UJS Jewish Engagement and Enrichment Sabbatical Officer, Dora Hirsh, talks us through the Three Weeks, and their meaning.
The Three Weeks is a period of mourning in the Jewish calendar that marks a number of tragedies and disasters that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. It begins with a fast on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, known simply as the 17th of Tammuz or its Hebrew name Shiva Asar b’Tammuz. According to the Mishna (Ta’anit 4:6), five disasters befell the Jewish people on this date throughout history: Moses smashed the stone tablets on Mount Sinai, the priests in the First Temple stopped offering the daily sacrifice because Jerusalem was besieged and they ran out of sheep, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in the Second Temple Period, a Roman general named Apostomos burned a Torah scroll, and an idol was erected in the Temple by the Romans. These events signify a loss of sovereignty for the Jewish people and the beginning of a long story of suppression and exile. These are turning points in the Jewish story, each leaving the Jewish people vulnerable and their status, both with God and in the world, uncertain and unstable.
Following this fast, we move into the three week mourning period known in Hebrew as “Bein haMetzarim” and in English simply as the Three Weeks. During this time, traditionally observant Jews take on a number of mourning customs, for example refraining from parties, celebrations and weddings, as well as cutting hair and even listening to music.
In the final nine days of this period, beginning on the 1st of Av, the mourning intensifies. Foods traditionally associated with celebration and luxury, such as wine and meat, are forbidden, except on Shabbat. Bathing beyond what is necessary, is prohibited, as is doing laundry, and buying or wearing new clothes.
Finally, this all culminates in one of the most sombre days of the Jewish calendar - the ninth of Av, or in Hebrew, Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av marks the date that both temples were destroyed.
My Jewish Learning describes the grief of Tisha B’Av: “The air is filled with a sense of loss and abandonment: the people abandoned by God, God abandoned by His people, each longing for the other, each eager to renew the covenant of Shavuot, the trust of that night of the Exodus when we faithfully went off into the desert with only God to sustain us. No rain, no sustenance, no wave offerings, no joy. Illusions or ideals seem to have melted under the fiery rays of the summer sun with no sheltering wings to protect us. Tisha B’Av erases the last innocence and brings home the difficulty of living by the covenant, for the covenant means being chosen for strife, anger, and even destruction and persecution, as well as love…We sit as mourners on Tisha B’Av, first remembering and then bewailing what could have been.”
Tisha B’av is marked by a full fast. Tradition also forbids wearing leather, washing, or using perfume. It is also customary for people not to greet one another at all due to the sombreness of the day. Even when the fast is out, Jews refrain from having a luxurious meal, to acknowledge that the temple continued to burn the following night.
Here at UJS we wish you a meaningful Three Weeks, however you observe.