areas of life, and have no alternative but to delve deeper into the Torah, and pray to be able to direct our ways properly.
Redemption through Torah Study
It is written in Tanna D’bei Eliyahu (Eliyahu Zuta 14): “Israel wil not redeemed out of sorrow, or out of slavery, or out of wandering, or out of madness, or out of duress, or out of a lack of food; but on account of ten people sitting together, each one reading and learning with his partner, their voices heard, as it is written: “But upon Mount Zion there will be refuge, and there will be holiness” (Ovadiah 1:17).
One could have thought that after being punished and suffering for our sins, and after being enslaved to the Gentiles and wandering in all our exiles, the object of scorn and oppression – we have finished paying our debt, and deserved to return to our Land and be redeemed. Therefore, our Sages came to teach us that trials and tribulations alone cannot bring the Redemption. The Geula (Redemption) will come as a result of drawing the right conclusions from the sufferings, and these conclusions can only be clarified through Torah study.
Our Sages hinted at two types of study.
Working People who Study Torah
The first type of study is the usual learning by Jews who work for a living, yet, despite all the inconveniences, set aside fixed times everyday for Torah study, and the serious, character-building learning, they fulfill on Shabbat.
The Study of Eminent Torah Scholars
The second type of learning is the profound study of gedolei Torah (eminent Torah scholars), who, from out of the depth of the sufferings, understand the magnitude of Israel’s role in every generation. If the sufferings are not understood, additional trials and tribulations are brought about, each one designed to teach a particular point. The reason why can only be understood through deep Torah study, leading to a knowledge of Israel’s path to redemption through the building of the nation in its Land, according to Torah. It is not enough for each gadol b’Torah to learn individually, for such study lacks the required depth. Rather, groups of talmidei chachamim, inspiring each other in their studies, must learn together.
And it is not enough for each one to learn in a closed room, but must make their voices heard – in other words, their studies must illuminate life with proper, enlightening, and uplifting guidance. Then, we will fulfill the verse: “But upon Mount Zion there will be refuge, and there will be holiness.”
Both Types are Mutually Dependent
Both types of studies are interdependent, because as a result of Torah study by Jews who work in the fields of industry, the sciences, and business, the real questions arise; and only by means of them, can talmidei chachamim clarify the Torah accurately. Therefore, a connection between anshei kodesh and anshei chol is necessary, for only thus, will we reach the truth.
Settling the Land of Israel
The mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel also brings the Redemption closer. It also is connected to the mitzvah of Torah study, because by means of questions related to settling the Land with all its difficulties, the essentials of Torah are clarified. Otherwise, one could escape into engaging in pilpulim (wordplay) and zutote (trivialities) concerning personal and individual questions, without realizing the Torah was given to clal Yisrael for the redemption of the entire world, and only in this way do all the details receive their full importance. By engaging in the mitzvah of settling the Land, both the rules and principles of the Torah are learned.
In order to settle the Land, we must also strengthen ourselves in the mitzvah of puru u’rivuru (be fruitful and multiply), as our Sages said: “Just as Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of proliferating, likewise, they will be redeemed in the future. On what is this based? Know it well. Israel will be redeemed only if they proliferate and fill the entire the world, as it is said: “For you shall break forth on the right hand and on the left; and your seed shall possess nations, and cause desolate cities to be inhabited” (Eliyahu Zuta 14).
Note that the proliferation mentioned in the verse is in order to settle the Land of Israel, as the verse says “and cause desolate cities to be inhabited.” These are the holy mountains and desolate cities of Judea and Samaria, where our forefathers lived, in the paths our prophets walked, and from where our Torah will illuminate and bring our redemption.
This article was translated from Hebrew.