Summer is a great time for families to spend time together. We take day trips, family vacations and host family barbecues together, but we all have to beware “The Nine Days.” No swimming, no excessive simcha, no meat and wine during this time. But why? If you read the Mishna in Masechet Taanit, the Mishna states “Mi’shenichnas Av m’ma’atin b’simcha,” that we minimize happiness from the beginning of the month of Av, and truthfully, whether this is an obligation or a recommendation and what constitutes minimizing happiness is very unclear. In fact, when the Gemara quotes this line from the Mishna, it states, “Therefore, a Jew who has litigation with a non-Jew should avoid litigating during the month of Av, when the Jew’s fortune is bad.” It seems, then, the line of “m’ma’atin b’simcha” may not even be an obligation but merely a statement that the month of Av is a time in the Jewish calendar when there is less happiness; therefore, avoid litigating with a non-Jew during this time. And yet, halakhic authorities understood this line as an obligation to refrain from certain activities that constitute happiness, such as certain types of construction and decorating one’s home and decorative planting.
The Mishna in Taanit also states that it is forbidden to get haircuts or do laundry during the week of Tisha B’Av, and on the eve of Tisha B’Av, meat and wine are forbidden. The Gemara further limits the prohibition of meat and wine to the Seudah Hamafseket that is eaten after midday on Erev Tisha B’Av. According to the Mishna and the Gemara, there is no problem taking family trips, swimming and barbecuing at all during the Nine Days. Additionally, this year when Tisha B’Av falls out on Shabbat and is observed on Sunday, it is certainly arguable that there is no “week of Tisha B’Av” so there should be no restrictions of haircuts or laundry during this particular Tisha B’Av season. Yet, when we read the Shulchan Aruch, we find a whole host of stringent customs regarding these and other practices. Our custom is not to launder clothing from Rosh Chodesh Av. Our custom is not to get haircuts from the 17th day of Tammuz and on. Our custom is not to purchase anything from the 17th day of Tammuz that would necessitate a bracha of Shehechiyanu. Our custom is not to eat meat and drink wine from Rosh Chodesh Av and the Shulchan Aruch cites other customs of limiting this restriction to only the week of Tisha B’Av and of expanding this restriction to the entire “Three Weeks” period beginning from Shiva Asar B’Tammuz. Additionally, we have a custom not to bathe either from Rosh Chodesh Av or during the week of Tisha B’Av.
How should we relate to all of these customs which are not found in the Gemara which added restriction upon restriction and impacted our quality family time during the summer? Dr. Haym Soloveitchik wrote a seminal essay over 20 years ago, entitled “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” In this essay, he argues that the “chumra” phenomenon stemmed from a “rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities… Having lost the touch of [God’s] presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” Some religious Jews feel the need to be strict because by doing so they feel more connected with God. Others may argue that we have enough halacha and actually by observing stringent practices beyond the letter of the law, we may in effect be saying that the law which God gave us is insufficient for our religious needs. This is why many express a natural resistance to observing stringent practices beyond the letter of the law. So what about all these stringent “Nine Days” customs?
It has been said that halacha is the floor and not the ceiling when it comes to religious observance. However, this doesn’t mean that every stringency is appropriate. Motivation and context are critical in determining the appropriateness of stringency. Very often, Jewish customs, whether they are practices or restrictions, help create an appropriate mood that is critical for our religious state of mind. To that end, even though I am not happy that I can’t barbecue or go swimming during the Nine Days, I appreciate the fact that these restrictions help create a mood which is so desperately needed today when we live during a time of tremendous prosperity and freedoms and might otherwise not truly appreciate what it means to not have a Beit Hamikdash.
Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, in the Aruch Hashulchan 551:23, criticizes those Jews who are lax in the restriction of eating meat and drinking wine during the Nine Days. He writes: “How can we not be ashamed [for not abiding by this custom to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine]? Behold many nations do not eat meat, milk or eggs for many weeks. And we, the nation of Israel, about whom it is said, “You shall be holy,” don’t want to stop ourselves [from eating meat and drinking wine] for eight days a year to remember our holy Temple and our glory?”
We need to feel the loss of a Temple, and all that that entails. These customs, if observed correctly and with the right intentions, help put us in this frame of mind, that, yes, in 2018, we are still in exile, we still miss the intimate relationship with God without a Temple, we live in a world where so many of our brethren fail to appreciate the beauty of Torah and how it can help shape our lives for the better. We need to feel the loss. Additionally, many of these additional restrictions were added during the Middle Ages, a time of tremendous persecution and pressure on our ancestors to forsake our traditions and convert to Christianity. These restrictions reflect the very difficult and bitter times hundreds of years ago when Jews truly felt the bitterness of no Temple, no state of Israel, no freedom to practice religion. So maybe we hold off on swimming and a barbecue for a week, and we take time to reflect on those heroes who added these restrictions and are the reasons why we are here today.