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The Whole Nine Days

z1By Larry Gordon

Okay, I agree—I have to write about something other than war in Israel, military strategy, and international diplomatic maneuvering. And I have to do that not only for the reader but for my own middle-of-the-summer sanity as well.

So here we are at the start of the famous Three Weeks. I could never reconcile why they were planted right in the middle of the usually warm and beautiful summer. We are taught that G-d brought the Jews out of ancient Egypt thousands of years ago in springtime so that they could travel in comfortable weather. So what’s with all this fire, brimstone, and destruction right in the middle of vacation and beautiful-weather time?

Perhaps studying Pirkei Avos—the Ethics of the Fathers—was not enough to introduce some solemnity into much of the inherent levity that is identified with warm weather in general and summertime in particular. Hence, we have the imperative to mourn the destruction of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem along with the observance and commemoration of an assortment of tragic events that also took place in this part of our calendar year.

Still, no matter how one looks at it, summer is different. It frequently affords us an opportunity to slow down, take some more days off if possible, and do things at a more deliberate and unhurried pace. The popular song lyrics of a few decades ago say, “Summertime and the living is easy.”

And then, the crowning endeavor of this time of year is the upcoming period of the Nine Days. For those not familiar—and I venture to guess that there are very few in that category—the Nine Days mark the period of more intensified mourning for the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem all those years ago.

Today, however, those Nine Days have taken on an almost animated life and meaning of their own. Not to confuse the issue but the Nine Days are also part of the Three Weeks, which began a few days ago with the observance of the 17th of Tammuz fast day. This whole period culminates with another major fast day on the 9th of Av—this year on August 5. Where is the numbers guy when you need him?

The restrictions of this time period are so strictly observed that my barbershop buddies close their stores and go on vacation now, because amongst other things, as a sign of mourning, we do not take haircuts. Sal, one of my occasional barbers here on Central Avenue in Lawrence, goes away for more than two weeks during this period every year. I was in his chair the other day and he was telling me about his planned trip to Italy and his scheduled departure on Saturday.

I asked him how he was able to close for almost the full three weeks and also casually inquired about whether there were any non-Jews who might need haircuts during that period. He said that all his non-Jewish or nonobservant customers know that he is closing for a few weeks and that they are all scheduled for haircuts this week through Friday.

Over on West Broadway in Cedarhurst, it is much the same story with Ruben’s, the famous barbershop that is a virtual haircutting factory. It’s an opportunity for Ruben and his employees to get some much needed rest before the return from camp and back-to-school season begins. I don’t know why anyone would need three weeks off. For me, three days would be enough. But that is just the way it is.

Over at Sal’s in Lawrence, I noticed that Sal was wearing a fairly serious bandage on the elbow of his right hand the other day. I commented that it looked like a sports injury. He needs it because of wear and tear on his elbow for practicing that same cutting motion all day long. A couple of weeks in Naples should do the trick. I don’t know whether or not there is a barbershop procedure equivalent to Tommy John surgery.

Refraining from haircuts is just one aspect of how we observe these days of national mourning for Am Yisrael wherever we may be located. Like so much else in Jewish life, I think if you would play a word-association game with the words “Nine Days,” the response would be “dairy foods,” or “milichigs” (Yiddish). That is because as part of this national mourning process, we abstain from eating meat.

The Ashkenazim do not indulge in meat products for the entire Nine Days with the exception of Shabbos. The Sephardic custom just excludes meat during the week in which Tishah B’Av occurs. This year, since Tishah B’Av is on a Tuesday—that means no meat on either Sunday or Monday. Other times it is business, or eating, as usual.

That being said, the Nine Days menu is not just a gastronomic or seasonal shift, rather it has become a voluminous industry that often forces restaurants serving meat to close and is a boon for dairy and fish restaurants in Jewish communities far and wide.

So you see, even though summertime is grilling time, the grills at home are pretty much on hiatus just like the barbers. Instead, our menus include a great deal of fish and cheese, which is for many, if nothing else, a nutritional change of pace.

If you must eat meat and cannot envision yourself existing an entire week without a steak, then there is a way out. When I was a child at summer camp, we still were fed meat or chicken every night during the Nine Days. The mechanism to circumvent this aspect of the custom is to have someone complete a tractate of Talmud and make a siyum, which turns the meal into a seudas mitzvah that not only mandates that meat be served but also overrides the prohibition and allows one to dine in the fashion he has grown accustomed to. Today, if you look around, you can probably easily find a siyum celebration to participate in. You might even get the meal as a throw-in.

My casual observation has been that people are precise to a fault about their Nine Days menu. They may not be that strict on much else, but this particular menu is planned weeks in advance—to the last cheese-filled cookie, or even crumb for that matter. This is to the point where many of us may have lost our perspective on what this period on our calendar is about. We are scrupulous about not eating meat, or rather, conscientious about eating dairy, but unaware specifically why or what it is all about.

The purveyors of fish and cheese and certainly their people behind the counters have little clue about what is going on. All they know is that for a week, smack dab in the middle of the summer, while everyone else on the planet is barbecuing, the Jews suddenly stop and just go crazy with eating fish, cheese, and other dairy products. It’s a Nine Days bonanza.

If only we could pause from ingesting so many cheese blintzes and contemplate what this is all about. I think we might need a little bit more introspection and a little less teriyaki, pesto sauce, or spicy mayonnaise. We were, and still are, under assault, and it’s painful, it’s frightening, and it hurts. After all these years, we may have to adjust something besides our menus.

The Rav, Rabbi Y.B. Soloveitchik, once asked why it is that we observe this mourning period that marks so much Jewish loss and adversity seemingly in reverse. In conventional mourning, first there is the intense aveilus represented by the shivah. This is followed by a less intense mourning period of the Shloshim—the 30 days following the loss of a loved one. And then in the case of a parent, there is still a lesser level of aveilus that lasts an entire 12-month period.

Now on our calendar, as we mark the destruction of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem along with a host of other tragedies, we seem to be mourning in an unnatural fashion. First we have the Three Weeks, featuring a lighter type of mourning. Then there are the more concentrated Nine Days, and then finally the most intense day of mourning on Tishah B’Av.

The Rav observes that this is a most unusual way in which to mourn. To this, he says, the reason it is observed this way is because a Jew without a Beis HaMikdash is in an unnatural and abnormal situation.

Let us hope and pray that these traditional days of mourning will very shortly be turned into days of celebration, with steaks, wine, and the works. v

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Posted by on July 17, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.