Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shiv'a Asar B'Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) and "the Three Weeks"

by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Already in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple, there was a fast in the fourth month, the month we now call Tammuz.  This may have been connected to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians on the 9th day of the fourth month, an event and date preserved in Jeremiah 39:2 and 52:6-7.  But no day of the month is prescribed for this fast when it is mentioned in Zechariah 8:19.

By the time we get to rabbinic literature, the “fast of the fourth month” mentioned in Zechariah is understood to refer to the 17th of Tammuz.  This is the date when the Talmud says that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans following their siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.  This date is also mentioned by Josephus, Wars of the Jews VI:93.  Rabbinic tradition in Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 ascribed other calamities to this day: The breaking of the first tablets given to Moshe (in the context of the sin of the Golden Calf), the cessation of the daily offering in the Temple (likely on the same day that the Romans broke through the walls—see Josephus); a public burning of a Torah scroll and the setting up of an idolatrous statue in the Temple precincts.  The years and contexts of the last two events are uncertain.

Zechariah chapters 7 and 8 are largely devoted the question of whether the “fast of the fifth month”—known to us as Tish’a B’Av—remains relevant once the Second Temple has been rebuilt.  After a group asks whether the fast should still be observed, lengthy prophecies are reported to Zechariah with two main points: 1) God was never that interested in the fast day in the first place and is equally uninterested in the question of its abrogation.  God is mainly interested in the construction of a just society where the weak are protected and corruption is rooted out.  2) The four fast days (known to us as Tzom Gedaliah, Asara B’Tevet, Shiv’a Asar B’Tammuz and Tish’a B’Av) will be a time of rejoicing.  Whether this is to take place in the present or in the future is left unclear.

Picking up on this answer, the Talmud Bavli on Rosh Hashanah 18a-b has a short sugya that tries to lay out a framework for these fast days and their potential status as days of rejoicing.  The bottom line the emerges is this: 1) In a time of shalom, these days are ones of rejoicing (on which it would seem to be forbidden to fast).  2) In a time of shemad (persecution/suffering), these days are mandatory fast days.  3) In a time covered by neither of the above categories, three of these fasts are optional (though unclear if individuals or communities decide). Tish’a B’Av remains mandatory.

While early post-Talmudic sources affirm the optional nature of three of these fast days—including 17 Tammuz—later medieval sources begin to say that the Jewish community has accepted them upon themselves and they are thus mandatory, especially given that there are still Jewish communities under persecution.  And so was the official status of these days in almost all Jewish communities until the 20th century.

The success of political Zionism as manifested in the founding of the State of Israel has raised serious questions with regard to the status of these fasts.  Some have argued that the restoration of full Jewish political sovereignty over the land of Israel has returned us to category 1) and thus all of these fast days—including Tish’a B’Av have been canceled and are now days of celebration.  Others have maintained that while we might not describe ourselves as living in a time of shalom (for all the obvious reasons that political Zionism has not completely solved issues of Jewish sovereignty and independence and because of a great deal of ongoing persecution and war in the context of both the Jewish community and the global community beyond it), we certainly don’t live in a time of shemad, and the founding of the State of Israel is certainly significant enough to upend the medieval consensus for mandatory observance and return us to the purer optional status of category 3).  Among those who take an optional stance, there are many who have advocated fasting half a day and breaking the fast after Minhah.  Still others have argued that until some dramatic sign of shalom—on the messianic/apocalyptic order of magnitude of the rebuilding of a Third Temple or its equivalent—we remain with the medieval consensus that these days are fully mandatory.

I would add that the American Jewish experience of living in a free democratic society that is deeply different from many exilic communities Jews have found themselves in throughout the ages has also contributed to the sense that these fast days do not have the same power they have had at other points in time.

This is a complex topic.  You can listen to a shiur on this topic here and the key sources are here.

My own feeling is that the factors of the founding of the State of Israel and living as equals in American democracy are too significant to claim that we either live in a time of shemad or even in the world of medieval consensus that the Jewish people has clearly accepted these fasts upon themselves as unquestionably mandatory.  It is hard to imagine that all of those medieval authorities would have lived through 1948 and 1967 unaffected.  On the other hand, I am skittish about suggesting that with the creation of the State of Israel, shalom has arrived, and worry about running afoul of Zechariah’s call to prioritize the creation of a just and perfect society over the question of the celebratory abrogation of fast days.

It therefore seems to me that we are best described as living in category 3), where the fast days other than Tish’a B’Av are optional, and I personally do not feel that there is any formal obligation to fast on the other three fast days.  So why do I fast and why does Yeshivat Hadar choose to observe these days as fast days in terms of our liturgy and our practice?  There are, to my mind, two compelling reasons: First, there is much injustice and imperfection in the world in general, and in the sovereign Jewish state in particular.  These days and their fasting ritual are a powerful way to trigger us to think about those issues.  Second, Zechariah tells us that these days will one day be ones of rejoicing.  That means that they must be maintained on the calendar so that the Jewish people will remember them when history takes the turn that will enable us to see the world as one infused with shalom.  I have personally committed to be among those that guard that calendrical space for the future and I think it is most appropriate for yoshvei beit hamidrash—those who spend the lion’s share of their time learning from the Jewish past and its application to the Jewish future to be among those who assume that road.

Bein Hametzarim (“The Three Weeks”

The three weeks from 17 Tammuz through 9 Av are commonly known as בין המצריםbein hametzarim—“the narrows,” the time of year in which Jewish grief over Jewish history is most acutely focused.  It was during the month of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the invading Babylonian army and later the Roman army, attack that culminated in the destruction of the First and Second Temples on 9 Av.  9 Av became a kind of calendrical receptacle for other tragedies in Jewish history that transpired throughout the ages.

Aside from the observance of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av as fast days, a range of practices sprung up over the generations with regard to the days and weeks leading up to 9 Av.  The ancient liturgical cycle in Eretz Yisrael already reflected the special nature of these three weeks, in that the haftarot chosen for the three weeks prior to 9 Av reflected the sense of impending doom many Jews felt during this period.

Two of the main practices that emerged: 1) Refraining from getting haircuts or shaving; 2) Refraining from weddings, celebrations and any use of musical instruments.

Haircutting

A baraita on Ta’anit 29b reports several views, with R. Meir forbidding haircutting from 1-9 Av, R. Yehudah forbidding haircutting during the entire month of Av, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel forbidding cutting hair during the week in which 9 Av falls.  Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7 sides with the view of R. Shimon b. Gamliel.

In a kind of shifted version of R. Yehudah’s position, Sefer Haminhagim, an Ashkenazic compendium of European practices, reports a custom to refrain from haircutting during the 3 weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av.  Many maintain this practice until this day. 

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 rules Shulhan ArukhSefer Haminhagim reports that medieval Ashkenazic practice was to back up the restriction on weddings to 17 Tammuz.  So rules Rema.  Aharonim assert that this added Ashkenazic restriction did not extend to betrothal parties but only to weddings specifically. [See Mishnah Berurah 551:19.]

Magen Avraham 551:10 rules that it seems to him that any kind of dancing is forbidden starting at 17 Tammuz, even if it is not attached to a betrothal party.

Responsa Kappei Aharon #52 analyzes the question of whether the playing of musical instruments is forbidden during the 3 weeks and concludes that it is totally obvious that such playing is forbidden--despite this not being mentioned specifically in the Shulhan Arukh or its commentaries—given that the Shulhan Arukh assumes that it is problematic--in the wake of the destruction of the Temple—ever to play musical instruments, with only some authorities permitting in mitzvah-related situations.  Even though observance of this prohibition on using musical instruments at all has largely fallen by the wayside in most Jewish communities, poskim have tried to enforce the prohibition during specifically intense periods of mourning like the 3 weeks.

For all of these reasons, the practice among many Ashkenazic Jews today is to refrain from listening to music (at least live music) during the 3 weeks. 

Mitigating Factors

There are, however, a number of other factors to consider:

1)  There are a host of restrictions similar to those laid out in the baraita above for the days before 9 Av in texts talking about restrictions during the time period after many unsuccessful fasts for rain.  R. Hai Gaon (quoted in Ran on Rif Ta'anit 5b) lifted these restrictions in any case where a mitzvah was involved.  For instance, he permitted one who had not yet had children to get married during this time, since there is not actually a prohibition against getting married, claims R. Hai Gaon, but rather it is a bad omen to get married during this time, a concern that we override when a more important principle is at stake.  Though Beit Yosef has some initial doubts about whether this leniency would apply to the first 9 days of Av as well, he seems to conclude that it does, and Rema indeed rules this way.  Arukh Hashulhan indeed rules that if there is some pressing need, we can permit even a marriage during the 3 weeks (though he won't allow it during the actual week during which 9 Av falls).  Indeed, many Aharonim extend this principle to permit using musical instruments during this period to celebrate an event like a pidyon haben, which is a celebration surrounding a mitzvah.  [See R. Ovadiah Yosef in Yehaveh Da'at 6:34 for more.]

2) Context matters: Peri Megadim rules that a professional musician who plays at Gentile parties is allowed to play during the 3 weeks.  Zekher Simhah (R. Simhah Halevi Bamberger) says that a person may take music lessons--at least up until the actual week during which 9 Av falls--since this is not really playing music for joy but learning a trade. [This view is endorsed by, among others, R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer 16:19.]

3) The State of Israel and living in a free democratic society that is deeply different from many exilic communities Jews have found themselves in throughout the ages:  As noted above, there is strong basis for arguing that the fast of 17 Tammuz (and perhaps even 9 Av) have become optional in a reality where there is once again Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  Since the loss of that sovereignty was arguably the impetus for the establishment of the fasts in the first place, its restoration clearly has something to say about how these fasts are observed today.  Of course, that political sovereignty is imperfect and incomplete, and it is an equally valid view of history to say that the fasts remain in full effect even today.  Anyone who feels that the fasts themselves have become optional will obviously feel the same way about the rituals and practices that have grown up around them.  Even those who do not subscribe to a reading of history that obviates these fasts in our contemporary reality may still argue that Jews living in parts of the Diaspora that are unlike the dominant Jewish experience of Exile (such as the contemporary United States) ought to return to observances grounded in the Talmud rather than those that sprung up in medieval Europe in response to conditions of Jewish life there.  That would mean whittling down the ban on haircutting to the week of 9 Av and permitting parties and music any time before the month of Av.

[Another interesting practice, with its own history: Sefer Hasidim #840 states that one should not say a שהחיינו during the 3 weeks, reflecting a sense that a sense of gratitude for coming to “this time” is inappropriate during such a mournful period.  Maharil Responsum #31, however, only accepts this in cases where one could later say the שהחיינו, as in the case of a new piece of clothing or a seasonal fruit, but rejects the notion that we would drop the recitation of a שהחיינו over a mitzvah that happens to fall in that period, such as a pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son).  The Vilna Gaon, among others, rejected this whole stringency and said שהחיינו should be said in this period.  This debate is a fascinating meditation on the tensions between living in a mythic past while still engages with the pleasures, responsibilities and miracles of the present.]

I hope this is a meaningful period of time for all of you.  May we see the arrival of complete peace and redemption in our day.

שנזכה לראות בנחמת ירושלים

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  2. That's a whole lot of rules for simply playing an instrument. It almost makes me regret buying a yamaha clarinet.

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