Back to Basics: Mourning on Tisha B’Av
This is a summary and explanation of the guided source sheet on Sefaria.
Tisha B’Av vs. Yom Kippur
Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur have many laws in common. In addition to eating and drinking, both fast days do not allow bathing or washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in marital relations. These are the only two fast days in the Jewish calendar that begin in the evening and end the next night. Yom Kippur is Shabbat Shabbaton, and creative work (as in the 39 melakhot of Shabbat) is prohibited. There is also a prohibition against working on Tisha bBAv, although it is far more limited.
While they are observed in similar ways there are several paramount differences. On Tisha B’Av we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples and ongoing exile, as well as other calamities that occurred on that day; Yom Kippur is not a sad day, but rather a day where we separate from the physical world to focus on the spiritual.
Laws of Mourning vs. Tisha B’Av
The laws for a mourner who is sitting shiva are found in the Talmud:
The Sages taught: These are the activities that a mourner is prohibited from engaging in: He is prohibited from working, and from bathing, and from anointing himself with oil, and from engaging in marital relations, and from wearing shoes. And he is prohibited from reading in the Torah, and in the Prophets, and in the Writings, and from studying in the Mishna, in the midrash, and in the halakhot, and in the Talmud, and in the aggadot.
The laws for mourning on Tisha B’Av are also found in the Talmud:
The Sages taught: All mitzvot practiced by a mourner are likewise practiced on the Ninth of Av: It is prohibited to engage in eating, and in drinking, and in smearing oil on one’s body, and in wearing shoes, and in conjugal relations. It is prohibited to read from the Torah, from the Prophets, and from the Writings, or to study from the Mishna, from the Gemara, and from midrash, and from collections of halakhot, and from collections of aggadot.
In Mesoret HaShas, the text in Taanit reads “…washing, anointing” and the Rif and Rosh omit eating and drinking here as the focus of the list is on mourning. According to this reading the lists are identical.
Tehilim teaches: “The Lord’s precepts are just, gladdening the heart…” Rashi comments that Torah study gladdens the heart. Mourning is all-encompassing; we are meant to feel the difficult emotions, not look for distractions. There is no room for escapism, and even the joy and comfort of Torah study is forbidden.
However, some types of Torah study are permitted on Tisha B’Av. The Talmud permits reading somber sections of the Bible, such as the books of Eicha, Iyov, and sad parts of Yirmiyahu. Shulchan Aruch adds that one can also study Midrash Eicha Rabba and the third chapter of Moed Katan which deals with the laws of mourning, along with commentaries on Eicha and Iyov. Talmudic stories describing the destruction and the events that led to it, such as those in the final chapter of Gittin, are also permitted as they deal with the sad themes of the day.
Rashi points out that one may read from a place that they are not accustomed to reading from since they do not understand what they are reading and will readily be distressed. Others disagree, as the process of learning itself is joyous.
Shulchan Aruch explains that bathing or washing even one part of the body for pleasure is prohibited – regardless of water temperature. However, one may wash to remove dirt or germs – such as after using the restroom or changing a diaper. In the morning and before praying or learning Torah one should wash netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing), but if one’s hands are clean they should only wash the fingers up to the knuckle.
Mishna Brura teaches that if someone is sensitive and they would not be able to function without washing their face in the morning then they would be permitted to wash their face.
Shulchan Aruch prohibits anointing for pleasure. There is some debate, but generally this includes applying lotions, oils, scents, or cosmetics. One may use lotions for health reasons – such as to treat bug bites, rashes or scabs. Rav Melamed adds that one may use vaseline on dry lips, as well as anti-itch cream and mosquito repellent.
Shulchan Aruch: The prohibition of wearing shoes specifically refers to leather shoes. Therefore, shoes made of other materials would be permitted.
The Mishna Brura explains that if it is not made of leather then it is not considered a shoe but rather clothing. Some contemporary halakhic authorities such as Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Moshe Sternbuch prohibit shoes such as sneakers, crocks or Shoresh (Teva) sandals which are often more comfortable than leather shoes. Others such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach dismiss this stringency as the issue is not comfort but rather mourning.
Intimate relations are prohibited on Tisha B’Av and Shulchan Aruch brings an opinion that a husband and wife should not sleep together in the same bed on the night of Tisha B’Av, as is customary when a couple is not permitted to have relations because the woman is nidda.
Working on Tisha B’Av
The Shulchan Aruch explains that one may work on Tisha B’av if this is the local custom, but it is best to abstain from doing soor minimize it as much as possible. In places where there is a custom not to work, working is prohibited.
Sitting on the floor/Low stool
Sitting on the floor or on a low stool is a minhag (custom) rather than a law and therefore it is not in effect the whole day. Shulchan Aruch teaches that one should sit close to the ground until mincha, Rema comments that the custom is until Chatzot (halakhic mid-day).
Tisha B’Av does not follow the same pattern as other rabbinically enacted fast days. There are no selikhot and the focus is not repentance as much as mourning. Therefore, the primary traditions reflect this mourning – we act as a mourner does during shiva. We abstain from work and Torah study so we are not distracted. The prohibitions and customs make us feel the loss of the Beit Hamikdash in the same way that we would feel the loss of a family member at the time that we are sitting shiva.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that private mourning and communal mourning have many of the same laws and customs, but the progression is reversed. When we mourn the new loss of a relative we begin with acute customs that reflect the grief we already feel and slowly dispense with them as we process our grief and return to the world. When we mourn the centuries old communal loss of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty we gradually increase the customs of mourning, to engender appropriate feelings of grief. When one mourns for a loved one they are automatically “in the mood” while when one mourns for Jerusalem these laws and customs serve to encourage them to get “in the mood.”
In this month of Menachem Av, may we merit to be comforted among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and be blessed with a speedy redemption so Tisha B’Av turns from a day of mourning to one of celebration.
 Moed Katan 21a
 Taanit 30a
 Tehilim 19:9
 Rashi Taanit 30a
 Taanit 30a
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 554:2
 Rashi Taanit 30a
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 554:7, 9, 11
 Mishna Brura 554:22
 Shulchan Aruch 554:15
 Pninei Halacha Zmanim 10:7:2
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 554:16
 Mishna Brura 614:5
 Shoneh Halachot 614:3
 Moadim U’Zmanim 628
 Halichot Shlomo Moadim 5:17
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 554:18
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 554:22
 Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim559:3