The Independence Day weekend snuck up on us this year, and just as soon as it arrived, so did it, in a similar fashion, seem to fade away. But it was a wonderful Shabbos and beautiful weekend nevertheless, with Shabbos Mevorchim Av the main feature of a few rather overheated days.
Summer has only just begun, but as you probably anticipated and as you can see, this summer in particular features a somewhat unusual setup. I mean, the summer has just started and boom—here we are in the Nine Days and mentally gearing up, once again, for Tishah B’Av.
No, I don’t know how many more of these mourning periods we will have to endure until His Divine patience has run its course and He decides that we’ve had enough of this already. But like good troopers, we are up for the task and if this is the way it has to be—and it has been like this for an awfully long time—then so be it.
Yes it is true that usually the summer picks up some steam and momentum before the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and then Tishah B’Av itself hits us. But the way our calendar is set up this year, it just does not work out that way. Instead here it is rolled out right here directly in front of us at the very outset of the summer season.
Aside from being a prelude to a historical low point on our national calendar, an additional most distinguishing characteristic of the Nine Days is the food we traditionally have trained and programmed ourselves to abstain from and on the flip side the kinds of foods that have become a staple on our menus.
Perhaps it was once upon a time when you were steeped in some kind of memorial or mourning process that your state of mind would dictate the nature and extent of your appetite and the foods that you would ingest in order to achieve proper nutrition and be sated. But that does not seem to be the case or the reality for many anymore.
So, while we observe these days on various levels, ranging from deep and sorrowful national mourning to a week and a half of tasty symbolism, they still mark a departure of sorts for all. Regardless of your emotions on the matter, for many these days mark a palatable change. And it is not just these nine days but rather, as you know, a more expanded three weeks of something being amiss that extends from last month’s 17th of Tammuz through next week’s 9th of Av.
So while the real focus is on the ancient destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem along with an assortment of misfortune that has occurred in and around this difficult period on our calendar, there seems to be an inordinate emphasis on the culinary aspect of these few days. That is in addition to the no-swimming policy, limiting the laundry process for clothing, not buying new things, and so on.
I suppose that different people mark this time of year of what has become mostly symbolic mourning for many in different ways. The focus is largely channeled by the broadest number of people, in my estimation, in the direction of not what we are eating as much as the kinds of foods we are abstaining from. Except on Shabbos, we do not eat meat or poultry and we do not consume wine—food and drink representative of a celebratory mood.
I was perusing the Internet the other day when I came across a piece on the subject that says the Nine Days and its focus on dairy foods is especially difficult on those with milk allergies and those who are lactose-intolerant. Those folks approach the dairy-foods-during-the-Nine Days craze with a little more trepidation and apprehension. They are the ones who during this period seem to be experiencing real pain.
Then I came across an article that discussed the mournful aspects of this week but then discovered that the abbreviated history lesson was really about some intriguing recipe suggestions for the Nine Days. These were some of the suggestions included that either curtail the celebratory-type foods or enhance, if you will, the nature of this sorrowful period.
Some of the ideas about what to dine on over these next few days included avocado-stuffed salmon with wild rice; then there was Parmesan and sun-dried tomato-crusted tilapia; followed by stir-fried tofu with soba noodles; and on and on the suggestions went. Granted this is not steak or ribs or duck, but they do not seem to exactly be foods or dishes that would typify a mood or a meal conducive to morning.
It’s an odd thing, but without passing judgment about anyone or anything, it seems that people in general are not just scrupulous but zealous about their observance of the food dimension of these Nine Days of ours more than any other aspect of the observance.
Our local restaurants that serve dairy are packed to the gills, so to speak, during this week. Pizza and ice-cream shops are hopping; people will wait on line for an hour or more just to dine on a fish platter and some vegetables. The adherence to a pareve or dairy menu this week seems to have the solemnity of Yom Kippur attached to it. Many of the seasonal customs are treated on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, but not when it comes to eating during the Nine Days.
Of course that is not the case with everyone or in every circumstance. I was at an event sitting near a rabbi the other day, it was on Rosh Chodesh, and I asked him what he would be dining on that night l’kavod the Nine Days. He explained rather plainly that he would be eating steak. He said that one of his congregants was hosting a seudah on his father’s yahrzeit and that he was making a siyum on a tractate of Talmud, which is such an extraordinary occasion to the extent that when it comes to the Nine Days you can leave the fish in the freezer and break out the chops and ribs. But, I was wondering, where is his seasonal spirit; doesn’t he feel like he’s missing something by skipping over all that tuna and tilapia?
Back in my camp days several decades ago we also had a siyum every night of the Nine Days that entitled us growing boys to dine on meat or chicken. So in terms of culinary concerns, based on our camp menus we would not necessarily have known that it was these unique days. But thankfully we had other clues, like the fact that we could not go swimming or do our laundry, plus a few other symbolic exercises.
The customs and traditions during these low points on our calendar are intended for us not to figure out how to manage a diverse menu through a full week while refraining from meat or chicken, but to manipulate our mindset to absorb and understand what it means to be a Jew in this world without a Beit HaMikdash on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
And maybe after all these years no one can assign blame to anyone having trouble feeling the pain or the loss. It’s just been too difficult and agonizingly long. My goodness, if this is our destiny then how about getting on with it?
Perhaps the most poignant observation about this time of year comes from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l. He writes that if this is indeed mourning we are enduring, then it seems to be a somewhat skewed and even abnormal type of mourning. And lo and behold he is right on the mark. Anyone who has ever experienced loss or mourning will understand this best.
In conventional mourning, the dejectedness and the sorrow is at first most intense, as represented by the shivah. Then that intensity lessens over the 30 days of sheloshim. And then there is a mourning period of still lesser aveilus that extends over a full year after the loss of a parent.
This business of mourning the loss of our Temples in Jerusalem is exactly upside down and opposite. First there is soft or casual mourning in the Three Weeks, and then there is the more intense aveilus in the Nine Days, and finally the most intense as represented by the day of Tishah B’Av itself.
Rav Soloveitchik writes that this is an odd and indeed an abnormal way to mourn. Why, he asks, is it set up this way? Because, says the Rav, a Jew without the Beit HaMikdash is an abnormal situation. Let’s pray that this is the last such period of mourning for us all. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.