Although the Three Weeks and the other two fasts are a period of mourning and introspection, Zechariah the Navi tells us (Zechariah 8:19) that eventually, the four fasts of Klal Yisroel will be a source of joy and gladness – if we but embark upon the goal of loving both truth and shalom. These two themes are central to Torah life. Rabbi Chaninah tells us (Shabbos 55a) that Hashem’s seal is truth. Shalom is also one of the names of Hashem, in addition to being a central theme of our daily Tefilos. If we learn to love these ideals – the fasts will be turned around.
The four fasts mentioned in Zechariah are:
- The fast of the fourth month. [Tamuz – the 17th of it]
- The fast of the fifth month. [Av – the 9th of it]
- The fast of the seventh month. [Tishrei – the 3rd of it]
- The fast of the tenth month. [Taives – the 10th of it]
Clearly, we are counting these four fasts from the month of Nissan. Why do we start from Nissan? Because this is the first month that we became who we are – a nation.
The exact dates of two of the fasts were not always these dates – they were somewhat modified. As far as the 17th of Tamuz, originally, in the time of 1st Beis HaMikdash we observed it on the 9th of Tamuz because that is when the city walls were first broken through. Hundreds of years later, during the time of the 2nd Bais HaMikdash, on the 17th of Tamuz, the enemy breached the walls of Yerushalayim once again. The date of the Tamuz fast was moved from the 9th to the 17th. The fast of Tishrei was to be observed on the 3rd because the tragedy had occurred on the second day of Rosh haShana itself, one day earlier, and we do not want to fast then.
PURPOSE OF THE FASTS
Why do we fast on these days?
The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 5:1) explains that fasting does two things: It both
1] It awakens our hearts and
2] It urges us onto the path of Teshuvah.
The purpose of the fast is for the Teshuvah, the returning to Hashem that is instigated by the fasting. The Chayei Odom (133:1) explains that if we do not focus on things that are important – we have lost the essential theme of Chazal’s intent in the fast.
What does awaken our hearts mean? It attunes us to the loss, that great loss, of the Shechina dwelling in our midst. Klal Yisroel is unique among all the nations of the world because of our unique ability to achieve a Dveikus Bashem- a cleaving closeness to HaKadosh Boruch Hu. It is this ability to achieve Dveikus which gave us all the Neviim that we had. It is this ability to achieve Dveikus which allows us to reach heights in our Tefillos, our learning of His Torah, and in our Midos. We had a Chofetz Chaim in our midst because of this ability to achieve Dveikus Bashem. The bais HaMikdash in our Midst allowed us to achieve even greater Dveikus. The loss of the Bais haMikdash was a loss of who we are as a nation. It is a negation of part of our national character. It is the metaphorical loss of our right arm.
The Divine closeness that the nation of Israel uniquely enjoyed – is no longer. But the Navi in Zechariah does give us hope. If we but love Emes and Shalom, that Divine Closeness will return. Therefore, it would seem that an essential theme and goal of each of these fasts is to develop our love of both of these ideals, truth and Shalom. Particularly around the fast days, it would seem that we should make efforts to extend our hands to those whom with we are currently not at peace. We should also make an exerted effort at honesty in all aspects of our life.
The 17th of TAMMUS – What Happened?
The Gemorah (Taanis 26a to 28b) lists five tragedies that occurred on this day:
- Foreshadowing what was to come, Moshe Rabbeinu found Klal Yisroel worshipping the golden Eigel when he came down from Har Sinai. He broke the first set of luchos.
- During his three year siege on the 1st Beis HaMikdash, Nevuchadnezzar managed to put a stop to the Korban Tamid that was offered daily by the Kohanim. It was not restored until the 2nd Beis HaMikdash was built.
- The walls of Yerushalayim were broken into during the time of the 2nd Beis HaMikdash
- During the time before the destruction of the 2nd Beis HaMikdash, a Greek general named Apostumos, publically burned a Sefer Torah. It was a Sefer Torah written by Ezra HaSofer himself, and was the most authoritative one that we had.
- Apostumos placed a statue in the Beis HaMikdash. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi it was much earlier – and done by Menasseh Ben Chizkiyahu.
The period of time between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av is known as “Bein HaMetzarim – between the straits or days of distress.”
On the 9th of Av there were also five tragedies.
- The twelve spies that were sent to spy out Eretz Yisroel returned from their mission. Yehoshuah and Calaiv brought a positive report; the others did not and spoke lashon Horah about the land. This caused the Bnei Yisroel to lose faith in Hashem and weep. Hashem said, “You wept without a reason – now I will give you a reason to cry on this day.”
- The First Bais HaMikdash built by Shlomo HaMelech was destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar and we were sent into the Babylonian exile.
- The Second Bais HaMikdash built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans in August – 70 CE.
- The Romans crushed Bar Kokhva’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 100,000 Jews, on July 8, 132 CE.
- In the year following the Bar Kokhva revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus, a senator from the powerful Lolianni family, plowed Yerushalayim and the Makom HaMikdash and its surrounding area. His name in Josephus is Terentius Rufus.
During this time of “Bein HaMetzarim” we mourn the loss of the Shechina that was once in our presence – and we observe seven different periods of mourning.
v 1. The 17th of Tamuz itself (Fastday)
v 2. From 17th of Tamuz until the day before Rosh Chodesh Av.
v 3. From Rosh Chodesh Av until the 7th of Av
v 4. The Week that Tisha B’Av Falls Within
v 5. The 8th of Av
v 6. The 9th of Av (Fastday)
v 7. And the 10th of Av until Halachic noon or Chatzos.
We observe numerous restrictions during this time regarding haircuts, nail cutting, music, weddings, reciting Shehecheyanus, and other types of activities too. These restrictions generally get more stricter as we enter into this mourning period. [The exception is for #1 and #5, as #2 and #6 are less stringent because #1 and #5 are fast days.]
- 1. THE FAST OF THE 17TH OF TAMMUZ ITSELF
In regard to all fasts other than Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’Av – the fast begins at dawn or alos HaShachar. If one had in mind that they were going to arise before dawn to eat, he or she may do so. However, dawn is generally very early in the summer months so sometimes this is not so practical. In regard to arising before dawn there is a difference between men and women. Men may only eat more than a Kebaya of mezonos if they began more than 30 minutes before dawn. Otherwise, they may only eat less than a Kebaya (2.2 fluid ounces of the food) [MB 89:27]. Women have no such restriction according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l [Note in Ishei Yisroel 13:71].
WHO SHOULD FAST
All healthy adults should fast, including women (SA OC 550:1). A girl who is 12 years or older must fast, as must a boy who is 13 years of age or older. The Minhag that some women have to avoid fasting during the three fasts is incorrect and should be discontinued, as it is against Shulchan Aruch.
The Mishna Brurah (550:5) rules that children who have reached the age of chinuch for mourning should only eat simple foods so that they can participate in the mourning. A sick person should not fast (MB 550:4,5) even if he is not a choleh sh’yaish bo sakana. In other words, as long as he or she is noticeably sick, there is no need to fast. Nonetheless, that person should not engage in extravagant eating. They should only eat moderately.
A pregnant or nursing woman does not have to fast (OC SA 554:5) on the three fasts other than Tisha B’Av. Although the Ramah writes that it is the custom for a pregnant woman who has no difficulties fasting to fast, it seems from the statistical data available in Israel that they too should opt for the leniency of the Shulchan Aruch and not fast.
If one accidently ate or drank on the fast day, he or she must continue to fast for the rest of the day (SA OC 568:1). If one made a bracha on something and realized after the bracha was recited, that person should taste a little bit so that it will not be a bracha levatalah.
Showering is permitted on the three fast days because Klal Yisroel did not accept it upon themselves to avoid this. The Mishna Brurah (550:6), however, writes that a Baal Nefesh should be stringent and avoid showering in hot water during a fast day. Thus showering in non-hot water would be completely permitted. It is also completely permitted to wash ones face, hands and feet in hot water as well.
Generally speaking, one should not brush their teeth on a fast day. However, if someone is in much tzaar – discomfort in the matter – then one may be lenient (MB 567:11). Care should be taken to face one’s mouth downward so as not to accidentally swallow. The same guidelines should be followed regarding mouthwash.
ADDITIONS IN TEFILLAH
In Shacharis one recites Avinu Malkeinu and the Slichos for that fast day. In Mincha, one adds the special Aneinu tefilla and Avinu Malkeinu again. If Aneinu was not inserted the Shmoneh Esreh is not repeated. If someone is not fasting, the Aneinu is not recited.
If someone is not davening with a minyan the 13 attributes of Slichos (Hashem Hashem Rachum v’Chanun etc.) are not said (See MB 565:13).
During the last blessing of the Mincha Shmoneh Esreh the Sim Shalom paragraph is recited instead of the Shalom Rav paragraph.
The restrictions on haircuts begin on the evening of the 17th of Tammuz. Under special circumstances a Rav should be consulted as to whether a haircut may be taken at night.
- 2. FROM THE 17th ONWARD
During the entire three weeks haircuts are forbidden for Ashkenazim (Ramah 551:4). This includes both men and women. If a child is under the age of seven and has very long hair that causes the child discomfort – an adult may cut his or her hair (MB 551:82). It is the custom to delay an upsherin until after the 10th of Av. If a married woman has sidehairs that cannot be covered easily, she may cut them (MB 551:79).
Plucking eyebrows are permitted during the three weeks according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, as this is not considered a haircut. Shaving legs is only permitted for married women or young ladies that are dating. According to Rav Elyashiv, if there is a Bris, the parents, Sandek and Mohel may take a haircut even in the week of Tisha B’Av (Halichos v’Hanhagos p. 4).
Regarding shaving legs during the Three Weeks, the Poskim write of a heter only for married women so that they not appear unseemly in front of their husbands. Rav Feinstein zt”l extended this leniency to girls that are dating – in other words, post-seminary girls. For girls younger than this, some Rabbis are lenient (Rav Hershel Schachter in an email to this author). There is also the view the Chsam Sofer’s reading of the Magain Avrohom (OC 551) regarding a leniency for men shaving l’kavod Shabbos, that if they do so at least twice per week in general, they would be allowed to do so on Fridays. The reason is that the mourning is still recognizable. The view of the Chsam Sofer is only followed in some communities, so each young lady should ask the family’s Posek as to what to do.
It is the custom in Israel that neither live nor recorded music be heard during the three weeks (Igros Moshe OC I #166, IV #21, and YD II #137). Most of the leading Poskim also forbid Acapella music as well, since they view the MP3 player or CD player itself as a musical instrument. Acapella is music that is made up only of people singing with no instrumental music. If someone wishes to be lenient, it is best not to make an issue of it[i].
Listening to music to workout is permitted, but one should try to avoid enjoying the music.
Cutting one’s nails is permitted until the week of Tisha B’Av. For the purposes of honoring Shabbos, it is permitted on Friday before Shabbos (MB 551:20).
It is the custom not to recite a Shehecheyanu during the Three Weeks (See SA OC 551:17). There is a debate as to the exact reason for this. The debate is between the Mogain Avrohom and the Maamar Mordechai.
According to the Mogain Avrohom (551:42) is that the words of the bracha indicate an expression of thanks for having allowed us to reach this “special” time. The Mogain Avrohom (551:42) explains that the idea of not reciting a shehecheyanu is because of the wording, and not because of the idea of mourning. He writes, “However, the reason is not on account of mourning, for we do not find that a mourner is forbidden in reciting a shehecheyanu.”
The Maamar Mordechai (551:12) rules that the reason the blessing is not recited is, in fact, on account of our mourning and pain. Rav Moshe Feinstein Zatzal discusses the purchase of cars during the Three Weeks in his Igros Moshe (OC III #80) and rules in accordance with the Mogain Avrohom.
The custom is not to buy new clothing during the three weeks. Undergarments, and shoes are not a problem because they do not generate that much excitement. If necessary, however, one can recite a Sheheyechaynu on Shabbos – even though this is a debate. The Arizal was stringent.
Weddings are also forbidden during this time (SA OC 551:2). However, one may get engaged because of the principle of “perhaps another will precede the person.”