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Who Knows Fifteen?

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The last mishnah in Maseches Taanis says that the most joyous holidays of the Jewish calendar were Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur was understandably a holiday because it is the day that Hashem forgives Klal Yisrael for their sins. Furthermore, the Gemara notes that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down the second set of Luchos on Yom Kippur. That indicated that Hashem had conditionally forgiven Klal Yisrael for the sin of the Golden Calf. But the Gemara (Taanis 30b) questions the special significance afforded Tu B’Av.

The Gemara offers various rationales for the celebrations. The Rashbam suggests that although different sages offer variant explanations, they do not disagree. They are each just relating the personal tradition they received for an occurrence that happened on Tu B’Av.

1. Rebbe Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: While the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years, any woman whose father had died without leaving any sons could marry only within the same shevet, to prevent the father’s portion in Eretz Yisrael from passing on to other shevatim. Sometime after the first generation of Jews that entered Israel passed away, this ban was lifted, on the 15th of Av. These women were now free to marry anyone they pleased. The Keren Orah writes that this was a cause for celebration because the marriage ban interfered with a sense of unity among the tribes. After the ban was lifted, a full sense of achdus was achieved. This caused the Divine Presence to rest on Klal Yisrael.

2. Rav Yosef said in the name of Rav Nachman: After the incident of the Concubine of Gibeah (see Shoftim 19–21) a temporary restriction was enacted that women from other tribes could not marry men from Binyamin. This ban was lifted on Tu B’Av. Similar to the first explanation, this increased the feelings of unity in Klal Yisrael.

3. Rabbah and Rav Yosef stated that Tu B’Av was the last day on which wood was collected for the main Altar in the Temple. A celebration was made to mark the completion of the mitzvah.

4. Rav Masneh stated that Tu B’Av was the day that the Roman occupiers permitted burial of the victims of the massacre at Beitar. Beitar was not ravaged until 52 years after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash. The residents of Beitar did not suffer from the malady of baseless hatred; they were therefore spared the fate of Yerushalayim. The Midrash therefore asks: What sin precipitated their eventual downfall? It was that they celebrated when the people of Yerushalayim were suffering.

However, this was not baseless hatred. The Midrash notes that the people of Yerushalayim managed to steal the titles to their lands. Some residents of Beitar were left penniless because of this fraud, so they indeed had just cause to be incensed. Still, one should not rejoice at the downfall of his enemy. This was the sin that sealed their tragic fate.

The Romans killed thousands upon thousands of Jews from Beitar. Hadrian, the wicked Roman emperor, refused to allows the corpses to be buried. The next emperor, after receiving sufficient compensation, finally acquiesced to the burial (Avudraham). Miraculously, the bodies had not decomposed, despite exposure to the elements for years. After the terrible tragedies, some Jews questioned whether Hashem still loved them. This open miracle was a sign from Hashem that He still loves us and is with us even in exile. To experience such a clear miracle after the Jewish nation was already exiled was indeed cause for celebration.

5. Ula stated that Tu B’Av was the day that Hosha ben Alah, the last king from the Ten Tribes, permitted those who wished to ascend to Yerushalayim for the holidays to do so. Many years earlier, Yeravam established the practice of placing soldiers on the roads to prevent this.

6. Rabbah bar bar Chana said in the name of Rebbe Yochanan that on the 15th of Av in the 40th year of the Jewish nation wandering in the desert, it was established that the decree that the generation of the spies should perish was over. It was on that day that Hashem once again spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu. This was a cause for celebration.

Hashem had decreed that those men who were between the ages of 20 and 60 at the time of the sin of the meraglim would perish in the desert and not enter into Eretz Yisrael. Throughout their travels in the desert, on erev Tishah B’Av those Yidden included in this harsh decree would dig a grave. They would sleep in their graves that night. In the morning, the people would see who had died that night and cover them.

The Midrash relates that some 15,000 people died every year, while the rest merited to live at least another year. In the 40th year, those who assumed that they were included in the decree went to sleep in their graves on Tishah B’Av night and, to their surprise, woke up the next day. Thinking they had made a mistake with the date, they slept in their graves for four days. But with the full moon showing on the 15th, they knew with certainty that they had not erred. Only then did they know they were allowed to live. This was a cause for celebration.

The Midrash noted that more than 15,000 people died every year that they dug graves on erev Tishah B’Av. The Torah says that the number of Bnei Yisrael between the ages of 20 and 60 at the time of the meraglim was 603,550. So if we divide that number by 40, the years spent wandering in the desert, approximately 15,090 Jews died every year. The problem with that figure is that the sending of spies occurred in the second year in the desert. Further, from the verses it seems that the decree that those men present would die in the desert commenced in the third year. Only the spies themselves, save for Kalev and Yehoshua, died in the second year. The decree was therefore only in effect for 38 years; 603,550 divided by 38 is 15,883 (rounded). This still fits well with the Midrash because instead of rounding up and saying around 16,000 people died every year, the Midrash said 15,000 and more. However, the Midrash goes on to say that no one died in the 40th year. The decree was therefore only in effect for 37 years; 603,550 divided by 37 comes out to 16,312 (rounded). The Midrash appears to be imprecise in stating that 15,000+ people died every year. It should have said 16,000+.

Rabbeinu Tam explains that in truth 15,000+ people died every year. In the 40th year, Hashem abolished the decree, and the people who were supposed to perish that year were spared. This seems to contradict the clear pasuk in the Torah (Bamidbar 26:64) that says that from the generation of the spies, only Kalev and Yehoshua survived. Tosfos understands that verse to mean that everyone who turned 60 while the decree was still in effect perished. Those that turned 60 the last year survived because the Divine decree had already been abolished. Bnei Yisrael did not know that, and those 15,000+ people dug graves anyway in the 40th year. Kalev and Yehoshua were well over 60 in that 40th year; they should have perished in earlier years if they had been included in the decree.

Alternatively, all 603,548 Jews included in the original decree did die in years 3 to 39. However, a small number of people died during the year, with the result that fewer than 16,000 died on Tishah B’Av.

Tosfos in Taanis quotes the Rashbam that 21,000+ people died every year. There seems to be no apparent explanation for this number, since 21,000 times 37 is 777,000, which is not close to 603,550. Chavos Yair explains that when Tishah B’Av fell out on Shabbos, the decree was suspended. This is similar to our custom nowadays of suspending mourning when Tishah B’Av falls on Shabbos. During the 37 years that the decree was in effect, Tishah B’Av fell on Shabbos nine times, so in the remaining 28 years, around 21,500 people died per year.

We should be zocheh that the mourning of Tishah B’Av be permanently suspended, speedily in our days. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at

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Posted by on July 10, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.