Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Rethinking periods of stringency with excessive mourning, fasting

This coming Monday evening not only begins the gruesome 25-hour fast known as Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), it also marks the beginning of the end of two distinct but congruent periods of mourning — the “Three Weeks” and its final “Nine Days.”

Should these mourning periods even be on our calendar?

The Three Weeks, with its proscriptions against listening to music, going to celebrations, cutting hair and shaving and such, began on the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz (Shivah Asar b’Tammuz). The Nine Days, which involve even more stringent mourning rituals, began last Sunday at sundown, at the start of the month of Av. These additional rituals include refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, except on Shabbat; bathing, except under very strict guidelines; doing laundry; and wearing new clothes (or even pressed ones, according to some communities).

The Three Weeks marks the time between the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls and the destruction of the Temple. According to tradition, the breach occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, leading to the Temple’s destruction exactly three weeks later, on Tisha B’Av. Each day during this period brought us closer to great calamity. Thus, the entire period is designated for public mourning.

According to Jeremiah 39:2 and 52:6, however, the walls of Jerusalem in the First Temple period were breached on the Ninth of Tammuz, not the 17th. (That is when the walls were said to have been breached before the Second Temple’s destruction.) As for Tisha B’Av, according to II Kings 25:8-9, the First Temple was destroyed on the seventh of Av, while Jeremiah 52:12 claims it happened on the tenth. No biblical source claims the ninth, however.

(The Jerusalem Talmud supports the 17th of Tammuz as the day the walls were breached in the case of the First Temple. A Tosafot in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b explains that the Jerusalem Talmud believed the two verses in Jeremiah were corrupted.)

The Torah, as I noted in my pre-Tisha B’Av column last year, says nothing about mourning calamities of the past. The lifestyle the Torah prescribes celebrates life; it does not burden life by establishing memorials to the catastrophes of yesteryear. It does not ask us, for example, to mark the horrific mass murder of the newborn male children in Egypt, or the murderous attack Amalek launched against our elderly, infirm, and very young during the march to Sinai.

The Torah does not memorialize catastrophes. They will not be forgotten because they are on record, and that is considered to be enough in the Torah’s view.

On the other hand, elsewhere in the Tanach, we are told of four public fasts (see Zechariah 8:19), as well as private fasts (see, for example, II Samuel 12:22–23), and one-time fasts following calamities (see Judges 20:26, I Samuel 7:6 and 14:24, and II Chronicles 20:3.) There also were fasts meant to thwart calamities, the most famous of which were the spontaneous fasts that broke out throughout Persia after Haman’s plot was revealed, and the three-day fast Esther ordered in Shushan before she approached the king. (See Esther 4:3 and 16; note that there is nothing in the Book of Esther that ordains a permanent annual fast, however.)

All this leads to question whether the Three Weeks should be abolished, and whether the restrictive rules relating to the Nine Days should be refined. To do both would seem to be consistent with the Torah’s view, and in keeping with the views of our Sages of Blessed Memory.

To begin with, the Sages believed that excessive mourning can have fatal consequences. (See BT Moed Katan 27b.)

Then there is the matter of the four public fasts noted in Zechariah 8:19—”the fast of the fourth month [Tammuz] and the fast of the fifth [Tisha B’Av] and the fast of the seventh [the Fast of Gedaliah on the third of Tishrei] and the fast of the tenth [month, meaning the Tenth of Tevet].” Zechariah, quoting God, says of those fast days that they will one day “become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals….”

What is that supposed to mean? “Said [the Babylonian sage] Rav Papa: This is what it says: In times of peace, [these days] shall be for joy and gladness; if [it is a time when] there is government persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is neither government persecution nor peace, those who wish to do so may fast while those who do not wish to do so do not fast.” (See BT Rosh Hashanah 18b)

While Jews in most parts of the world are free from formal government persecution, the Jews in Israel (and arguably in France and elsewhere) cannot be said to be living in total peace. The Talmud, therefore, seems to suggest that these four fasts are optional at this time. The only exception, according to Rav Papa, is Tisha B’Av, because so many other calamities occurred on that date since Zechariah’s time (not to mention how many more have occurred since Rav Papa’s day). It follows that if “the fast of the fourth month” is optional, there is no reason for the three weeks that follow it to be days of mourning.

What of the eight days that precede Tisha B’Av? The Talmud (see BT Taanit 26b) does say that “from the start of Av we decrease our rejoicing,” but it limits serious mourning rituals only to the days leading up to Tisha B’Av in the week in which the fast actually falls, not from the First of Av. This is repeated in BT Yevamot 43a: “During the week in which the Ninth of Av occurs, it is forbidden to cut the hair and to wash clothes.” The most restrictive rules, according to BT Taanit 26b, relate only to the day before Tisha B’Av: “On Erev Tisha B’Av, one does not eat two cooked dishes [during the same meal, because this suggests feasting; presumably, this is limited to the final meal before the fast], and does not eat meat nor drink wine.”

Interestingly, Rambam (Maimonides) qualifies this. He avers that not eating meat is the accepted custom in the week in which Tisha B’Av falls, but he seems to consider that an option. Of the rule in BT Taanit itself, he says it applies only “when on Erev Tisha B’Av a person ate [the final meal before the fast] after midday. If, however, he eats [that final meal] before midday…, he may eat whatever he desires.” (See his Mishneh Torah Taanit 5:8.)

The period known as the Three Weeks is a stringency that does not appear to be supported by the practice of our Sages, and even the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz would seem to be at best an option in our day. While the Nine Days were seen by the Sages as a time of limited mourning, only the days of the week leading up to Tisha B’Av were seen as restrictive by them, and the most severe rules applied only to the day before Tisha B’Av, and on Tisha B’Av itself.

Perhaps, this is how we should approach these days, as well. How sad it is, then, that merely raising such questions can get someone labeled a heretic. That certainly is a reason to fast on Tisha B’Av.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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