[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
The Three Weeks
Today is the 18th day of Tammuz, and most Jews are fasting from sun-up until sundown. Since the 17th, the usual day was yesterday – on Shabbat, when it is forbidden to fast – the observance was moved to today. As many know, Tzom Tammuz begins a period of time that many refer to as “The Three Weeks” which lasts until Tisha Be-Av (the ninth of the month of Av), the traditional commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, as well as a host of other tragedies which occurred in Jewish history.
Although the observance of this period of time is understood by the Haredi-Hasidic world – and even the mainstream orthodox and Modern Orthodox – as being an obvious fact of Jewish law, the truth is that it is no such thing. Like many observances that have developed over the course of the current long exile, the observances of the “Three Weeks” have no basis in the words of Hazal and are a bundle of para-halakhic customs which have ultimately led, in certain cases, to the violation of actual halakhot. Stemming from an ascetic Ashkenazic practice, most Jews refrain from shaving, trimming, haircuts, listening to music, purchasing new items (especially clothing), swimming, conducting weddings, and some even refrain from bathing during this time (although most who do so usually only abstain specifically between rosh hodesh Av and Tisha be-Av, which is referred to as “The Nine Days,” as will be explained below).
The “Three Weeks” are also known as the time of bein ha-metzarim (“between the narrows”), an expression and designation that arises from an alternate explanation of Eikhah 1:3, “…all of her pursuers overtook her within the straits (ben ha-metzarim)” in the Midrash Eikhah Rabbah (1:29). “Within the straits,” says the Midrash, are the days between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. But it wasn’t until the 14th century Austro-Hungarian rabbi, Isaac Mi-Tirna (or, Tyrnau), in his Sefer HaMinhagim that the practices of the “Three Weeks” were recorded. This work is later cited by the Rema in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 551:1,2,4, and 10), along with a similar work by the Maharil, as the basis of the European customs observed during this time.
But an abstention for such an extended period of time from haircuts, shaving, trimming the beard and mustache, as well as bathing and laundering clothes, ends up blatantly impinging on proper kevod Shabbat. Many Haredi/Hasidic Jews enter into Shabbat during this time unkempt, unpresentable, and emitting a foul odor, the result of refusing to properly bathe. Many Ashkenazim have the custom on the Shabbat directly preceding Tisha Be-Av (called Shabbat Hazon) to not wear Shabbath clothes at all, but weekday clothes that have not even been freshly laundered! Aside from these flagrant violations of decorum in halakhah, a mourning period for such an extended period of time is simply too much for people to reasonably handle – and this assessment is not my own, it is actually written in the sources, as will be seen below.
The Nine Days
Then there are “The Nine Days,” the 1st to the 9th day of Av, from rosh hodhesh Av until Tisha be-Av – and this is the actual time of mourning according to Hazal, the Geonim, and all of the early Rishonim. So what is actually required by halakhah? Is it mekori to simply abide by the strictures followed by most for twenty-one days for only nine? Is everything that the Haredi/Hasidic world forbids actually forbidden? The answer to these questions is also “no.”
Hazal were not ascetics and they actively opposed ascetic practices as being “sinful” and out of proper balance – and this is why there was no original practice of “Three Weeks.” (Anyone who wants to read further can look into the discussion in the Gemara as to why the Nazir is required to bring a sin-offering – cf. b.Ta`anit 11a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De`ot 3; Rambam, Shemoneh Perakim 4). דו”ק – למד היטב חקור והשכלת
The Summation of the Rambam
The Rambam summarizes the observance of the “Nine Days” in three short halakhoth as follows:
TEXT (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ta`aniot 5:6-8)
משייכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה ושבת שחל תשעה באב להיות בתוכה אסור לספר ולכבס וללבוש כלי מגוהץ אפילו כלי פשתן עד שיעבור התענית ואפילו לכבס ולהניח לאחר התענית אסור וכבר נהגו ישראל שלא לאכול בשר בשבת זו ולא ייכנסו למרחץ עד שיעבור התענית ויש מקומות שנהגו לבטל השחיטה מראש החודש עד התענית
תשעה באב לילו כיומו לכל דבר ואין אוכלין אלא מבעוד יום ובין השמשות שלו אסור כיום הכיפורים ולא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין בסעודה המפסיק בה אבל שותה הוא יין מגיתו שיש לו שלושה ימים או פחות ואוכל בשר מליח שיש לו שלושה ימים או יתר ולא יאכל שני תבשילין
במה דברים אמורים שאכל ערב תשעה באב אחר חצות אבל אם סעד קודם חצות אף על פי שהוא מפסיק בה אוכל כל מה שירצה וערב תשעה באב שחל להיות בשבת אוכל ושותה כל צורכו ומעלה על שולחנו אפילו כסעודת שלמה וכן תשעה באב עצמו שחל להיות בשבת אינו מחסר כלום
TRANSLATION (Bracketed comments [ ] are mine)
“From the time that Av enters, we decrease our joy” [a direct citation of the Mishnah in Ta`anit 4:6] and the week within which the 9th of Av falls, it is forbidden to cut hair, to do laundry, or to wear a freshly-ironed garment – even a linen garment [i.e. since they are so drastically prone to wrinkling] – until after the end of the fast [i.e. of the 9th of Av]. And even to launder or iron something that will be set aside and worn only after the fast is forbidden. It has already become a common custom among Jews not to eat meat during this week, or to enter into the bathhouses until after the fast, and there are even places where they have the custom to stop the slaughtering of meat from rosh hodesh until the fast.
The 9th of Av – its night is like its day in every respect. And we do not eat [the day before] unless it is still during the day, since it is forbidden to eat during the beyn ha-shemashoth of [the evening before] just like Yom Ha-Kippurim. One does not eat meat or drink wine at the meal just prior to the beginning of the fast [seudah ha-mafsik bah], but wine may be drunk from the press which is three days old or less [i.e. unfermented in any real way; grape juice], and it is permitted to eat salted meat that is three days old or more, but [nevertheless] one should not eat two cooked dishes [at the final meal before the fast].
With regard to what are we speaking? Where someone ate on the day before the 9th of Av after halakhic mid-day [hatzot], but if he ate a meal before halakhic mid-day, even if he considers it his final meal prior to the fast [seudah she-hu mafsik bah], he may eat whatever he wants [at that meal – i.e. since it is before hatzot]. When erev Tisha be-Av falls on Shabbat, one eats and drinks whatever he needs and brings food up onto his table, even to the point of it being as lavish as a meal of Shelomoh HaMelekh. Also if the 9th of Av itself falls on Shabbat, one should not detract from [either the quality or quantity of his food or drink] in any way.”
Important points to note about the Rambam’s words are:
[a] Halakhic abstentions only apply to the week in which the 9th of Av falls, not to all Nine Days. This means that when Tisha be-Av falls on the first day of the week, then one need not observe any prohibitions on haircuts, drinking wine, eating meat, doing laundry, ironing, etc. at all. According to halakhah, the greatest number of days that these various abstentions could be observed is six, since Shabbat is excluded from expressions of mourning.
[b] Post-Talmudic customs are subject to dismissal. Although he initially mentions a few common customs that he had heard of in his own time in the initial halakhah, the Rambam goes on to overturn those customs by what he codifies – i.e. the law of the Talmud – in the two halakhot that follow. This again shows the methodology of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah where, although he may make mention of certain customs, and may even praise them as being good or useful options at times, the law ultimately remains as it was determined by Hazal. This is the case, unless the Rambam understands there to have been a genuine change in reality or circumstances since the era of Hazal, on account of which the law needs to be re-applied.
[c] No mention is made of music, either listening to it or not listening to it during the month of Av. Music, other than folk melodies sung a capella, was not a daily occurrence in the times of Hazal or even in the times of the Rambam. Usually, music was associated with the celebrations included with weddings, which are already forbidden during the first nine days of Av anyhow. Our music listening today is much different, however, and there are various modern rabbanim that permit listening to music as something ordinary and normal since many today would become unduly depressed without music for more than a day or two. But again, this ruling is not even a contrivance since the halakhah makes no mention of forbidding music during this time in the first place.
[d] There is no halakhic prohibition on bathing during the Nine Days at all. Beside the fact that the Rambam mentions the abstention from bathhouses as being merely a custom, it must also be remembered that in his time – as well as that of the Gemara – people did not bathe regularly. Many bathed only once weekly likhvod Shabbat (“in honor of the Sabbath”). Those who bathed regularly were referred to as istenisim – a borrowed Greek word meaning “weak” – but used by the hakhamiym to refer to someone who is sensitive or finicky about cleanliness. Today, since nearly all people in our culture bathe regularly, the prohibitions on bathing or washing apply only to the specific narrow times in which they were expressly forbidden by the hakhamim – namely, on the days of Tisha Be-Av and Yom Ha-Kippurim.
[e] There is no halakhic prohibition on eating meat during the Nine Days. Again, not eating meat for the first nine days of Av is is mentioned as a custom, not law. The law with regard to the consumption of meat is related in the following halakhot, which expressly permits the eating of meat during this time.
The practical summary from the Rambam is as follows:
Too Much Mourning
While excessive mourning is always discouraged by Hazal, and even forbidden (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Evel 13:12), the extent of mourning that is considered “too much” has apparently changed from ancient times. Directly after the halakhot cited above, the Rambam makes the following important statement regarding most peoples’ ability to endure asceticism:
TEXT (Hilkhot Ta`aniot 4:9)
זו היא מידת כל העם שאינן יכולין לסבול יותר מדיי אבל חסידים הראשונים כך הייתה מידתן ערב תשעה באב מביאין לו לאדם לבדו פת חרבה במלח ושורה במים ויושב בין תנור לכיריים ואוכלה ושותה עליה קיתון של מים בדאגה ובשיממון ובכייה כמי שמתו מוטל לפניו וכזה ראוי לחכמים לעשות או קרוב מזה ומימינו לא אכלנו ערב תשעה באב תבשיל אפילו תבשיל של עדשים אלא אם כן היה בשבת
TRANSLATION (Bracketed comments [ ] are mine)
This is the attribute of the entire nation [kol ha-am], that they are not able to suffer too much. But the ancient pious ones [hasidim ha-rishonim] used to conduct themselves [during the final meal before the fast] on erev Tisha be-Av in this way: They would bring him – while he sat by himself – dried bread with salt. He would dip it into water and sit between the oven and the stove-top, drinking a pitcher of water with it amid worry, dark emptiness, and weeping like one whose dead is lying before him. And in this way, or close to it, it is proper for hakhamim to conduct themselves. Never in all my days [i.e. growing up in the house of his father, Rabbi Maimon] did we eat a tavshil [cooked dish] on erev Tisha`be-Av, even a tavshil of cooked lentils, unless that day fell on a Shabbat.
Here the Rambam makes the observation that the majority of people cannot stand up under too much suffering (i.e. deprivation, asceticism, etc.). He relates how Rav Yehudhah bar Ilai in b.Ta`anit 30a-b used to take his final meal and says that it is indicative of how the early pious ones used to conduct themselves. Also, he says that “hakhamim” – which I believe specifically refers to acting dayyanim sitting on courts over Israel (see where a few halakhot later, he uses the term talmidhei hakhamim (“Torah scholars”) which are those educated people in any era who may or may not serve on a public court – should strive to act likewise. He also relates how he was raised in the house of his father, the great Rav Maimon.
However, he makes the observation that apart from these particularly pious people, the majority of the Jewish nation cannot stand up under overly stringent mourning practices. This is an observation that unfortunately escaped the European authorities who felt that the evils of the common people needed to be exorcised through harsh ascetic practices – mostly based on the “kabbalah” and mysticism. This certainly escaped those early European architects of the customs now known as “The Three Weeks” and “The Nine Days,” customs that le-aniyut da`ati should be all but ignored in favor of the mekori instructions of Hazal. Many people, when faced with this acknowledgement of “levels,” feel a sense of guilt in not striving to emulate the piety of the ancients, but this should not be the case. Each person should understand who he is and joyfully accept it in humility. May HaShem help us all in this regard.
Enjoy your music, meat, and wine.