Acute angles. Are the nine days unlucky?

Dear Rabbi: I am given to understand that we delay non-urgent medical procedures during the nine days. What about donating blood, or in my case plasma? Is this considered non-urgent and therefore needing to be postponed? Best wishes, Yosef.

Dear Yosef,

Inherent in your question is the assumption that the Nine Days prior to Tisha b’Av are not a time to embark on significant projects that can wait. This is popularly – and erroneously – assumed to be because the Nine Days are an “unlucky” time, notwithstanding that there is a specific verse in the Torah (Leviticus 19:26) not to believe in lucky -or unlucky – times. Yet the Talmud as well as post-Talmudic halachic works do refer to rei mazalai when speaking of the Nine Days. The word mazal  refers to the effect of the constellations upon human destiny. I have dealt with this issue as it relates to the months of Adar and Av in a previous Acute Angles essay (Do Jews Believe In Good And Bad Luck).

I shall, however, try to deal here with the implications behind your specific query and how it relates to the Nine Days.

Let us, in doing so, first reflect upon a day in the Gregorian calendar replete with superstition – Friday the 13th. The reasons it is deemed to be “unlucky” in Western perception – including  the Christian belief that there were thirteen individuals in the room where the “last supper” (probably not the seder as is popularly thought but a regular Shabbat meal) was held the day before Jesus’ alleged death (on 13th Nisan according to Wikipedia) – are largely irrelevant here. The fact is that even in today’s ultra-rational, ultra-sophisticated Western society, Friday the 13th inspires an extraordinary, irrational, raw fear. According to a recent survey, 17-21 million people in the USA are affected by the day to the extent that they will “avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights, or even getting out of bed” (again sourced from Wikipedia).

One of the most astonishing stories I have read in this connection is regarding the Austrian-Jewish (and naturalized American) composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). As a Jew, he certainly had no business getting worked up negatively about the number thirteen. Yet he had such a severe case of triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13 – yes there’s even a word for it in English!) that he omitted numbering the thirteenth bar in some of his later works, substituting for it the number 12a (he loved the number 12, even pioneering an atonal, dodecaphonic – 12-tone – system).  He was terrified of dying on the 13th of a month, and eventually he did, of a heart attack – on the 13th of July (which was a Friday!) While in the minds of some this may have validated his superstition, it is fairly evident that his ailing health, allied to his heightened state of agitation on that “inauspicious” (for him) day, constituted a fatal concoction.

Given the litany of tragic events that have occurred on Tisha b’Av and the days preceding (not that any period of the Jewish year is empty of historic Jewish suffering), it would be perhaps understandable if Jews approached the Nine Days each year in a state of abject terror and with palpitations. But we Jews are believers in G-D, not in blind fate or in unlucky times.

Our Rabbis prescribed certain rites of semi-mourning during the Nine Days such as not wearing freshly laundered garments, cutting hair (operable during the whole three weeks prior to Tisha b’Av) and not bathing for pleasure. And herein lies the real secret of why we try to avoid significant initiatives during this time.

A Jew is in litigation with a Gentile during the Nine Days. He appears in court with a creased shirt, uncut hair, an unkempt beard and feels self-conscious and uncomfortable due to his appearance. He is not particularly happy within himself. Appearance and mood affects outcomes. Is it any wonder that the Rabbis recommend that he should try to shelve the court appearance – if he can – until after the mournful period?

As regards your specific question, the truth is: very risky activities should be avoided at all times of the year and generally safe activities are never a cause for concern. There is no reason not to donate blood or plasma during the nine days, and especially due to the great mitsva involved. Do it in good health!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation
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