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Fast of the 9th of Av

Fast of the 9th of Av

Mourning During the 3 weeks: Halachot and Traditions

Published on Sunday September 5th, 2021

We have officially entered the mourning period called “Bein Hametzarim”. The three weeks between the 17th  Tammuz  and the 9th of Av are considered a dark period in Jewish history, since many disasters have occurred during this period, which also led to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. Consequently, many mourning customs are observed during these 3 weeks.

The 3 Weeks

As the 3 weeks go by, mourning intensifies until reaching its peak on the 9th of Av. Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions vary with regards to the various mourning signs throughout this period. It is important to note that some Sephardic communities, namely Moroccan ones, observe Ashkenazi customs. From the 17th of Tammuz, rejoicing is reduced, and one avoids showing joy through singing and dancing. One also avoids saying Shehecheyanu on new clothing or seasonal fruit. Ashkenazi communities abstain from celebrating weddings and cutting hair.

The First 9 days of Av

From Rosh Chodesh Av, all communities forbid weddings and eating meat (and even drinking wine), except on Shabbat (and on Rosh Chodesh according to some Sephardic traditions). From then on, Ashkenazi communities also forbid washing one’s whole body and clothes. The Sephardi tradition on the other hand observes these restrictions only during the week of the 9th of Av itself, i.e. from the end of Shabbat Chazon until the day of fast. During these last few days, one also usually does not cut nails (some allow it if the nails grow particularly long).

The interdiction to launder also includes ironing and wearing clean clothes. This is why one takes care to wear only clothes that have already been worn. This interdiction applies both to clothes and sheets and tablecloths. As for underwear, it is difficult not to wear clean ones and one should try to wear them for about 30 minutes before the beginning of that week (i.e. before Shabbat Chazon starts), in order for them to not be considered “clean”. Failing that, one may crease the underwear on the floor before putting it on. Regarding clothes for children under three who get very dirty, one is customarily more lenient.

The prohibition to wash oneself applies to hand washing, machine washing and washing by a non-Jew. Some extend the interdiction to mopping inside the house.

From Rosh Chodesh, it is also forbidden to perform renovations to embellish or extend a house, if they aim at increasing comfort in the home.

Shabbat Hazon

The Shabbat before the fast of the 9th of Av is called Shabbat Chazon. Most mourning signs do not apply on that day, and one may eat meat and drink wine, and wear clean clothes (some Ashkenazi traditions still forbid wearing clean clothes). The day before Shabbat, those observing the Ashkenazi custom will take care not to wash their whole body, but only the face, hands and feet.

The Day Before the 9th of Av

The day before the fast, from midday [chatzot], one should avoid any form of entertainment, walks, and activities likely to distract one’s mind from mourning.

It is also customary to avoid learning Torah from chatzot, and on the fast itself. No supplications are recited during mincha since the 9th of Av is called a “festival” [moed].

The last meal before the fast is called “seudah hamafseket” [the separation meal]. It is forbidden to eat more than two cooked dishes; one same food cooked two ways is also considered two distinct dishes. Drinking and eating different fruits is however permitted, as long as they are not cooked.

No one should partake in the meal. Each one should eat for himself, and no zimun is said. A widespread custom is to sit on the floor at the end of the meal, and eat an egg dipped in ash. The “separation meal” does not imply that one may not eat again until the fast since it only starts from sunset, except if one explicitly intended to start the fast from the end of the meal.

9th of Av

Five things are forbidden during the fast of the 9th of Av: eating and drinking, washing oneself, rubbing oil on one’s body, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Other mourning customs apply: one sits on the floor, avoids greeting others and does not learn Torah. These restrictions apply from the day before the fast, at sunset.

Apart from the interdiction to wash one’s body, it is also forbidden to wash hands. Upon awakening in the morning, one should do netilat yadayim only up to the knuckles. For hygiene purposes, washing any body part is allowed, as long as only the affected area is washed. The face should likewise not be washed upon awakening, but one may at most moisten his or her eyes with humid fingers (except in case of purulence).

Rubbing oil is forbidden, which applies to all types of cream and soap. But for hygiene or health purposes, one may rub ointment on the specific area needing it.

For many decision-makers, avoiding leather shoes implies avoiding all comfortable shoes as the purpose is to feel the hard ground under one’s foot. Comfortable synthetic shoes are consequently avoided, as they may be more comfortable than leather. Some customarily refrain from wearing shoes altogether and walk in their socks. Since wearing leather shoes is not allowed, many do not recite “she’asah li kol tzorki” [Who has provided me with all my needs] during the morning blessings.

Learning Torah on Tisha B’Av is forbidden, as it is written: “The orders of Hashem are upright, causing the heart to rejoice.” (Tehillim 19:9) This applies to all fields of learning, i.e. Chumash, Mishnah, Talmud or Midrash. Meditating on words of Torah constitutes a form of learning and isn’t allowed either.

We are permitted to read the book of Job, passages of Jeremiah about the Jewish people’s future tragedies, Talmud passages about the circumstances in which the Temple was destroyed [Tractates Gittin, Sanhedrin, etc.] or the Midrash about Megillat Eichah. It is also permitted to study the laws pertaining to Tisha B’Av and mourning. These topics should nevertheless be approached very simply, without great depth or debate likely to rejoice the participants.

It is also customary to dim lights, mostly inside the synagogue but also in houses.

Another widespread custom is to not don tefillin or wear the tallit gadol for shacharit, just like mourners at the beginning of their mourning period. Tefillin are worn only for mincha. Note however that some Sephardic communities who observe prescriptions from the Kabbalah, wear tefillin and the tallit as usual during shacharit.

On Tisha B’Av, one is not allowed to perform any work likely to distract the mind from mourning. This is applicable until chatzot [midday], but any superfluous task should be avoided even past that time.

Usually, one sits on the floor from the beginning of Tisha B’Av until chatzot. Since this is only a custom, sitting on a pillow, the back of a chair or a small stool is permitted, even though one does not sit directly on the floor. One should still make sure that the height of the seat does not exceed one to three tefachim (8-24cm). On the night of Tisha B’Av, one is also careful to sleep differently: some sleep without a pillow, place a stone under their head, or even sleep on the floor. Weak or sick individuals do not have to observe these customs.

Since the Temple continued to burn throughout Av 10, many pious Jews refrain from eating meat and drinking wine, washing themselves, cutting hair and doing laundry even after Tisha B’Av, at least until chatzot on the next day. Some Sephardic communities do not however forbid meat and wine on the evening after the fast.

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