The "Unknown Days" of the Jewish Calendar
This week, an unsuspecting person wishing to catch a minyan, who walks into a random shul in many places around the world, might be in for a surprise. After the Shemoneh Esrei prayer on Monday there was Selichos; on Wednesday there was no Tachanun; and on Sunday again there won’t be Tachanun! Why would this be? No Tachanun generally signifies that it is a festive day; yet, no other observances are readily noticeable. As for the reciting of Selichos on Monday, they are usually reserved for a fast day; yet no one seems to be fasting! What is going on?
The answer is that three separate specific “Unknown Days” happen to fall out on during this apparently chock-full week.
This past Monday was the third and final day of a semi - annual period that many do not even realize exists: a series of “Days of Tefilla” colloquially known as BeHa”B. This acronym stands for Monday (Beis - 2nd day of the week), Thursday (Hei - 5th day of the week), and the following Monday (Beis). These days are observed on the first Monday, Thursday, and Monday following the earliest Rosh Chodesh after Pesach (Rosh Chodesh Iyar), and likewise after Sukkos (Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan).
The custom of utilizing these specific days for Prayer and supplication is already mentioned almost 900 years ago by the Baalei Tosafos (Tosafos Kedushin 81a s.v. sakva), its importance reiterated by the Tur (O.C. 492, who refers to BeHa”B as a French-German custom) and unbeknownst to many, actually codified in Halacha by the Shulchan Aruch as a proper minhag (O.C. 492)!
Whose Minhag Is It, Anyway?
Although both the Tur and Rema call BeHa”B a German-French custom, and the Shulchan Gavoah (O.C. 492, 1, cited in Kaf Hachaim 492, 8) writes that this was not the minhag in Spain, implying that Sefardim are not beholden to keep BeHa”B, nevertheless, it must be noted that the Shulchan Aruch himself must have felt strongly about this minhag of BeHa”B, as aside for spending a whole siman on it – Orach Chaim 492, he also refers to it and its importance in at least two other locations – Orach Chaim 429, 2 and 566, 2 - 4.
Later Sefardic authorities as well, including the Knesses HaGedolah, Pri Chadash and Chida (ad loc.) also discuss its importance. Therefore, this author finds it interesting that the general Sefardic minhag is not say BeHa”B. In fact, the Siman referring to BeHa”B - O.C. 492, is noticeably absent from the Yalkut Yosef’s Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, implying that it is not relevant to the average Sefardi.
And it is not just the general Sefardi populace who do not say BeHa”B. Already in his time, the Taz (O.C. 566, 3) noted that even among Ashkenazic communities BeHa”B observance was not widespread. See Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 3, 15, s.v. u’lfa”d), who, as a side point to the issue being addressed in his teshuva, maintains that one who does not observe BeHa”B is not considered “Poresh Min HaTzibbur”, as even nowadays its observance is not prevalent. But, among many Yeshiva communities, and especially in Eretz Yisrael, reciting BeHa”B twice a year is de rigueur.
The reason most commonly mentioned by the Poskim why these days of prayer are following the holidays of Pesach and Sukkos, is that over the extended holidays, when there is a mitzvah of feasting and simcha, it is more likely that people may have stumbled in some area due to improper behavior and inadvertent sin, and BeHa”B is meant to help rectify any possible offense. This idea is based on Iyov (Ch. 1, verse 5) who would bring Korbanos after “Y’mei Mishteh”, or “Days of Feasting”. These sins might be due to a variety of probable offenses including: mingling (at a festive meal or even at a Drasha in the Shul (!) - see Rashi & Tosafos - Kiddushin 81a s.v. sakva), Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed related transgressions (Elyah Rabba O.C. 492, 3, citing the Ma’aglei Tzedek), Chilul Hashem (Tur O.C. 429, 2), or overabundance of merriment (Mahari”l, Dinei Hayamim Bein Pesach L’Shavuos) and gastronomical pleasures (Kol Bo).
Other explanations offered to explain why BeHa”B was established include:
- To entreat Hashem to strengthen our bodies especially at the time of changing seasons when many are likely to get sick [Levush O.C. 492, 1].
- To beseech Hashem that we should have abundant harvests after Pesach and plentiful rains after Sukkos [Ra’avyah (Ta’anis 863), Mordechai (Ta’anis, 629), Shach (Y”D 220, 31 s.v. v’nirah li), Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 1, pg. 156)].
- To commemorate Queen Esther’s original 3-day fast (which actually was Pesach time, and not Purim time)[Sefer Minhagei Yisrael (vol. 1, Ch. 26). He opines that the reason for the BeHa”B after Sukkos is not for the same reason as the BeHa”B after Pesach. The Ta’anis Esther that we fast before Purim is not really due to Esther’s actual fast as recorded in the Megillah, but rather to commemorate that when the Jews went to war against the anti-Semites of their day, they fasted (see Mishna Berura 686, 2, quoting the Rambam - Hilchos Ta’anis Ch. 5, 5)].
Yet, interestingly, although BeHa”B is traditionally meant to be a fast day, still, very few actually do fast, as in our generations people are considered weaker. This rationale is found in many sefarim, including Shu”t Chavos Yair (126), Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 492, 2), Mishna Berura (566, 6) and Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 9, 174).
In addition, since BeHa”B is based on a minhag and not an actual Biblical source, many make do with Selichos instead, with the majority also reciting Avinu Malkeinu. That is why our fellow walking in would not see any other traditional signs of a fast day.
Monday, Thursday, Prayer Days…
Monday and Thursday are considered especially potent days for prayer, as Moshe Rabbeinu climbed Har Sinai to receive the Torah on a Thursday and returned with it on a Monday. A mnemonic to showcase this is the first pasuk read on a public fast day Haftara (Yeshaya Ch. 55, verse 6) “Dirshu Hashem B’H imatzo” - “Seek out Hashem when He is to be found”. The letters Beis and Hei show that an auspicious time when Hashem may be found is on Monday and Thursday; therefore Mondays and Thursdays are preferable for fasting and prayer. For whichever reason BeHa”B was established, we shouldn’t let this golden opportunity for tefillah to pass us by!
Wednesday, the 14th of Iyar, is dubbed ‘Pesach Sheini’, which commemorates the day when those who were unable to bring the annual Korban Pesach (special Pesach sacrifice - Pascal lamb) at its proper time (Erev Pesach), were given a second chance to offer this unique Korban. Although technically not considered a real holiday, and despite the fact that it is (astonishingly!) not listed in the traditional Halachic sources as one of the days that Tachanun is not said, nevertheless, the custom for many is not to say Tachanun on Pesach Sheini, in order to ‘tap into’ the merit that this particular day had during the times of the Beis HaMikdash. Although the Pri Megadim (O.C. 131, M.Z. s.v. mah) maintains that Tachanun should be said on Pesach Sheini - as the original day it is commemorating was only meant for individuals in unique circumstances, and its absence of mention in the traditional Halachic sources as one of the days that Tachanun is not said speaks volumes, nevertheless, most Poskim rule that one should not say Tachanun on this day.
There is another common custom associated with Pesach Sheini - eating Matzah; but that is not noticeable in shul!
The third of these ‘Unknown Days’ with no other obvious observances during davening except the omission of Tachanun on Sunday, is Lag B’Omer [18th of Iyar]. There are several reasons offered for why Tachanun is not said on Lag B’Omer, including:
- It’s the day when Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students stopped dying (See Biur HaGr”a O.C. 131, 6 s.v.b’Lag and Pri Megadim O.C. 493, M.Z. 1).
- It’s the day when the Mann (manna) started to fall, feeding Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar (Shu”t Chasam Sofer Y”D 233, s.v. amnam yada’ati).
- It is the day when Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Rabi Elazar came out of the cave they hid in for 13 years (see Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 493, 7).
- It is Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s Yahrtzeit (see Birkei Yosef O.C. 493, 4, Aruch Hashulchan ibid. and Kaf Hachaim ad loc. 27; however, this might actually be based on a printing mistake! See Rav Yaakov Hillel’s ‘Eid HaGal HaZeh’.
- It is the day when Rabi Akiva gave Semicha to his remaining five students (including Rabi Shimon bar Yochai) after 24,000 died, allowing the Torah’s mesorah to perpetuate (Yalkut Me’am Loez - Parshas Emor).
- It is the day when Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s hidden Torah, the Zohar, became revealed to the world (Zohar - Parshas Ha’azinu).
In Eretz Yisrael, this quasi-holiday is widely celebrated, with over half-a million people converging on the sleepy town of Meron to visit, daven, and dance at the grave of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, as well as tens of thousands visiting the grave of Shimon HaTzaddik in Yerushalayim.
With enormous bonfires seemingly on almost every street corner, Lag B’Omer in Eretz Yisrael has unfortunately become a pyromaniac’s delight and the firefighter’s and asthmatics’ nightmare.
Other locales have a different sort of custom, such as the one in Krakow, Polandto visit the illustrious Rema’s grave on Lag B’Omer, as it is his Yahrtzeit as well. Yet, in most of Chu”tz La’aretz, there is no other real commemoration or observances of this special day, unless one counts the “traditional” game of baseball and subsequent barbeque. So, it is quite possible that our clueless colleague might just wonder about the omission of Tachanun on Lag B’Omer.
Hopefully, by showcasing these relatively “Unknown Days”, this article should help raise awareness and appreciation of them and their customs. Incredibly, as we are climbing upwards in this unique time period of Sefiras HaOmer, in anticipation of Kabbalas HaTorah, Hashem has given us an opportunity to observe a few special yemei tefilla. May we be zocheh to utilize them to their utmost!
This is additionally mentioned in the Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 1, pg 157) and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rav R.B. Toledano (vol. 4, 330).
See Tur (O.C. 492), Rema (ad loc), Magen Avraham (ad loc, 1), and Mishna Berura (ad loc, 1).
In a similar vein see also Shu”t Noda B’Yehuda (Kamma O.C. 35, s.v. hinei), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Iggeres HaTeshuva Ch. 3, based on the Yerushalmi Nedarim Ch. 8, 1), and Orchos Rabbeinu (vol. 2, pg. 160, Hilchos Taanis 2).
See Midrash Tanchuma (Parshas Vayera 16), Tosafos Bava Kamma (82b s.v. kday shelo), and Mishna Berura (134, 6).
Matteh Moshe (748). See also Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 560, 3, based on Tosefta Ta’anis Ch. 2, 5) and Tur, Shulchan Aruch and Rema (O.C. 134, 1) that Mondays and Thursdays are preferable for fasting and prayer.
The Sha’arei Teshuva (492, 1) cites the Ra’avad (Tamim Dayim 177) who maintains that “Yechidim and Anshei Ma’aseh” should keep a BeHa”B after Shavuos as well; yet concludes that the prevailing custom is not to. See also Beis Yosef (end O.C. 429), Chok Yaakov (492, 1), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (O.C. 492, 1), Magen Avraham (ad loc, 1), Levush (ad loc, 1), Pri Megadim (E.A. ad loc, 1), Chida (Birkei Yosef ad loc, 1), Kaf Hachaim (ad loc, 1) and Mishna Berura (ad loc, 1), who all rule that there is no BeHa”B after Shavuos. Apparently, Zeman Mattan Torah affords less opportunity for nichshal.
See Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 2, pg. 253) who explains that it is called this as it is the Pesach that falls out in the second month of the year - Iyar. In the Mishna and Gemara (ex. Rosh Hashana 18a) it is referred to as “Pesach Kattan” or “Pesach Ze’ira” (the Small Pesach).
Bamidbar (Beha’aloscha Ch. 9, verses 1 – 15). See Rashi (ad loc. verse 10) and Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 380).
The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 131, 12) writes that he is astounded that Pesach Sheini is not listed by any of the traditional Halachic sources - [including the Gemara, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, or even the Mishna Berura!] as one of the days that Tachanun is not said.
These Poskim include (ad loc.) the Knesses HaGedolah (Haghos B.Y. 12, citing ‘Minhag Salonika’), Pri Chadash (7), Ya’avetz (in his Siddur Beis Yaakov), Shalmei Tzibur (10), Sha’arei Teshuva (19), Beis David (Shu”t 53), Butchatcher Rav (Eshel Avraham s.v. nohagin), Shulchan HaTahor (8), Aruch Hashulchan (ibid.), and the Kaf Hachaim (99). This is also the “Minhag Yerushalayim” - see the Tukachinsky Luach. However, it is known that the Chazon Ish did say Tachanun on Pesach Sheini (sefer Bein Pesach L’Shavuos, in the introduction to the sefer titled ‘Hanhagos HaChazon Ish’ by Rav Chaim Kanievsky).
Eshel Avraham ibid.
See Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 2, pg. 253); Shu”t Rivevos Efraim (vol. 2, 129, 39 & vol. 3, 331); and Shu”t Divrei Shalom (vol. 4, 87).
See Tur/ Shulchan Aruch and Rema and relevant commentaries to O.C. (131, 6, and 493, 2).
There are many sefarim available who give full treatment to the topic of Lag B’Omer, including Bein Pesach L’Shavuos and Nitei Gavriel. It is also worthwhile to read Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s excellent articles on topic.
As per the custom mentioned by Rav Chaim Vital in Sha’ar HaKavannos; see Ateres Zkainim (O.C. 493, 1), Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 493, 7), and Kaf Hachaim (O.C. 493, 26). However, there were several authorities who were skeptical at best about this custom, including the Chasam Sofer (Shu”t Y”D 233, s.v. amnam yada’ati) and the Shoel U’Meishiv (Shu”t vol. 5, 39). See also Shu”t Yechaveh Daas (vol. 5, 35). For a discussion as to the level of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s greatness, see Rabbeinu Chananel’s commentary to Sukkah (45b).
See sefer Bein Pesach L’Shavuos (pg. 302).
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!