By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Although the Three Weeks, which includes the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, and the other two rabbinically enacted fasts are periods of mourning and introspection, Zechariah the Navi tells us (Zechariah 8:19) that eventually, the four fasts of Klal Yisrael will be a source of joy and gladness—if we but embark upon the goal of loving both truth and shalom. The four fasts mentioned in Zechariah are these:
• The fast of the fourth month (17 Tammuz)
• The fast of the fifth month (9 Av)
• The fast of the seventh month (3 Tishrei)
• The fast of the tenth month (10 Teves)
Why do we start counting these months from Nissan? Because that is the month when Klal Yisrael became a nation.
The exact dates of two of the fasts have been modified. In the time of the first Beis HaMikdash, the fast of Tammuz was observed on 9 Tammuz, because that is when the city walls of Yerushalayim were first broken through. Hundreds of years later, during the time of the second Beis HaMikdash, on the 17th of Tammuz, the enemy breached the city walls once again. The date of the Tammuz 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 Hashanah itself, one day earlier, and we do not want to fast then.
Purpose Of The Fasts
The Rambam (Hilchos Ta’anis 5:1) explains that fasting awakens our hearts and 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 Adam (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 Shechinah dwelling in our midst. Klal Yisrael is unique among all the nations of the world because of our unique ability to achieve a dveikus Bashem—a cleaving closeness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It is this ability to achieve dveikus which gave us all the nevi’im that we had. It is this ability to achieve dveikus that allows us to reach heights in our tefillos, our learning of Hashem’s Torah, and our middos. We had a Chofetz Chaim in our midst because of this ability to achieve dveikus Bashem. The Beis HaMikdash in our midst allowed us to achieve even greater dveikus. The loss of the Beis 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 gives us hope. If we but love emes and shalom, that Divine Closeness will return.
The Gemara (Ta’anis 26a to 28b) lists five tragedies that occurred on this day:
• Foreshadowing what was to come, Moshe Rabbeinu found Klal Yisrael 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 first 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 second Beis HaMikdash was built.
• The walls of Yerushalayim were broken into during the time of the second Beis HaMikdash.
• During the time before the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, a Greek general named Apostumos publicly burned a sefer Torah, written by Ezra HaSofer himself—the most authoritative sefer Torah 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 Yechezkel.
17 Tammuz: The Fast
In regard to all fasts other than Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av, the fast begins at dawn or alos hashachar. If one had in mind to arise before dawn to eat, he may do so. However, dawn is generally very early in the summer months, so sometimes this is not practical. In regard to arising before dawn, there is a difference between men and women. Men may eat more than a kebeitzah (2.2 fluid ounces) of mezonos only if they began more than 30 minutes before dawn. Otherwise, they may only eat less than a kebeitzah (M.B. 89:27). Women have no such restriction, according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (note in Ishei Yisrael 13:71).
Who should fast. All healthy adults should fast, including women (S.A. O.C. 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 Mishnah Berurah (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 (M.B. 550:4,5) even if he is not a choleh she’yeish bo sakanah. As long as he or she is noticeably sick, there is no need to fast. Nonetheless, that person should not engage in extravagant eating, but rather only eat moderately.
A pregnant or nursing woman does not have to fast (O.C. S.A. 554:5) on the three fasts other than Tishah B’Av. Although the Rema 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 accidentally ate or drank on the fast day, he or she must nonetheless continue to fast for the rest of the day (S.A. O.C. 568:1). If one made a berachah on something and realized after the berachah was recited that it is a fast day, he should taste a little bit so that it will not be a berachah levatalah.
Showering. Showering is permitted on the three fast days because Klal Yisrael did not accept it upon themselves to avoid this. The Mishnah Berurah (550:6), however, writes that a ba’al 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 one’s face, hands, and feet in hot water.
Additions in tefillah. In Shacharis, one recites Avinu Malkeinu and the Selichos for that fast day. In Minchah, one adds the special Aneinu tefillah and Avinu Malkeinu again. If Aneinu was not inserted in the Shemoneh Esreih, it is not repeated. If someone is not fasting, he does not recite Aneinu.
If someone is not davening with a minyan, he does not recite the 13 Attributes of Selichos (Hashem Hashem Rachum v’Chanun, etc.). See M.B. 565:13.
During the last blessing of the Minchah Shemoneh Esreih, the Sim Shalom paragraph is recited instead of the Shalom Rav paragraph.
Haircuts. 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.
The period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av is known as “Bein HaMetzarim,” meaning “between the straits,” or days of distress. During this time, we mourn the loss of the Shechinah that was once in our presence. This time can be divided into six periods of mourning.
1. The 17th of Tammuz itself (fast day)
2. From the 17th of Tammuz through the day before Rosh Chodesh Av
3. From Rosh Chodesh Av through the 7th of Av
4. The 8th of Av
5. The 9th of Av (fast day)
6. The 10th of Av, until halachic noon (chatzos).
We observe numerous restrictions during this time, which generally get stricter as we go further into this mourning period.
Haircuts. During the entire Three Weeks, haircuts are forbidden for Ashkenazim (Rema 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 the child’s hair (M.B. 551:82). It is the custom to delay an upsherin until after the 10th of Av. According to Rav Elyashiv, if there is a b’ris, the parents, sandek, and mohel may take a haircut even in the week of Tishah B’Av (Halichos v’Hanhagos, p. 4).
If a married woman has side locks that cannot be covered easily, she may cut them (M.B. 551:79). Plucking eyebrows is 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 who are dating. Regarding shaving legs during the Three Weeks, the poskim write of a heter only for married women so that they do not appear unseemly in front of their husbands. Rav Feinstein, zt’l, extended this leniency to girls who are dating. For girls younger than this, some rabbis are lenient (Rav Hershel Schachter in an e‑mail to this author). There is also the view of the Chasam Sofer’s reading of the Magen Avraham (O.C. 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 during the Three Weeks. The reason is that the mourning is still recognizable. The view of the Chasam Sofer is only followed in some communities, so each young lady should ask the family’s posek as to what to do.
Music. It is the custom that neither live nor recorded music be heard during the Three Weeks (Igros Moshe O.C. I #166, IV #21, and Y.D. II #137). Most of the leading poskim forbid a cappella music (singing with no instrumental music) as well, since they view the .MP3 player or CD player itself as a musical instrument. If someone wishes to be lenient, it is best not to make an issue of it. Listening to music to work out is permitted, but one should try to avoid enjoying the music.
Cutting nails. Cutting one’s nails is permitted until the week of Tishah B’Av. For the purposes of honoring Shabbos, it is permitted on Friday before Shabbos (M.B. 551:20).
Shehecheyanu. It is the custom not to recite a Shehecheyanu during the Three Weeks (see S.A. O.C. 551:17). There is a debate between the Magen Avraham and the Maamar Mordechai as to the exact reason for this.
According to the Magen Avraham (551:42), the words of the berachah indicate an expression of thanks for having allowed us to reach this “special” time. The Magen Avraham (551:42) explains that the idea of not reciting a shehecheyanu is due to the wording, and not 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 blessing is not recited on account of our mourning and pain. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, discusses the purchase of cars during the Three Weeks in his Igros Moshe (O.C. III #80) and rules in accordance with the Magen Avraham.
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 there is a debate about this. The Arizal was stringent.
Weddings are also forbidden during this time (S.A. O.C. 551:2). However, one may get engaged because of the principle of “perhaps another will precede the person.” v
(To be continued with Part 2:
The Nine Days)
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.