The Three Weeks: Permitted and Forbidden

17th of Tammuz: Nursing and pregnant women are exempt from fasting, as well as sick people who are bedridden * Weakness and headaches are a natural phenomenon when fasting, and are not a reason for exemption, but someone who is liable to get sick, is exempt * One may swallow medicines without water, and also pills with caffeine for those who need them * Soldiers in operational activity are exempt from fasting, but soldiers in training must fast * What kind of music may be heard during the Three Weeks * What is forbidden to buy during the Three Weeks and the Nine Days * Vacations are permitted until Rosh Chodesh Av, while maintaining strict rules of caution

Pregnant and Nursing Women on the Minor Fasts

Pregnant and nursing women are exempt from the Minor Fasts (where the fast is only during the day), because when Israel accepted to fast on the Minor Fasts, they did not accept it for pregnant and nursing women, because fasting is more difficult for them. In Germany (Ashkenaz), many pregnant and nursing women had a custom to act strictly and fast on the minor fast days.  Perhaps they did so because of the harsh decrees that the Jews suffered there.  In any event, the prevalent custom today, even among Ashkenazi Jews, is that pregnant and nursing women do not observe the minor fast days.

The Two Years after Birth

Some poskim exempt all women from fasting for 24 months after giving birth, because in their opinion the exemption does not depend on nursing but on the hardships of childbirth, from which it takes 24 months to recover (Maharasham and Yichevei Da’at 1:35).  In practice, most poskim rule strictly and require every woman who has stopped nursing to fast even on the Minor Fast days.  This is the prevalent custom, but one who wants to adopt the more lenient opinion has upon whom to rely. And a woman who feels weakness, even though she is not considered truly sick, is entitled to be lenient (ibid, 7: 8, 11).

The Infirm are Exempt

When the Prophets and Sages instituted these fasts, they did so for healthy people, not for the sick.  This is the difference between Yom Kippur and all other fasts.  On Yom Kippur, even the infirm are obligated to fast, because it is a Biblical command.  Only people whose lives may be in danger if they fast are exempt, for the preservation of human life overrides the Torah’s commandments.

In general, people whose pain or weakness precludes them from continuing their regular routine of life, forcing them to lie down, are considered sick.  For example, those who have the flu, angina, or a high fever need not fast.

However, almost everyone develops a headache and feels weak on a fast day, and most people find it easier spending the day in bed than continuing to function normally.  Sometimes, a person who is fasting even feels worse than a flu sufferer.  Nonetheless, such feelings are not considered a sickness, rather the natural effects of fasting, which will pass within a few hours after the fast is over.  Therefore, only one who needs to lie down because of an illness is exempt from fasting.  One who suffers from the fast itself, however, must continue to fast even if his weakness causes him to prefer to lie down in bed.  Only one who becomes so weak from the fast that he leaves the category of suffering from the fast, and enters that of the infirm, may break his fast.

A weak or very old person who suffers while fasting and fears that if he fasts, he will get weaker and sick, is exempt from fasting. Also, a sick person who has recovered from his illness but still feels weak, and fears that if he fasts, his illness will return, is exempt from fasting.

In addition, anyone who knows that fasting can cause him to fall ill need not fast.  For example, someone who suffers from an active ulcer or severe migraines is exempt from fasting, because it is liable to precipitate his illness. Diabetes sufferers who need to take insulin need not fast, and some of them are even exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur.  Those who have kidney stones are exempt from fasting, because they have to drink a lot of water.  A person with high blood pressure is not considered sick and should fast, unless his doctor instructs him otherwise.  Whenever in doubt, consult a God-fearing doctor (ibid, 7: 7).

Swallowing Medications

It is also important to note that sick people who need to take medicine regularly, like a person who has started a regimen of antibiotics or one who suffers from a chronic disease, must continue taking their medicine even on a fast day.  If possible, one should swallow it without water.  This is because there is almost no medicine, including antibiotics, that does any harm to those who take it without water.  One who cannot swallow pills without water should add something bitter to the water, until it becomes undrinkable, and use it to swallow the pill.

Headache Pills

Many people drink a few cups of coffee a day, and while fasting, suffer from severe headaches. In order to prevent this, it is advisable to use pills containing caffeine (there are Acamol or Dexamol tablets and the like, with caffeine), and swallow them on the fast without water, so they can fast without severe pain.

The Duration of the Fast

The Minor Fasts last from daybreak (alot hashachar) to the emergence of the stars (tzait ha-kochavim). Alot hashachar is when the first light begins to appear in the east.  Tzait ha-kochavim is when three medium-sized stars are visible in the sky.  There are different opinions as to when exactly alot hashachar occurs – either when the first light begins to appear in the east (when the sun is 17.5 degrees below the horizon) or a short time later, when the eastern sky is illuminated (when the sun is 16.1 degrees below the horizon).

There are also two major opinions regarding tzait hakochavim.  It occurs either when experts and those with excellent eyesight can see three stars (when the sun is 4.8 degrees below the horizon) or when regular people can see three stars (when the sun is 6.2 degrees below the horizon).

According to the letter of the law, we should follow the more lenient opinion, because these fasts are Rabbinic enactments.  However, it is best to act strictly.  Since we are already fasting all day long, it is preferable to add a few extra minutes in order to fulfill our obligation according to all opinions  (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim, 7: 3).

Eating before Dawn

Even though the fast starts at alot hashachar, the prohibition to eat sometimes begins the night before.  If one has in mind not to eat anymore until the beginning of the fast, it is considered as if he accepted the fast upon himself, and he may not eat.  Therefore, one who goes to sleep the night before a fast and wakes up before daybreak may not eat, but be’di’avad, he may drink, since it is customary for people to wake up before a fast and take a drink, and this is considered as if he had thought about it (see, Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 7: 4, 5).

Rinsing One’s Mouth with Water

It is permitted to rinse one’s mouth with water, in order to remove bad odor, or to prevent distress. It is also permissible for a person who is distressed to use toothpaste to clean his mouth well, and remove the bad smell.

On Tisha B’Av, which is a more severe fast and bathing is also forbidden, only someone who is very distressed may wash his mouth and brush his teeth without toothpaste. But on Yom Kippur, whose obligation to fast is from the Torah, even those who are very distressed are not permitted to be lenient in this matter (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 7: 5).

Children under the Age of Mitzvot

Children who have yet to reach the age at which they are obligated in the mitzvot are exempt from the fasts that the Rabbis instituted, and are fed simple foods, in order to teach them to mourn with the congregation. But it is not a mitzvah to train them to fast, because only on Yom Kippur, which is Torah-based, is there a mitzvah to train them to fast. If the children are big and healthy and wish to fast until noon, it is commendable, but they should not fast the entire day (ibid, 7:9).


Soldiers who are engaged in active security operations that are liable to be compromised if they fast, should eat and drink as usual so that they may carry out their mission properly. However, soldiers who are merely engaged in training, must fast.

Bride and Groom

A bride and groom, that one of their seven days of rejoicing after their wedding falls on a fast day – are obligated to fast, because public aveilut (mourning) overrides individual joy. However, when the fast is postponed like this year, it is permissible for the bridegroom and bride to break the fast after Mincha Gedolah in the afternoon (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 7: 9, 12).

Dancing and Music during the Three Weeks

Although our Sages did not make special enactments to indicate the distress and mourning of the Three Weeks, the Jewish custom is to abstain from dancing during the entire Three Weeks (M.A. 551:10).

As an addendum to this, one must not listen to happy music during these days, and even non-joyful music should not be listened to aloud (in a volume that can be heard outside a room), because even listening to music at a high volume makes it more festive and practically transforms it into a joyous song (Peninei Halakha 8: 4-5).

Shopping and “She’hecheyanu” during the Three Weeks

It is customary not to buy a garment or a piece of furniture on which the blessing “She’hecheyanu” (“Blessed are You, Lord…Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time”) is recited, because these days are days of calamity, and on them, how can one say ‘who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time’.

However, until Rosh Chodesh Av one may purchase items that would not require one to recite She’hecheyanu. For example, one may buy socks or undershirts, because these items of clothing are not significant enough to warrant the recitation of She’hecheyanu. One may also buy a garment that requires alterations, to be worn after Tisha B’Av. Since it cannot be worn at the time when it is purchased, one does not recite She’hecheyanu at that time. Furthermore, according to those who customarily recite She’hecheyanu only when they first wear the clothing, one may buy a new garment during the Three Weeks, on the condition that he wears it and recites the blessing after Tisha B’Av. Similarly, a couple may buy a piece of furniture, because, as partners in the purchase, they recite the blessing of Ha’tov Ve’hametiv rather than She’hecheyanu. An individual, on the other hand, must refrain from buying furniture to avoid reciting She’hecheyanu.

Shopping during the Nine Days

Once the month of Av begins, business transactions are curtailed, and one must refrain even from purchases on which She’hecheyanu is not recited. It is also preferable to curtail even ordinary purchases. For example, if one usually makes a big shopping trip and stocks up on food and household items only once every few weeks, ideally, one should refrain from doing so during the Nine Days.

Outings and Vacations

Some poskim maintain that one must refrain from taking pleasure trips and swimming in an ocean or a pool during the Three Weeks, in order to limit our enjoyment during this mournful period. Furthermore, since these days are prone to calamity, one must avoid potentially dangerous activities.

From a halakhic standpoint, however, these activities are not prohibited. After all, our Sages only instructed us to curtail our joy from the first day of Av. They did not prohibit engaging in pleasurable and enjoyable activities before then. The only thing one should avoid is special celebrations, like parties, concerts, and dances. Therefore, one may go hiking and swimming and one may vacation in a hotel until the end of Tamuz. In addition, the concern about engaging in potentially dangerous activities is not so serious that one must be more cautious than one generally should be throughout the year. Thus, one may go hiking and engage in similar activities during the Three Weeks, while taking particular care to follow the safety precautions that apply to such activities throughout the year.

“When Av arrives, we curtail our joy”, therefore, one must refrain from outings and recreational activities that are mainly designed to provide pleasure and joy. However, one may go on a trip or vacation that is designed primarily for educational or therapeutic purposes during the Nine Days.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.