By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
People frequently ask if one is permitted to shower or bathe on the 17th of Tammuz, Asarah B’Teves, or Tzom Gedaliah. A daf learned this week by daf yomi participants may shed some light on this issue.
In ancient times, Beis Din used to convene every month to determine when the new month started. Theoretically, every month could have either 29 or 30 days, so it was necessary for Beis Din to spread the word so that everyone knew when the new month began. After determining when the new month started, they would send messengers armed with the latest calendar information to the outlying Jewish communities. (Google Calendar hadn’t been invented yet.)
The mishnah states that Beis Din sent the messengers only six times during the year: (1) in Nissan to ensure everyone knew when the correct date for Pesach was; (2) in Av for clarifying the correct day for Tishah B’Av; (3) after Rosh Chodesh Elul so that everyone knew when to start Rosh Hashanah; and in (4) Tishrei; (5) Kislev; and (6) Adar for the sake of Sukkos, Chanukah, and Purim, respectively.
The Gemara wonders why messengers weren’t sent during Teves and Tammuz, so that everyone would know when the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and Asarah B’Teves were. After all, they sent messengers for the fast on the ninth of Av.
Rav Papa explains that those two fasts are mandated only during a time when the government is promulgating evil decrees. However, during a time when the Jewish nation is living in relative tranquillity, free from harsh and whimsical decrees, the communities themselves are free to decide whether or not they wish to fast. The mishnah was referring to just such a time. Since the fasts were optional, Beis Din didn’t trouble the messengers to travel to the far-flung communities. However, if the Jewish nation had been subject to harsh decrees, then the fasts would become mandatory. Consequently, Beis Din would have sent out messengers in Teves and Tammuz to ensure the fasts were observed on their correct days.
Lest you suggest that the aforementioned fasts are optional nowadays, there are two problems with that idea. The first is that the Rosh says that the decision whether to fast was a communal decision. Even if an individual did not want to fast, he nevertheless had to comply with the decision of the tzibbur. Furthermore, the Ritva states that all of Klal Yisrael already accepted upon themselves to fast on these days. Hence, nowadays these fast days are obligatory and not optional. If Beis Din still calculated the calendar on a monthly basis, they would send out a communal e‑mail to let everyone know when these fast days fall out. This is due to the current obligatory nature of Tzom Gedaliah, Asarah B’Teves, and the 17th of Tammuz.
However, the Ritva points out that there is a distinction between nowadays and a time when Klal Yisrael was subject to harsh decrees. During that unfortunate time, all of the fast days connected to the Churban had to be observed with the same stringencies as Tishah B’Av. Bathing, the wearing of leather shoes, and marital relations were forbidden on Tzom Gedaliah, Asarah B’Teves, and the 17th of Tammuz. Further, the fast began the night before, not in the morning at alos ha’shachar. However, since nowadays we observe these fasts only because Klal Yisrael accepted upon themselves to fast, we do not need to keep those stringencies. The Ritva writes that Klal Yisrael never accepted these fasts with the accompanying stringencies. According to the Ritva, then, one may shower on the 17th of Tammuz.
Still, the Mishnah Berurah writes that a ba’al nefesh should follow the opinion of the Ramban. He was of the opinion that as long as any part of Klal Yisrael was subject to harsh decrees, everyone is obligated to fast according to letter of the law. Since there are, unfortunately, Jews that live in hostile nations even nowadays, the Ramban’s opinion would dictate that we observe the three fasts the same way we do Tishah B’Av. Therefore, a ba’al nefesh should start his fast at night and refrain from bathing.
When it comes to wearing shoes, however, the Mishnah Berurah advises that one should not be stringent, since doing so would only cause a scene. But if non-leather footwear is generally worn by others anyway, then a ba’al nefesh should be stringent in this regard too. (Although some say that on Tishah B’Av and Yom Kippur, one should not wear any footwear that is usually worn.)
It would seem that anyone who wishes to shower on the three fast days may do so; not bathing is just a chumra. However, the Shaar HaTziyon quotes the Ateres Z’keinim that it is already an accepted custom not to shower on those fasts. The P’ri Megadim notes, however, that the custom is limited to not using hot water. One may shower in cold water. Further, the Shaar HaTziyon writes that one may wash his face and hands with hot water. If Asarah B’Teves falls out on Friday, the Mishnah Berurah writes that there is no need to be stringent and one may shower in hot water for Shabbos. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.