“The 3 Weeks” and “The 9 Days”

With the period of The Three Weeks looming next week, it seems timely to review the essence of the period. From the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz (this year, Sunday July 24) through Tisha B’av (this year, Saturday night August 13 and Sunday August 14 until nightfall), we mourn the loss of our innocence, the loss of our sovereignty, the loss of our land, and the loss of our sanctity as a Nation in whose midst G-d literally abode. Although He is called “HaMakom” – the Omnipresent – our tradition teaches that Hashem designated a particular address for his central residence, the Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on which Shlomo HaMelekh – King Solomon — constructed the Beit HaMikdash. The Holy Temple’s fall was our fall, and our Exile from the Land marked the symbolic departure of Hashem’s Shechinah – His Omnipresence – from the Har HaBayit. Even today, with the resurrection of a Jewish State in several parts of the Promised Land, Israel remains in Exile because the Holy Temple’s absence from its defined place means that the Kodosh Barukh Hu does not dwell in His residence. That is the reason that we continue to implore Him to “build Jerusalem speedily in our days” and to “return to Zion” – because, despite the secular political progress since 1948, even though it is progress that carries a profound spiritual dimension — the facts remain that Jerusalem is not rebuilt and Zion remains barren of her glory, the Holy Temple. As discussed further below, we mourn during The Three Weeks, and we particularly intensify our mourning customs during The Nine Days – i.e., the final nine days of the period that culminate with Tisha B’Av and the following half day.

Our history marks the 17th of Tamuz as the day when Moshe Rabbeinu, discerning the Golden Calf as he descended Mount Sinai, shattered the Two Tablets of the Covenant with which G-d had embraced Israel. (Talmud, Tr. Ta’anit 28b-29a) G-d proclaimed to Moshe that he acted correctly at that moment, but the day became a Black Letter Day on our calendar. In later generations, under the pressure of the impending Babylonian onslaught, the daily sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple was suspended as of that day. Similarly, before Rome destroyed the SecondTemple, they breached Jerusalem’s walls on that day. The Talmud recounts several other tragedies that befell us on that day, Shiv’a Asar b’Tamuz.

From the 17th of Tamuz, we begin three weeks of mourning – “The Three Weeks” — culminating on Tisha B’Av, the Day of National Tragedy, and continuing to linger through mid-day of the following morning. It was on that night, the Ninth of Av, that the Jews in the Sinai Wilderness wept over the evil and slanderous report of the Ten Spies who falsely declared that the Promised Land is a “land that consumes her inhabitants.” G-d decreed that, because we had wept that night without purpose, it would become a night and day of weeping for future generations. And so it came to pass. By the order of Babylonia’s king, the executioner Nebuzaradan directed the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash on Tisha B’Av. Some five centuries later, Rome destroyed the Second Beit HaMikdash on that same day. In the year 135 C.E., the final Jewish resistance to Rome was crushed in Israel when Bar Kochba’s remaining legions fell at Betar, and thousands were slaughtered by the Romans. In later centuries, Spain expelled her Jewish population on Tisha B’Av 1492 C.E., marking the tragic dispersion of Sephardic (literally, “Spanish”) Jewry from the land where the culture of the Rambam, the Ramban, Avraham Ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi all had germinated.

Among our practices to mark this period of mourning, we do not take haircuts during the entirety of The Three Weeks, through the mid-day after Tisha B’Av. Therefore, this is the week to get a haircut if you anticipate needing one before the afternoon of August 15. The Haircut Rule is rather strictly and universally followed. We are taught that those who mourn for Jerusalem will some day merit being numbered among those who will see Jerusalem’s comfort and ultimate restoration. This is a signal form of mourning for Jerusalem.

Beyond “the haircut rule,” men also avoid shaving during The Three Weeks. Some shave during the first twelve of those days, but do not shave at all during the more intense subsequent mourning period of the final Nine Days that run from Rosh Chodesh Av through the mid-day after Tisha B’Av. Some men shave on Friday afternoons during The Three Weeks, in honor of Shabbat, but not on the other weekdays of the period, and they do not shave at all during The Nine Days. For men who work in secular places where their professional status would be compromised by seeming to be unkempt, there is room for some leniency. Even then, try skipping a day or two between shaves. Others won’t notice much, but you will know you are mourning for Jerusalem. And one should try one’s best to be as maximally strict as practical during The Nine Days.

We do not celebrate weddings during The Three Weeks. We do not go to movies or other public forms of entertainment during The Three Weeks. We do not listen to music during The Three Weeks, not even on radio. (Rent books on tape instead.) Although a genre of a capella Jewish religious music has emerged, in which the singers are not accompanied by musical instruments on their recordings, it remains the better practice for those who are scrupulous to avoid listening to all forms of music during this time. However, it is not necessary to tune off a news or talk-radio station, a sports contest or a program on The History Channel, merely because a commercial announcement or the documentary happens to have some background music to assist in selling the product or to maintaining the viewer’s attention. Nor does it seem necessary to worry about the ringtone melodies on your cellphone, although it could be a good idea to shift to a mundane melody for The Nine Days rather than to set a favorite tune.

We may go swimming during the first twelve days of The Three Weeks, but we do not go swimming during The Nine Days. However, women do go to mikveh during The Nine Days if the time is appropriate for such an immersion.

We may eat meat or poultry and may drink wine throughout the first twelve days of The Three Weeks, but we may not do so during The Nine Days, except on Shabbat.

We do not wear new clothes during The Three Weeks – i.e., clothes that we have not previously worn.

During the more intense period of mourning, during The Nine Days, we do not patronize the commercial launderer or dry cleaner, nor do we launder clothes at home, except for the diapers or other soiled clothes of small children. If we happen to have deposited clothes with the commercial cleaner before The Nine Days started, we do not pick up the clothes during The Nine Days. It is also best not to wear freshly laundered clothes during The Nine Days, such as clothes that were freshly laundered beforehand but not worn since being picked up. Some people make a custom of putting on, one at a time, each of several different fresh garments, each for a few moments, during the days or hours before The Nine Days begin, so as to make them “pre-worn.”

In all such cases, as pertain to all aspects of the mourning, the key is the spirit and the motivation: Without a focused purpose and serious contemplation, these customs seem silly. But when one acts in this way with a focused center on the notion that “the days of Jerusalem’s past destruction are at hand, and I am going to make these symbolic gestures because I am in mourning,” it has deeper, profound meaning. For me, when I personally put on a few shirts – one, then exchanging wearing it for another, and then for another, and similarly with a few alternating pairs of pants, all in preparation for The Nine Days when I will not put on anything freshly laundered — I am also thinking: “This is my answer to the Los Angeles Times, the United Nations, the European Union, and even the United States State Department. Don’t try telling me that the Jewish claim to Jerusalem is no different from the Arab claim to her. Don’t try telling me that our claim to the Temple Mount is the same as their claim to it. Because for 2,000 years my people have been mourning for Jerusalem, have been praying for Jerusalem three times a day, have been invoking Jerusalem in every grace recited after meals, have been facing her in every prayer – and, yes, even have maintained an entire litany of quaint customs from which we have never departed all these two thousand years of mourning for her – while the Moslems have been facing Mecca and Medina, often turning their backs on Jerusalem in the process, and allowing her to lie fallow even when they controlled her from 1948-1967.”

May we merit beholding the comforting of Jerusalem speedily in our days. And, even if we have a few difficult days ahead along the road to that Redemption, may our participation in mourning for Jerusalemreinforce our merit to behold her inevitable comforting.