Friday, August 5, 2011

Halakhah Think Tank: The Nine Days

Halakhah Think Tank: The Nine Days: "by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 articulates the principle that, with the arrival of Av, we minimize our joy.

Various texts, synthesized in Shulhan Arukh 551, give this concrete expression: we minimize our profit-making initiatives and avoid building or renovation projects that are about increasing joy and pleasure (e.g. building a swimming pool or renovating a display space for art). This frames the mood that other traditions connected with the 9 days, which attempt to foreshadow the coming sadness of 9 Av through various ascetic deprivations.

As is the case with regard to all practices connected with 9 Av, there is a plausible read of Jewish history that sees all of these practices and 17 Tammuz as obviated in light of the return of the Jewish people to the status of sovereign majority in the Land of Israel. Some have even argued that this dramatic turn of events vitiates 9 Av itself or at least renders it an optional fast. That central question is beyond the scope of this summary, which aims to describe practices leading up to 9 Av for those who feel that the successes of Zionism do not fully eradicate the ongoing significance of this period of mourning. See the end of this summary for a final thought on this matter.

Several practices in various communities are specific to the first 9 days of Av:

Weddings, Celebrations and Musical Instruments

There is a baraita on Yevamot 43a that gets understood to mean that during some unspecified period of time before the week in which 9 Av falls, people refrain from getting married or having parties celebrating betrothal (betrothal itself being permitted). Ramban applies this restriction to the first 9 days of Av. So rulesShulhan Arukh. [We noted that many European communitiesapplied this restriction throughout the 3 weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9Av. See that earlier summary for more on this.]


A baraita on Ta’anit 29b reports a number of traditions on laundering clothing, withR. Meir forbidding laundering from 1-9 Av, R. Yehudah forbidding laundering during the entire month of Av, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel forbidding laundering during the week in which 9 Av falls. Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7 sides with the view of R. Shimon b. Gamliel, allowing for doing laundry on Thursday (or Friday) in honor of Shabbat.

On Ta’anit 29b, there is a discussion regarding the precise nature of the ban on laundry. R. Nahman thinks it is about not wearing laundered clothes. In other words, this ban is similar to the ban on haircutting, in that it is about appearance. R. Sheshet thinks the ban is more expansive and includes a ban on doing laundry even if one only intends to wear the clothing after 9 Av. It is thus about both appearanceand refraining from constructive, restorative acts like that of laundering clothing. The gemara ends up concluding that we follow R. Sheshet.

While the gemara seems content to apply this restriction during the week of 9 Av itself, many European communities reverted to R. Meir’s position and forbade wearing laundered clothing or doing laundry during the first 9 days of Av (see Maharil). Many communities did not apply this restriction to laundering children’s clothing, and Rema indeed rules that one can launder any kind of clothing that is regularly soiled to the point where it can no longer be worn (as is often the case with children’s clothing and adult undergarments).

Other interesting discussions emerged regarding what counts as “laundry”. Already in the Talmud, a Babylonian text suggests that the laundering of clothing in Babylonia is not as effective as that of the Land of Israel (likely because the rivers and streams in Babylonia were much fuller of silt and slower flowing). Therefore, the text claims, only ironed clothing falls under the prohibition. Subsequent interpreters and authorities argue over their own local conditions.

A bottom line sensible rule for observing the ban on laundry during the 9 days in the contemporary world seems to be: Don’t do laundry in a washing machine if at all possible and certainly don’t iron or dry clean clothing during this period. And don’t wear clothing that gives off an obvious impression of just having been laundered or dry cleaned (as opposed to T-shirts and other more basic items of clothing that don’t look so different when freshly cleaned). This includes brand new clothing that has never been washed, ironed or dry cleaned, but which still contributes to an appearance inappropriate for this time period. In general, there is no leniency to wash clothing in honor of Shabbat once one reverts to R. Meir’s position on laundry, though a number of later authorities permit laundry for Shabbat if one has nothing else to wear.

Meat and Wine

It is clear from the Talmud that there was only a ban at eating meat and drinking wine during the last meal prior to 9 Av (unless the day before 9 Av was on Shabbat). Nonetheless, more stringent practices emerge. Rambam is already aware of those who stop eating meat at the beginning of Av (with the exception of Shabbat) andRa’aviah reports both this practice as well as a practice not to drink wine during this period. These restrictions get cited in the Shulhan Arukh and are endorsed as normal practice in the Rema, with exceptions made for celebratory feast, such as a circumcision or the completion of a major section of Jewish learning. Rema makes clear that this practice even extends to Havdalah, and thus if wine is used for havdalah, it should, if possible, be drunk by a minor who is present. Alternatively, one could use another acceptable liquid for Havadalah, such as beer or juice.

With regard to beer, note that the main thrust of the practice surrounding meat and wine is their connection with the sacrificial order (see Tosefta Sotah 15:11) rather than the pleasure they give or the alcoholic content of wine. Beer and other alcoholic beverages are thus acceptable during this period, since these were never offered on the altar in the Temple.


The Talmud contains no restrictions on bathing during this period, including on the day before 9 Av. Nonetheless, Rambam is already aware of a practice of refraining from going to a bathhouse during the week in which 9 Av falls. This seems to be limited to bathing in heated water. Ra’aviah reports a practice not to bathe for the first 9 days of Av and Terumat Hadeshen argues that this applies even to cold water, like swimming in a river. [There are several disagreements as to whether one can be lenient on Friday afternoon as part of the preparation for Shabbat.] In any event, even for those observing this practice, it is always permitted to bathe in order to remove dirt; the focus here is on bathing for pure pleasure. Again, a common sense guideline: regular showering as part of a basic hygiene regime is permitted, but showers that are overly long or hotter than they need to be to avoid basic discomfort would be out of line with what this restriction is trying to accomplish, which is the achievement of a more ascetic pose leading up to 9 Av.


As a closing point, it is clear from every section above that these practices manifested themselves in a range of ways in different communities. For those who grew up with no particular practice and for those who feel that the contemporary State of Israel ought to impact this area of practice in a significant way, it is appropriate to think about observing some of these practices in their more moderate forms. For instance, one might only refrain from bathing in hot water during the week in which 9 Av falls and might act similarly with respect to laundry and shaving/haircutting. These are just a few of the ways in which one might achieve a balancing of values in this area of Jewish practice, allowing for the maintenance of some ancient customs while still recognizing the dramatically different moment in Jewish history that we live in compared to many of our ancestors. Another challenge is to strike a balance between one’s individual synthesis and some basic communal norm, though a number of the activities above are more private and thus more amenable to varied practice even within a single community.

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