The Tisch: No ‘Tahanun’ today!

Hassidim are famous – or notorious, depending on your perspective – for skipping Tahanun with no qualms.

The hassidic movement is well known for the many changes that it introduced into the prayer rite. Texts of prayers, priorities, styles, locations, times and tunes were all reconsidered and altered in an earnest effort to revamp the service and bring it in line with kabbalistic norms. The result was nothing short of a prayer revolution.
One aspect of change that often brings a smirk to people’s faces is the propensity for skipping the Tahanun supplications normally recited in the morning Shaharit service and the afternoon Minha service after the leader’s repetition of the Amida. Jewish law recognizes that this prayer is not to be said on festivals, for it is inappropriate to lament our sins on joyous days. The prayer, however, is mandated on non-festive days.
Hassidim are famous – or notorious, depending on your perspective – for skipping Tahanun with no qualms. The most common excuse is that the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a hassidic master, is a joyous occasion, for the soul of that master ascends to supernal worlds and can petition the Almighty on our behalf with greater efficacy.
Not all hassidic masters applauded the dismissive approach toward Tahanun. One opponent of frequent cancelation was Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937). The Munkatcher Rebbe explained that every day was someone’s yahrzeit, so canceling Tahanun on account of the anniversary of the death of a one of the greats of previous generations would result in the permanent cancelation of this prayer. While some may not see that as a problem, the Munkatcher Rebbe felt that since the great halachic decisors codified the laws of Tahanun and the kabbalists described the appropriate intentions and mystical unifications for the prayer, the proposition of its permanent cancelation could not be entertained.
Moreover, should we choose to commemorate the yahrzeit of only select greats we would, in effect, be ranking the leaders of previous generations, a task that does not behoove us and for which we are hardly qualified.
The Munkatcher Rebbe added a further reason in the name of his grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo (1831-1893), a scion of hassidic masters and the founder of the Munkatch dynasty. He suggested that although Tahanun is not obligatory (as opposed to other prayers such as Shema and the silent Amida), we nevertheless do not skip non-obligatory prayers.
Rabbi Shlomo continued: The codes note that the anniversaries of the deaths of Moses, Joshua and Samuel are days of misfortune for our people and it is appropriate to fast on these days (Shulhan Aruch OH 580:1- 2). If that is the prescribed approach for the yahrzeit of these three great biblical figures, how can we treat lesser lights in a preferential manner by canceling Tahanun on their yahrzeits! According to the Munkatcher Rebbe, the only exception to the rule prohibiting the cancelation of Tahanun was the town where the deceased tzaddik was laid to rest: Since people tend to make a pilgrimage to this place on the yahrzeit of the deceased, it could be considered a local festival and Tahanun may be canceled locally.
One of the Munkatcher Rebbe’s primary teachers, Rabbi Yehezkel Shraga Halberstam of Sieniawa (1813–1898), offered a different reason for not canceling Tahanun: It can only be canceled in the case of a truly joyous occasion, such as biblically mandated or rabbinically instituted festivals. The yahrzeit of a tzaddik is also an occasion to skip Tahanun, but only provided we know for certain that the soul of the particular tzaddik had completed its earthly sojourn and repaired all that he had been assigned to repair. But of course we cannot be privy to such information, therefore do not have the right to cancel Tahanun.
The Sieniawa Rebbe himself would cancel Tahanun on one yahrzeit alone: the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow (1745–1815) on the 34th day of the Omer. The Sieniawa Rebbe explained that Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow had himself made it known that this was his soul’s final journey to this temporal world. Thus his yahrzeit was indeed a joyous occasion, for his soul had attained perfection before it was returned to its maker.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.