Jul 21, 2011

Mourning and Minhagim: How to Decide

Yes, I know what everyone is going to say: You should have figured this out before you got married! Come on!

But what do I know? As a convert married to (for all intents and purposes) a ba'al teshuva, I really didn't anticipate all of the issues with "do we do this? do we not do this?" that would come up in our marriage. Technically, before Tuvia and I got hitched, I could have adopted Sephardic customs (although, let's be honest, it would be hard to describe to anyone why I, a fair-skinned, dark-haired Jewess is eating rice on Passover). Likewise, because the customs that Tuvia inherited within his family are few and far between, with very few regarding kashrut or general family minhagim, he, too, could have chosen his path. In the end, we adopted a Yekki style of hand-washing before kiddush and motzi on Shabbos (what!? it streamlines the process!), but that's about it. (Yekki = Jew of German descent)

Right now, then, the question about customs to which I'm referring involve The Three Weeks -- those days weeks that started with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (on Tuesday) and culminate with Tisha B'Av. There are a lot of customs, a lot of minhagim that many adhere to in public and private, others just in public, and some not at all.

For example, many will not shave, get a haircut, get married, or listen to music during The Three Weeks, and this is standard Ashkenazic custom. When the Nine Days arrive, leading up to Tisha B'Av, many Jews won't eat meat or do laundry, either.

Where does this come from? The first source for a special status of The Three Weeks as Bein ha'Metzarim is found in Eikhah Rabbati 1.29, which glosses Lamentations 1.3's "All Zion's pursuers overtook her between the straits" and understands "straits" as "days of distress." These days of distress are 17 Tammuz through 9 Av, as cited by Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau in his book Minhagim, a record of Austrian customs. His opinion was then cited as halacha by Moses Isserles in Rema on Shulchan Aruch.

And where does the seriously decreased happiness during The Nine Days come from? In Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6, "from the beginning of Av, happiness is decreased." Okay, that makes perfect sense. But what does that mean? I can decrease my happiness while still eating meat and listening to music, right? What if I only listen to Britney Spears, which makes me sad? And I overcook my steak? Well, many refrain from meat and wine, laundry, and warm baths. Sephardim tend to only observe these restrictions from the Sunday prior to 9 Av, and Yeminite Jews don't maintain any of these customs. (And don't we often cite the Yeminite community as being "the closest" thing to "authentic" old-school Judaism?)

Here's my take: Weeks of mourning tend to diminish the impact of an event itself. When something happens suddenly, your body, soul, and mind are assaulted by the event. I imagine that the Israelites of the First Century BCE didn't think it would really come down to the destruction of the Holy Temple, just as the Jews of Europe didn't think that Kristallnacht would lead to the destruction of 6 million Jews. The sudden impact of reality is what shatters the soul into complete mourning. 

Am I a tzaddik? Am I a rabbi? No. I suppose not. But for Tuvia and I to sit down and have a conversation about what we will and will not do during The Three Weeks and The Nine Days, well, I think that we have to be aware of community standards as well as our own expectations and understanding of the meaning of these times.

What do you observe? What don't you observe? Are there any special family minhagim for this period that you've adopted?


Erika Shapiro said...

WOW. You are such a great critical thinker. This statement just floored me: "Weeks of mourning tend to diminish the impact of an event itself. When something happens suddenly, you're body, soul, and mind are assaulted by the event." I'm not orthodox (and admit some of the laws make NO sense to me). But your statement makes SENSE. So does this mean you & Tuvia are going to "go against the community standards" and do your own thing? Or is that a no-no?

Larry Lennhoff said...

One thing I do is I take a few minutes every day to just picture myself trapped in Jerusalem during the ever worsening siege. On the 17th, those monster catapults finally made a breach in the wall. Over the next few weeks the legionaires just keep coming - more and more of the city falls as we are pushed back towards the Temple. The sacrifices are ended because we can't get the animals and priests desperately pray that Hashem will strike the Romans with a plague as He did the Assyrians.

There is a strategy game called Siege of Jerusalem that I used to play in college, It really brought home how unbalanced the odds were - victory conditions for the Jewish side were basically 'survive until the (arbitrary) deadline for the end of the game.) Whenever a Roman legion unit entered a new area of Jerusalem they were immediately attacked by a civilian unit - old men, women and kids taking butcher knives, garden tools or sticks and stones and frontally attacking armed and armored Roman legionaries. The image of their courage, and the futility of their actions would both drive me to tears.

Esther said...

Advice from someone who doesn't partake in any of this stuff (and therefore should be taken with a huge mound of salt and probably ignored): Do what deepens the experience most for you. To accept "community standards" as the rationale for doing something, when it doesn't make sense personally would be to outsource your spiritual journey. You have a choice. Many people don't. Take advantage.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Esther. Some of my deepest and most successful spiritual experiences have come when I said "this practice doesn't make sense to me or doesn't move me or even seems wrong - but instead of not doing it I will accept the challenge of both doing it and seeking to master a framework that makes it meaningful."

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting perspective, but I'm not sure I agree with it. You write: "Weeks of mourning tend to diminish the impact of an event itself." I think this is true in many cases - for example, the death of a parent chas v'shalom. If one's parent is ill for weeks or months, one prepares for their passing and the impact may be lessened, but if a parent dies suddenly with no warning, no illness, it's shocking and perhaps more upsetting.
I don't think this reasoning applies to Tisha b'Av for the simple reason that we don't feel the pain of Tisha b'Av as acutely as we feel the pain of a parent dying. Unfortunately our Bais Mikdash has been gone for so long that it's difficult for most of us to cry over it sincerely because we don't even understand what it means to have lost it. Thus, it's necessary for us to prepare ourselves to be able to feel deep and genuine mourning on the day of Tisha b'Av by decreasing our joy in the preceding weeks and by studying about the Bais Mikdash and the churban.

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

Ideally, I would like to start preparing to go up to Har Habayit during this time period. I've talked about it before, but I never followed through on my ruminations. I am very sensitive to places. Moreover, my daughter went up the morning before her wedding, and said i was an incredible experience. I guess I want/exoect to experience something that will convey both the reality and the loss. We will see if I take advantage of the ample opportunity here.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Rav Soloveitchik viewed the 3 weeks/9 days/Tisha B'Av sequence as an inversion of the normal mourning process. Shiva, shloshim, and the mourning year are ways of dealing with grief and gradually reinserting ourselves into the world. The 3 weeks/9 days/tisha b'av are ways of gradually disconnecting so we can fully grieve when Tisha B'av comes.

David Tzohar said...

I disagree that "weeks of mourning diminish the impact" There is a gradual process that intensifies the feeling of mourning until we get to Tisha B'Av. The basic minhag is to refrain from public celebratons and cultural events during the three weeks. What you do in private is another matter. As to listening to music, there is a stringent view in Yerushalayim that it is forbidden to listen to instrumental music all year round,because of mourning the churban. Many permit acapella singing and cantorial music during the three weeks.

Batya said...

Larry and David are correct about the 3 weeks. The mourning intensifies, the opposite of mourning for a person. When a person dies, you must make a "peace" with it, and we're never supposed to make a peace with the destruction of our Holy Temple and exile from our Holy Land. It should bother us more and more, the more we think about it.

Since Tuvia is Ashkenaz, the two of you should find an understanding Ashkenaz rabbi who can guide/mentor you. this isn't a chinese restaurant menu. You're building Jewish lives according to Torah, and you need an expert. Just like if you build a house, it's not enough to just have an architect, you need a building engineer.
Good luck

Anonymous said...

I'm another in the place of having to choose minhags, in similar situation to your own. For public ones, sometimes it's easier, because you can see what other people in your community do, and it seems natural that if you go to one type of Shul that is primarily frequented by a large group of Jews with the same minhags, to take those minhags on as your own as part of being a part of that community.

Private minhags are a bit more difficult to sort out, though, since they're just that...private. How do you know if your friends at Shul are not doing their laundry during the nine days? I wonder how you'd ask without being a bit too personal and making them wonder about their deoderant? ;)

For us, we're following the Ashkenazi minhags, with questions to our Rabbis and extended family. We're not shaving, listening to music (ok, I'm allowing the music pieces on NPR talk shows...I don't think they count as music and they generally make me sad) and we're planning on deepening that during the 9 days.

Sometimes I wonder if we obsess too much about what kind of knots should be on tzittzits or which hand we wash first...often it's just that we're at least trying that I try to focus on. :)

Overall, though...I think it is great that you and your husband are thinking critically about this and forming traditions that fit you and that you can build on.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

I'm kind of really offended, Batya, that you suggest that Tuvia and I are taking a "Chinese restaurant menu" approach, which I'm guessing means the "Cafeteria Judaism" approach.

No rabbi, not even your own personal rav (which we have) can sit down and say "This is the Ashkenazic minhag" because, let's be honest, there isn't ONE Ashkenazic minhag for everything. Europe was a big place, and there were a lot of different minhagim that came out of the lives lived there. The three weeks are peppered with minhagim, and there are those who do things differently than the single-bodied mass that we call "Ashkenazic Jewry."

DLP said...

It's so interesting to me -- when I think about the 3 weeks, my first thoughts are about my camping experiences (which were all Orthdoox). The momentum that was built up over the summer -- with the start of the 3 weeks, then into the 9 Days and of course, on Tisha b'av itself (reading Eicha on the floor, being reminded of all of the generations when the Jewish people were nearly met with complete destruction) were quite intense, even beautiful and very meaningful. But I was also quick to note that they were siginficanly toned down after chatzot (mid-day) on Tisha b'av, at which point the mood shifted signifcantly, culminating with Shabbos Nachamu (Nachamu Ami!!!) --

The memory has faded for sure (It's been 20+ years!), but the feelings have stayed with me over the course of the time... So to complement the others, yes, there definitely is an inverse mourning process during this time of year...

p.s. re; Ashkenazi customs, I'm betting that if Tuvia dug deep enough, he could find roots tracing back to Spain re: 1492 :-)

Thanks for this interesting post.

MokumAlef said...

Thrilled to pieces that you decided to follow Yekke minhagim!!! Does that mean that you also wait 3 hrs between meat and dairy?

Mottel said...

Whatever you choose to follow, it's important to be consistent. Don't jump around from one set of minhagim to the next.

Mottel said...
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