[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 for the fast, was yesterday – on Shabbat, when it is forbidden to fast – the observance of Tzom Tammuz was delayed until today. As many are aware, Tzom Tammuz begins a period of time that many refer to as “The Three Weeks” and which lasts until Tisha Be-Av (the ninth of the month of Av), a day that traditionally commemorates 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 perhaps the majority of mainstream orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities – as an obvious fact of Jewish law, the truth is that it is no such thing. Like many observances that developed over the course of the current long exile, the observances of the “Three Weeks” have no basis in the words of Hazal and amount to little more than a bundle of para-halakhic customs which have led, in certain cases, to the violation of actual halakhot.
Stemming from ascetic Ashkenazic sentiments, 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, referred to as “The Nine Days,” as will be explained below).
The “Three Weeks” are also known as bein ha-metzarim (“between the narrows”), an designation that arises from an alternate explanation of Eikhah 1:3, “…all of her pursuers overtook her within the straits (bein ha-metzarim)” in 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 publication of Sefer HaMinhagim by Austro-Hungarian rabbi, Isaac Mi-Tirna (or, Tyrnau), that the practices of the “Three Weeks” were recorded. This work was then 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.
An extended period of abstention from haircuts, shaving, trimming the beard, bathing, and laundering clothes, ends up blatantly impinging on proper kevod Shabbat. During this time, many Haredi/Hasidic Jews enter into Shabbat 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, an assessment which is not my own, as will be seen below.
The Nine Days
Nested within the “Three Weeks” are “The Nine Days,” the 1st to the 9th day of Av, which is the actual time of mourning according to Hazal, the Geonim, and all of the early Rishonim. But what forms of mourning are actually required by halakhah? Is the mekori position simply to abide by these strictures for only nine days as opposed to twenty-one? Is everything that the Haredi-Hasidic world forbids actually forbidden? The answer to these questions is “no.”
Hazal were not ascetics. In fact, they actively opposed asceticism as “sinful” and out of balance – and this is why there was no original practice of “Three Weeks,” despite the statement of the Midrash. 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). Their stance is clear, instructive, and eye-opening.
The Rambam summarizes the observance of the “Nine Days” – in three short halakhot – as follows:
TEXT (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 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-shemashot 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] Any 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. 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, unless he understands there to have been a genuine change in reality or circumstances since that era, 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 which were 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 that accompanied weddings, which are already forbidden during the first nine days of Av anyhow. Our habits of listening to music today are 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. What they exclude instead is live music or concerts during this time. 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 in honor of Shabbat, while others delayed bathing for even longer periods. Those who bathed regularly in Talmudic times were referred to as istenisim – based on a Greek loanword meaning “weak” which the hakhamim used 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” had apparently changed from ancient times during the Geonic era. Directly after the halakhot cited above, the Rambam makes the following important statement regarding most peoples’ ability to endure asceticism:
TEXT (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 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 with it a pitcher of water 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 important observation that the majority of people simply cannot endure too much suffering (i.e. deprivation, asceticism, etc.). He relates how Rav Yehudah bar Ilai (b.Ta’anit 30a-b) used to take his final meal, stating 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 clearly says that, apart from these particularly pious people, the majority of the Jewish nation cannot stand up under overly stringent mourning practices. This is a fact that unfortunately eluded the notice of European authorities who many times felt that the evils of the common people needed to be exorcised through harsh ascetic practices, an idea based mostly on ideas associated with the “kabbalah” and mysticism. In my humble opinion, the contrived customs developed around “The Three Weeks” and “The Nine Days” should be all but ignored in favor of the simple, straightforward, mekori instructions of Hazal.
Enjoy your music, meat, and wine.