Posted in Judaism, Religion

Writing about the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

Seeing as we’re in the thick of the Three Weeks, and the Nine Days will start this Friday at sundown, it’s as good of a time as any to write something about this area of the Jewish calendar. Not many Gentiles know about it, and indeed many non-observant folks don’t know about it either. If you’re one of those thrice a year folks who only does Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, chances are you don’t know this about your own native religion.

If you’re writing about Jewish characters during the summer, or are just curious about this point in the calendar, here are some things to keep in mind:

The Three Weeks start with a semi-fast on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, Tzom (Fast) Tammuz. A semi-fast only lasts from sunup to sundown, instead of going from one sundown to the next sundown. As with all other fasts, if your life or health is at risk, it’s absolutely okay to eat and/or drink. You can consult with your doctor and rabbi to determine how much fasting is safe. You may be able to drink small amounts of water throughout the day, or eat a few very small portions.

The 17th of Tammuz marks the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in 70 CE, and by the Babylonians in the days of the First Temple. Legend also states this was the day when Moshe Rabeynu (Moses Our Teacher) broke the first set of tablets with the Ten Commandments.

Vespasian and his army on their way to destroy Jerusalem

Prohibitions during the Three Weeks include:

Weddings. Engagement parties sans music are allowed until the Nine Days.

Listening to music and playing instruments. Some folks are more lenient and only refrain from listening to live music.

Getting a haircut or shaving. Many Sephardic communities, however, allow this until the Nine Days. Seeing as I follow the Italian–Sephardic customs relating to permitted and forbidden foods during Pesach, I’m going to start following this custom as well.

Reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing, which thanks Hashem for giving us life and enabling us to reach this joyous occasion.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts

Prohibitions of the Nine Days, which start on the first day of Av:

Swimming. You can, however, get wet in other ways. When I was a counselor at the local Orthodox daycamp, the kids were allowed to go sprinkling, hit one another with water balloons, and get hosed. One year we all washed the school rabbi’s van, and all got very wet from all the hoses and water involved.

Eating meat and drinking wine.

Washing clothing (except for a baby’s) and wearing freshly-laundered clothing.

Expanding or remodeling a home.

Planting shade and fragrance trees. Fruit trees, however, are allowed.

Buying or making clothing, unless it’s for the purpose of a later mitzvah (e.g., wedding clothes), you’ll miss a sale, or the garment won’t be available later.

Cutting nails.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

All these prohibitions are lifted on Shabbos or a celebratory occasion such as a b’rit (circumcision), bar or bat mitzvah, or siyum (completion of a tractate of the Talmud). Many people hold a siyum during the Nine Days as an excuse to have a barbecue.

A lot also depends upon the community. Traditional, very Orthodox Ashkenazic communities will observe all these customs and probably put fences around the laws as well, while Sephardic communities are typically more lenient. Many people in the non-Orthodox denominations won’t follow all of them, or may not observe any of them.

Tisha B’Av, observed on the 9th of Av, is the longest, saddest, most difficult fast of the year. Like all fasts except Yom Kippur, if it falls out on Shabbos, it’s pushed off till Sunday. It starts in a darkened synagogue, with people sitting on the floor or around the bima (raised platform in the front of the sanctuary), as the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) is chanted in a very melancholy trope.

Many people have the custom of sitting on the floor or low stools all day and sleeping on the floor. Bathing, sexual relations, leather shoes and garments, and anointing oneself with non-medicinal oils and creams are all prohibited.

Detail of Hayez painting

Tisha B’Av marks the day both Temples were destroyed, as well as many other catastrophes in Jewish history: the expulsion from Spain (31 July 1492), the expulsion from England (18 July 1290), the expulsion from France (22 July 1306), the launching of the First Crusade (15 August 1096), Germany entering World War I (1–2 August 1914), Himmler getting final approval to carry out genocide (2 August 1941), and the start of the deportations to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto (23 July 1942).

Tisha B’Av is extremely difficult for me and many other contemporary people. Some years I didn’t make it all the way through, or never started. I try to fast, and for as long as possible, but it’s really hard when the Temple just isn’t relevant to our lives. We’ve been doing just fine without Temple worship and animal sacrifices for almost 2,000 years, and prayer has taken its place. We also have the State of Israel, and are no longer all in Diaspora.

This is one of those reasons I’ll never be 100% Orthodox. I find the quasi-fetishistic worship of the future Third Temple in some quarters to be really creepy, irrelevant, and cult-like. If there is ever a Third Temple, I want it to be a universal house of prayer for all peoples, with no animal sacrifice, and built in another location. World War III would erupt if fanatics destroyed the beautiful Dome of the Rock to build the Third Temple!