The Three Weeks
The three weeks that begin on the night of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and continue until the Ninth of Av are days of woefulness, regarding which it is written, “All her pursuers overtook her within the straits” (Lamentations 1:3). The Sages therefore advise being especially careful during this period, for it is a time designated for calamity. For example, at all times when a person goes swimming or goes on a field trip he must always be careful not to expose himself to danger, but during this period one must be even more careful than usual (see Eicha Rabba 1:29).
In order to underscore the unique character of these days, the Sages instituted the reading of special prophetic portions (“Haftorot”) dealing with divine retribution. These are read on the three Sabbaths of the Three Weeks. Conversely, on the seven Sabbaths following the Ninth of Av we read seven Haftorot of consolation (Shulchan Arukh 428:8, based on Pesikta).
Though the Sages did not introduce any special observances to emphasize the grief and mourning of the Three Weeks, Jews make a practice of refraining from dancing and reciting the “shehecheyanu” blessing during this period.
Some mourning customs are particular to certain communities. For example, Ashkenazi Jews and some Sephardic Jews (among them the Jews of Morocco and Jerba) do not cut their hair during the Three Weeks, while the rest of Sephardic Jewry observes this custom only during the week of the Ninth of Av. Regarding marriage, too, Ashkenazi, Yeminite and most Sephardic Jews do not hold weddings during the Three Weeks. The rest of Sephardic Jewry observes this restriction from the beginning of Av.
In the following chapters we shall clarify in detail the laws of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and the week of the Ninth of Av.
Dancing and Music
Later rabbinic authorities rule that it is forbidden to hold dances from the Seventeenth of Tammuz till the Ninth of Av (Magen Avraham 551:10). Included in this ruling is a prohibition against playing and listening to music. Therefore, it is forbidden to hold and participate in dance classes, concerts, and group singing during the Three Weeks.
It is permissible for a Jew who earns his livelihood through playing music to perform at non-Jewish events until the end of Tammuz. Even if he plays joyful music, he himself does not really feel the joy because he is preoccupied with his work. But from the beginning of Av it is forbidden to perform at all (Beur Halakha 551:2).
And because the prohibition against playing music is due to the joy involved, it follows that music teachers are permitted to continue giving lessons until the week of the Ninth of Av, for studying music brings joy to neither teacher nor student. Furthermore, canceling lessons will involve a monetary loss for teachers, and students to will have to exert themselves to get back into the swing of their studies, and this might even necessitate additional lessons. It is a good idea to learn sad songs during the Three Weeks (Tzitz Eliezer 16:19). If, however, a study break is at any rate taken at some point during the course of the year, it is a good idea to take it during the Three Weeks.
Playing Music at Religious Celebrations
It is permitted to sing joyful songs at meals that accompany religious celebrations (for example, Brit Milah, Pidyon HaBen, Sheva Berachot). It is likewise permitted to hold Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah celebrations, on the condition that they are held on the actual birthday.
Authorities are divided over what to do in situations where musicians are normally hired to play at religious celebrations. Is it permissible to hire musicians during the Three Weeks as well? Some say that this is permitted because the music accompanies the fulfillment of a religious obligation; others say that it is nonetheless forbidden. In practice, if a person wishes to follow the lenient path he may do so, for there are authorities on whom he can rely. This, however, is only permitted if it is the accepted practice throughout the entire year.
Therefore, in places where people always hire bands for Bar-Mitzvah celebrations, it is permissible to do so until the end of Tammuz. However, if some people hire three musicians to perform and others hire only two, one should hire only two. This is true regarding all religious celebrations; we follow the custom that prevails throughout the year.
However, when the month of Av enters, it is forbidden to hire musicians for any celebration, and it is even forbidden to play joyful recorded music on such occasions. It is permitted to sing, but only songs that pertain to the celebration. It is even permitted to dance a bit in a circle, in the manner that many do at Brit-Milah celebrations.
Grooms from communities that allow weddings until the end of Tammuz are permitted to hire regular bands, for the joy of the bride and groom demands live music. And even a person whose custom it is to refrain from marriage during this period is allowed to join in the dancing at such a celebration, for it stems from and gives expression to the joy of the “mitzvah.”
Listening to Recorded Music
Some modern authorities hold that just as it is forbidden to listen to live music during the Three Weeks, it is also forbidden to listen to recorded music (radio, tape, CD, etc.). These authorities say that only songs with no instrumental accompaniment may be listened to during the Counting of the Omer and the Three Weeks. A number of leading Torah authorities rule in this manner (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:137; Yechaveh Daat 6:34). And there are even authorities that forbid listening to songs with no instrumental accompaniment (i.e., a cappella) during these days (Tzitz Eliezer 15:33).
However, other authorities take a lenient position and allow listening to recorded music during these days. They explain that what authorities of preceding generations forbade was live music with instruments, because such music is celebrative; however, listening to music from a radio, tape player, etc., is not particularly celebrative and hence is not forbidden.
And while it is true that when radios and record players were introduced there was a certain joy in listening to music from them, today everybody listens to recorded music, and there is no real joy in this. It follows, then, that it is not forbidden to listen to recorded music during the Three Weeks.
Moreover, a distinction must be drawn between joyful songs and ordinary songs, for only joyful songs deserve to be prohibited; ordinary songs, and all the more so, sad songs, need not be disallowed during the Three Weeks. There was once a custom to play flutes during funeral processions in order to evoke grief and tears, and this was part of the commandment to escort the dead (Shabbat 151a). From here we see that there is no sweeping prohibition against hearing musical instruments; the restriction during periods of morning applies to joyful music.
My father and teacher, Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, has told me that not only is it permitted to broadcast sad songs during the Nine Days about the Destruction of the Temple that have instrumental accompaniment, but it is actually desirable, for by doing this people’s hearts are stirred to mourn over the destruction even more than usual.
It would appear that in practice, according to the lenient position, songs can be divided into three categories. The first category is that of joyful songs, like wedding songs. The second category is songs that are neither joyful nor sad, and this would include most songs today, and most classical compositions. The third category includes songs of mourning over the death of an individual or over the Destruction of the Temple.
From the beginning of the Three Weeks, a person must refrain from listening to songs in the first category – joyful songs. From the first of Av, one must refrain from listening to songs in the second category, and only songs of the third category, sad songs, may be listened to. The Arutz 7 radio station adopted this approach, broadcasting ordinary songs until the beginning of Av, and sad songs reminiscent of the destruction of the Holy Temple during the Nine Days leading up to the Ninth of Av.
Additionally, it seems that when a song is played at a high volume, even if it is an “ordinary” song, the sheer force of the volume creates a celebrative tone and gives it the status of a joyful song. Therefore, even permitted songs should not be listened to at high volume.
It would also appear to be forbidden to participate in a concert of sad music (requiem) during the Three Weeks. Though this is music of lamentation, a concert is by its very nature a celebrative and happy event. After all, the fact of the matter is that people get dressed up in celebrative clothes for such events. However, in the case of a cultural event, it would appear that it is permissible to play a sad tune in remembrance of Jerusalem, even during the Nine Days (based on Shabbat 151a).
Field Trips, Swimming Pools, and Hotels
Some authorities hold that a person must refrain from field trips and swimming during the Three Weeks in order to curtail pleasure in this period of mourning. In addition, these are days that are predisposed to calamity, and a person should therefore avoid unnecessary risks.
In practice, however, this is not forbidden, because the Sages warn us to curtail pleasure only from the beginning of the month of Av; prior to this there is no prohibition against doing things that give us pleasure and enjoyment. What we must refrain from are special joyful events, like parties, concerts, and dances.
Therefore, it is permissible to go on field trips, to go swimming, and to vacation at a hotel until the end of the month of Tammuz. The possibility of danger is not so great that one must cancel field trips, etc. In truth, one must always be careful about taking risks, but during this period one must be extra careful.
When the month of Av arrives, we curtail our happiness, and we therefore avoid field trips and recreation that is meant to bring pleasure and happiness. Field trips or recreation undertaken primarily for educational or health purposes are permitted even during the Nine Days. The same is true of swimming: if the aim is purely recreational, it is forbidden, but if a person was told to swim for health reasons, it is permitted even during the Nine Days.
The “Shehecheyanu” Blessing
There were prominent early rabbinic authorities who would not eat a new fruit or wear a new garment during the Three Weeks, in order to avoid reciting the blessing “shehecheyanu.” They reasoned: how can we bless God for “keeping us alive, and sustaining us, and bringing us to this time” during a period of calamity? (Sefer Chassidim 840).
And even though some leading rabbinic authorities took the position that one need not avoid this blessing, it has become a custom to be stringent and to avoid reciting the “shehecheyanu” blessing during the Three Weeks. Therefore, we refrain from eating fruits that necessitate the “shehecheyanu” blessing. We likewise avoid buying new garments that call for this blessing.
However, items that do not necessitate the “shehecheyanu” blessing may be purchased until the end of the month of Tammuz. For example, it is permissible to buy socks or undergarments; because they are not very important, we do not recite “shehecheyanu” over them. It is likewise permissible to buy shoes, for the general custom is not to recite “shehecheyanu” over them (Shulchan Arukh and Rema, Orach Chayim, 223:6).
It is also permitted for a couple to buy furniture, for husband and wife share such items, and when this is the case the blessing recited is “hatov vehametiv.” An individual, on the other hand, must refrain from buying furniture in order to avoid the “shehecheyanu” blessing (Shulchan Arukh 223:5).
It is likewise permissible to buy a new garment that needs to be mended in order to wear it after the Ninth of Av. Because it could not be warn when acquired, it follows that one does not bless “shehecheyanu” over it at the time of its purchase. Therefore, it is permissible to buy such a garment until the end of Tammuz (Mishnah Berurah 223:17).
For those who follow the prevalent practice to bless “shehecheyanu” when donning a garment for the first time, it is permissible to buy a new garment during the Three Weeks, on the condition that it be worn after the Ninth of Av (at which time the owner blesses “shehecheyanu”). When the month of Av arrives we curtail commerce, and even if a purchase does not necessitate the “shehecheyanu” blessing, it is proper to refrain from it.
When May We Bless “Shehecheyanu”?
If a person chances upon a “mitvza” which necessitates the “shehecheyanu” blessing (for example, Brit Milah or Pidyon Haben), he recites the blessing. This is because it was not he that determined the time for the blessing; it was Heaven that granted him with such an opportunity at this time (Shulchan Arukh 551:17).
Likewise, if a person meets a good friend for the first time in thirty days or more, and he is happy to see him, he blesses “shehecheyanu,” for if he does not bless immediately, he will lose the opportunity to recite the blessing. Similarly, “shehecheyanu” is recited by the father on the birth of a girl the first time he sees the newborn, for if he does not bless immediately he will forfeit the blessing (based on the Shulchan Arukh 225:1 and the Mishnah Berurah 223:2).
According to most rabbinic authorities it is permissible to bless “shehecheyanu” on the Sabbath’s that fall within the Three Week period. And even though a few rabbinic authorities adopt a stringent position on this question (based upon the teachings of the Holy Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria), in practice it is possible to be lenient and bless over new fruit even on “Shabbat Chazon.”
Therefore, if a person happens upon a new fruit during the week, he should save it until Sabbath and then bless “shehecheyanu” before eating it. If for some reason he cannot save it until the Sabbath (for example, if he has no refrigerator and the fruit is liable to go bad), he may eat it immediately and bless “shehecheyanu” over it (Rema 551:17 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc. 98).
Similarly, it is permissible to bless “shehecheyanu” over a new garment on a Sabbath that falls between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the end of the month. But on a Sabbath that falls during the Nine Days, one should be stringent and refrain from wearing a new garment that would necessitate the “shehecheyanu” blessing (Mishnah Berurah ibid. and Torat HaMoadim 5:7).
Engagement and Marriage
The custom in most Jewish communities is to refrain from marrying during the Three Weeks. In truth, the prohibition against marrying during the days of mourning over the Temple’s destruction applies only to “optional” marriage (i.e., where the groom already has a son and daughter from a previous marriage); however, because these are days of calamity, the custom is to avoid marriage entirely. This is because weddings should be marked by an atmosphere of good fortune. Some Sephardic communities avoid marriage only during the Nine Days.
A modest, home engagement party (celebrating the couple’s agreement to marry) can be held until the first of Av, because it relates to the fulfillment of a Torah commandment. However, it is forbidden to hold a big engagement party during the Three Weeks.
Though during the Nine Days, it is forbidden to hold even a modest, home engagement party, it is permitted for the parents of the bride and groom to meet and determine the betrothal conditions, and light refreshments may be served. Though this is a joyful event it is permitted, for it renders the bond between bride and groom a concrete fact and is hence a significant step in the direction of the marriage.
It is likewise permissible for singles to date during the Nine Days for the sake of marriage.