Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Laws of Three Weeks
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

avraham ben david z"l

The Meaning of the Three Weeks

: In mourning over the Temple, we refuse to come to terms with the destruction. We begin with a life in which the Temple plays no role, and, in stages, return to the feeling of "one's dead lying before him."


Rabbi Shimon Klein

Av, 5960
1. Mourning Year Round
2. "Bein HaMeitzarim" in Time and Place
3. Mourning Gradually
4. Predisposed Times
5. Seventeenth of Tammuz: The Desecration before the Destruction
6. Ninth of Av: The End
7. Summary: Pain's Proper Place

Mourning Year Round
We find ourselves, today, in the midst of "Yemei Bein HaMeitzarim," the three weeks between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple. This being the case, let us try to better understand the meaning of these days and the significance of the process which we go through during them.

Let us begin by taking a look at our practice of mourning the Temple's destruction during the course of the entire year. With the destruction of the Temple, our sages enacted a number of fundamental laws that serve to instill in Jews everywhere a constant sensitivity to the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The classic codex of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, brings the following practices:
a. When the Holy Temple was destroyed the sages living in that generation decreed that Jews no longer be permitted to build dwellings coated with whitewash or tile like those of the kings. Rather, one plasters and whitewashes, yet leaves a square cubit opposite the entrance without whitewash.
b. When a man marries, he is to take ashes and rub them on the place where he lays his head-Tefillin. Some have a custom to break a glass under the canopy, or to place a black cloth or other signs of mourning on the head of the groom. All of these things are done in order to remember Jerusalem, as it is written: "If I forget you Jerusalem let my right hand forget its cunning, if I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy" (Psalm 137:6).
c. In addition, the Sages forbade Jews from playing assorted musical instruments that cause joy.
d. It is forbidden to "fill one's mouth with laughter" in this world.

Over the course of time, and for various reasons, leniency has been practiced with regard to some of these laws. Yet, early authorities already make it clear that when it comes to "the Three Weeks," Jews are expected to act stringently.

And over what is it that we weep?
a. The loss of prophecy and the Divine Presence which once dwelled among us.
b. The many Torah commandments which, due to the Temple's destruction, can no longer be practiced.
c. All of the many troubles which have befallen our people from the time of Temple's destruction until today.
d. The numerous trials and tribulations of the individual.
e. Estrangement to the point where we are unable to grasp the depth of the tragedy.

"Bein HaMeitzarim" in Time and Place
Simply speaking, the term "Yemei Bein HaMeitzarim" refers to the days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz - the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached in the time of the First Temple - and the Ninth of Av - the day on which both First and Second Temples were destroyed.
We are familiar with the verse in the book of Lamentations: "Judah has gone into exile because of anguish and severe toil. She dwelt among the nations, but found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her 'Bein HaMeitzarim'." (1:3). The plain meaning of the term "HaMeitzarim" is "Border." The meaning of this passage, then, is that the enemies caught Israel in a bordered place, such that there was no possibility of escaping in any direction whatsoever. "HaMeitzarim," explains Rashi, means "the borders of a field or vineyard." This situation is what caused the tragic destruction.

The source of this expression's having come to indicate the period between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av - "Yemei Bein HaMeitzarim" - appears to be the following Midrash:

"...all her pursuers overtook her 'Bein HaMeitzarim.'" [When?] In the days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, for during them bitter destruction is found, as it is written (Psalms 91:6): "...nor of the plague that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday" (Midrash Eicha Rabba, 1)

According to this, the meaning of the term "Bein HaMeitzarim" is trouble and difficulty, and relates to a time predisposed for punishment, i.e., the period between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av. So, we have seen two meanings of this term: one relating to the dimension of place; another relating to dimension of time.

Mourning Gradually
In the language of the sages of the Talmud, the days of mourning over the Temple's destruction are termed days of "old mourning." Rabbi Yitzchak Dov Soloveitchik observes that this form of mourning mirrors that which is observed over a deceased individual. Rabbi Soloveitchik points to parallels between the two from the point of view of their laws. The customs observed during the Three Weeks are comparable to those which are practiced by a Jew during the first year of mourning over a close relative; the customs of the first nine days of Av are similar to those of the first thirty days after the death of a close relative; the customs of the Ninth of Av itself are like those of the "Shiva," the seven days after a close relative's passing:

All of the prohibitions binding upon a mourner are observed on the Ninth of Av: It is forbidden to eat and drink, to anoint oneself, to wear [leather] shoes, and to have marital relations. It is also forbidden to read from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and to study Mishnah and Talmud, Midrash, Halakhot, and Aggadot. (Taanit 30a)

There were sages who even viewed the Ninth of Av as comparable to the mourning period immediately after death, yet before burial. It is told of Rabbi Yehudah that on the eve of Tisha B'Av they would bring him dry bread in salt, and he would sit between the stove and the oven, eat, and drink a jug of water, and would appear to be like one whose dead lie before him.

In mourning over an individual, there are differing stages:
a. One whose dead lies before him - exempt from all of the commandments.
b. "Shiva," during the seven days following the death - This is a period of time when one basically returns to Torah obligations yet continues to be restricted from studying Torah (for, as it is written: "The laws of God are upright and gladden the heart"), and the laws of mourning are observed.
c. "Shloshim," during the thirty days following the death - One returns completely to Torah obligations, but continues to be restricted from gladness, marriage, shaving, and a number of other practices.
d. During the twelve months following the death - One recites "Kaddish" over the dead, continues to observe some restrictions upon gladness, and more.

From a psychological point of view, the laws of mourning both reflect and accompany, in a very intense manner, the process which the mourner himself goes through:
a. Initially, one receives a painful blow that fills one's entire being. His dead lies before him. Everything suddenly changes. In an instant all of the lights have gone out. If one is of particular closeness to the deceased, one's entire world suddenly shrinks in light of the enormous void that has been created. In this sort of situation, a person is exempt from Torah obligations.
b. The "Shiva." This is a time during which one is taken up with the honor of the dead, yet has already reached the stage of coming to terms with what has happened. One begins to return to his Torah obligations. The central idea that the mourner is taken up by at this stage is remembrance of the dead. Yet, already the first attempts at mending the wound are being made.
c. During both the thirty-day and the twelve-month periods after the death, one continues to digest what has happened. Yet, a return to everyday life is already being made. "Life goes on." The void still occupies a deep and significant place, yet there is an attempt to balance proportions.
d. Finally, life returns to normalcy. Not through pushing aside one's memories but through incorporating them as a constructive factor in life. When the memory of the deceased accompanies us, their heritage guides us. We remember the admirable character traits that they possessed and attempt to internalize them.

Concerning the destruction of the Holy Temple, then, we spoke initially about the Three Weeks as being part of an historical timetable. On both the Seventeen of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, tragic events befell the Jewish people. Next, we approached the three weeks as a gradual process, in accordance with the stages established by the Rabbis in order to imbue us, gradually, with a sense of the destruction.
In all truth, the process that we go through during the Three Weeks is reversed from that of our mourning over an individual. Here, we go from a sense of estrangement from the Temple, both mentally and emotionally, to a sense of intense mourning - as if the Temple had just now been destroyed, like one whose dead lies before him. In mourning over an individual - "new mourning" - there is an acceptance and coming to terms with reality. In "old mourning," our mourning over the Temple, we refuse to come to terms. We begin with a life in which the Temple plays no role, and, in stages, return to a feeling of "one's dead lying before him."

Predisposed Times
The Sages said in the Mishnah: Five tragic events befell our ancestors on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and five on the Ninth of Av: On the Seventeenth of Tammuz the Tablets were broken, the Daily Sacrifice was discontinued, the walls of the City were breached, and Apostomos burned the Torah and erected a idol in the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that our ancestors would not be permitted to enter the Land, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, Betar was taken, and the City was plowed over (Taanit 26:1).

We have a rule which states that every period in the yearly cycle possesses a predisposed transcendent nature, with unique inherent characteristics. Indeed, it is possible to discern that appropriate behavior on our part has the strength to bring about the actualization of these potential characteristics.

For example, in the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah, the son of Rabbi Shemuel bar Shilat said in the name of Rav, "Just as when the month of Av enters we lessen our joy, so, when the month of Adar enters we increase our joy." Rav Papa adds that if a Jew has a court case or business transaction with a stranger in the month of Av he should do his best to avoid it, for this month is a time of misfortune for him. He should try to arrange such undertakings in the month of Adar. In Adar, a Jew enjoys good fortune. Indeed, this is brought as binding law in the Shulchan Arukh.

The Children of Israel were guilty of two sins in the wilderness: the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies. The Seventeenth of Tammuz represents the Sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses descended from the mountain, saw the people dancing around their molten image, and shattered the Tablets. The Sin of the Spies was on the Ninth of Av, the day on which the Spies returned and delivered their negative report about the Land. On this day, the eventual destruction of the Temple was decreed. The first, the day of the giving of the Tablets; the second, the day on which the Spies returned from their mission, the day on which, had we been worthy, we would have declared, "The Land is exceedingly good," and, in the words of Caleb, "Let us go up and conquer it for we are capable!" These two days represent two aspects of our attachment to the Sacred.
The first, the day on which the Children of Israel received the Torah, serves to express our bond to transcendent, lofty holiness, the heavens; the second, the day the Children of Israel received the Land of Israel, expresses our bond to the Land.

Seventeenth of Tammuz: The Desecration before the Destruction
If we look closely at the five things that happened on the Seventeenth of Tammuz we can see that each of them reveals an aspect of holiness which has been violated, the existence of some ideal or lofty principle which has vanished from the world. True, on this day the actual destruction had not yet taken place, but the spiritual source of the destruction had set root therein.
Let us consider the four additional events which took place on this day:

a. The daily "Tamid" offering was discontinued. The destruction has not arrived, but the discontinuation of this daily sacrifice represents a shattering of the uninterrupted Temple service. It is possible to discern in this a heavy blow to the heart of our relation to all that is sacred.
b. The walls of Jerusalem were breached. The destruction has not yet arrived, yet the breaching of the walls of the City represents a violation of the city's wholeness, a breach in the ability to defend Jerusalem. In this regard, it is possible to view the breaching of the walls on a national as well as a spiritual level. Moreover, the sanctity of walled cities is dependent on the walls themselves. This is evidenced in Jewish law by the fact that walled cities, because they are walled, are considered holy in a number of contexts. This sanctity of Jerusalem was violated on the Seventeenth of Tammuz.
c. Apostomos burned the Torah. The connection of this act to the day is clear enough: desecration of the Torah.
d. The erecting of an idol in the Temple. Here, too, we find desecration of the Sacred, yet not total destruction.

Ninth of Av: The End
a. Both First and Second Temples were destroyed. While desecration and violation, not unlike that of the breaking of the Tablets and the burning of the Torah, are also discernable in the destruction of the Temple, there is a big difference. The destruction of the Temple implies a laying of waste to the source of life. The Temple is not a mere abstract spiritual entity, detached from real life. It is, rather, the center of all arrangements of life: Law resides in the Temple; it is the central place of worship; the service in the Temple gives expression to a meaningful spiritual axis in the life of the nation; the Temple, with its confession and repentance, possesses educational significance; the sacrifices, too, are related to these acts; the Temple is even a home for song and beauty, and more.
b. Betar was taken. The downfall of Betar symbolizes the final blow in the tragic episode of the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Akiva, along with a number of other scholars, believed it possible to inspire a rebellion, thus reversing the tide of ruin. Yet they did not merit so much, and the great destruction played itself out amidst the failure of the rebellion, the death of Bar Kochba, and the fall of Betar.
c. The City was plowed over. Jerusalem ceased to be a city and was plowed over by the Romans, fulfilling the prophecy, "Zion, her field will be plowed." Surely there is no greater expression of the cessation of life than this - destruction.

As we have said, none of the events that transpired on the Seventeenth of Tammuz equals total destruction. On a theoretical level, it is still possible to speak about mending each one of them. Regarding the first set of tablets, we indeed find rectification - a second set of tablets was given. Regarding the other events there existed, for each one of them, the real possibility of repentance and reversal, if we had only been worthy. Unfortunately, though, this was not to be: Spiritual ruin on the Seventeenth of Tammuz eventually led to the destruction of all life on the Ninth of Av.

Summary: Pain's Proper Place
It is important, then, to take note of the significance of these days and to align one's pain with the meaning of each of them. Furthermore, a sincere recognition of the tragedy over which one mourns and weeps is an expression of the refusal to come to terms with it. On the Seventeenth of Tammuz we fast and observe customs of mourning in accordance with our refusal to come to terms with the absence of the First Tablets, or with the violation of the sanctity of Jerusalem, the Sanctuary, the service therein, and the burning of the Torah.

On the Ninth of Av our plight is like one whose dead lies before him. We weep over the cessation of Israeli life which had been in full blossom while the Temple stood on its foundation - priests bustle in service; Levites, in sweet song. We weep over the weakening of our bond with the Land of our Forefathers; a land bearing potential for prophecy; a land which, when we fully recognize its unique status, allows us to return to our true national stature. On this day, our sorrow is due to the vibrant Israeli life which has been shut up, due to the Divine Presence which, with the destruction of the Temple and the City, vanished from the Land. Focusing one's pain upon these things implies being intimately attached to them - awaiting their return.

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