This week marks the beginning of the period Jews refer to as the Nine Days, culminating with Tishah B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. On this date, a series of calamities befell our People: the Children of Israel who left Egypt were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years, and would not survive to enter the Holy Land; the Babylonians destroyed the Holy Temple built by King Solomon; the Romans destroyed the re-built Temple; the Jews of Spain were expelled from their homeland in 1492, and more recently, World War I began when Russia and Germany declared war on each other, leading to Germany’s defeat and subsequent election of Adolf Hitler.
This period of time has many restrictions. During the final three weeks before Tishah B’Av, we begin to minimize our celebrations, by refraining from holding weddings or going to concerts or even getting a haircut. The Nine Days are even more restrictive–we stop eating meat and drinking wine, we don’t take leisurely baths or showers, and don’t launder our clothes. Tishah B’Av, the anniversary of all those tragedies, has the most prohibitions of all. In addition to fasting, we have the custom of sitting close to the ground, not wearing leather shoes, while not even enjoying the pleasure of learning Torah. Does all this sound familiar? It is the mourning process, but in reverse. The day of Tishah B’Av is like the Shivah week, sitting on low benches and wearing slippers or sneakers. The thirty day period which follows – Sh’loshim in Hebrew – still has restrictions as the mourner slowly works his way back into “normal” life, very similar to the Nine Days. And the year of mourning, with includes refraining from attending weddings, concerts and other celebrations, is like the three-week period that began it all.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993), Dean of Yeshivah University and teacher of thousands, who ordained over 2,000 Rabbis and is considered one of the great teachers of recent generations, noted the similarities between the two periods of mourning–following the death of a loved one and leading up to Tishah B’Av. He explained the seasonal mourning as follows: Since we have grown accustomed to life without a Holy Temple, we must prepare for the calamity of Tishah B’Av by slowly beginning to mourn as the tragic day approaches. We follow a reverse path from the mourner, first a very mild form of mourning, then a bit more, and then the intense mourning of the fast day itself. In this way we have three weeks to immerse ourselves in remembering the Holy Temples, and build up to the day of double destruction–the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans.
This perhaps gives us an insight into our customs of mourning the death of a loved one. In order to feel the loss of the Temple we begin lightly and build up the level of mourning. When we lose a close relative, it is always a shock to the system, as no one can predict the moment of someone’s actual passing. Therefore, we are thrown into the deepest level of mourning our Rabbis could prescribe, the Shivah week. This is followed by the Sh’loshim as the mourner leaves the house of mourning and re-integrates himself back into society, and is only then followed by the year of mourning, with its gentle reminders of the loss. The two series of mourning, in ascending or in descending order, are appropriate only for the setting that each was assigned–increasing mourning when we need to be reminded of the losses of centuries past, and intense mourning followed by an easing up as we begin to cope and live with an awful truth for which no person can ever be fully prepared.
May the Holy One see our sincere expressions of mourning and allow us to live to see the ultimate consolation–the rebuilding of our Holy Places in a fully rebuilt and peaceful Jerusalem.