Although the Three Weeks and the other two fasts are a period of mourning and introspection, the Navi Zechariah tells us (Zechariah 8:19) that, eventually, the four fasts of Klal Yisrael will be a source of joy and gladness, but only if we but embark upon the goal of loving both truth and shalom. 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 tefillos. 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 [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]
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 a nation.
The exact dates of two of the fasts were not always these dates. As far as the 17th of Tammuz, originally, in the time of first Beis HaMikdash we observed it on the 9th of Tammuz because that is when the city walls 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 walls of Yerushalayim 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 third 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 Taanis 5:1) explains that fasting does two things: It awakens our hearts and 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 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 b’Hashem — a cleaving and closeness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It is this ability to achieve dveikus that gave us all the Nevi’im 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 middos. We had Chofetz Chaim in our midst because of this ability to achieve dveikus b’Hashem. 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 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 with whom we are currently not at peace. We should also make an exerted effort at honesty in all aspects of our life.
The 17th Of Tammuz: What Happened?
The Gemara (Taanis 26a to 28b) lists five tragedies that occurred on this day:
- Foreshadowing what was to come, Moshe Rabbeinu found Klal Yisrael worshiping 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. 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 Menashe ben Chizkiyahu.
The period of time between the 17th of Tammuz 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 Yisrael returned from their mission. Yehoshua and Calev brought a positive report; the others did not and spoke lashon ha’ra about the land. This caused Bnei Yisrael 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 Beis HaMikdash built by Shlomo HaMelech was destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar and we were sent into the Babylonian exile.
- The Second Beis HaMikdash built by Ezra and Nechemiah was destroyed by the Romans in August 70 CE.
- The Romans crushed Bar Kochva’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 100,000 Jews, on July 8, 132 CE.
- In the year following the Bar Kochva revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowed Yerushalayim and the Makom HaMikdash and its surrounding area. His name in Josephus’s account is Terentius Rufus.
During the time of “Bein HaMetzarim” we mourn the loss of the Shechinah that was once in our presence and we observe seven different periods of mourning.
- The 17th of Tammuz itself (Fast Day)
- From 17th of Tammuz until the day before Rosh Chodesh Av.
- From Rosh Chodesh Av until the 7th of Av
- The week that Tishah B’Av falls within
- The 8th of Av
- The 9th of Av (Fast Day)
- And the 10th of Av until halachic noon or chatzos.
We observe numerous restrictions during this time regarding haircuts, nail-cutting, music, weddings, reciting Shehecheyanu, and other types of activities. These restrictions generally get stricter as we enter into this mourning period.
The 17th Of Tammuz: The Fast
In regard to all fasts other than Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av, the fast begins at dawn or alos ha’shachar. 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 k’beitza of mezonos if they began more than 30 minutes before dawn. Otherwise, they may only eat less than a k’beitza (2.2 fluid ounces of the food) [M.B. 89:27]. Women have no such restriction according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l [Note in Ishei Yisroel 13:71].
All healthy adults should fast, including women (S.A. 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 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 (MB 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. They should 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 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 person should taste a little bit so that it will not be a berachah l’vatalah.
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 as well.
Generally speaking, one should not brush their teeth on a fast day. However, if someone is in much tza’ar — discomfort in the matter — then one may be lenient (M.B. 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 Selichos for that fast day. In Minchah, one adds the special Aneinu tefillah and Avinu Malkeinu again. If Aneinu was not inserted, the Shemoneh Esrei 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 Selichos (Hashem Hashem Rachum v’Chanun, etc.) are not said (See MB 565:13).
During the last blessing of the Minchah Shemoneh Esrei, the Sim Shalom paragraph is recited instead of the Shalom Rav paragraph.
From The 17th Onward
Haircuts. During the entire three weeks, haircuts are forbidden for Ashkenazim (Rema 551:4). This includes both men and women. 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.
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 (M.B. 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 is permitted during the Three Weeks according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, as this is not considered a haircut. According to Rav Elyashiv, if there is a bris, the parents, sandek, and mohel may take a haircut even in the week of Tishah 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 e-mail to this author). There is also the view 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. 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 in Israel 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 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. 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 Tishahh 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 SA OC 551:17). There is a debate as to the exact reason for this. The debate is between the Magen Avraham and the Maamar Mordechai.
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 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 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 (OC 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 this is a debate. 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.”
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.