Weekly Feature: Frum … Or Krum?? – A Cappella Music During the Three Weeks

And now it’s time for our somewhat-weekly exploration of trends and whims in the Jewish community and how they stack up to the rigors of intellectual Halachic analysis.

This Week’s Entry: An email I received last week from a Jewish Music store. The email left no room for ambiguity:

“The 3 weeks are coming, stock up! Choose from any of these 4 great albums perfect for the 3 weeks season. The “3” Weeks are coming stock up “2”day with “1” big a cappella sale TAKE 15% OFF enter code at checkout. While supplies last, not responsible for typographical errors.”

What is the basis for the widespread prohibition against listening to music between Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, an amount of time the marketing geniuses who rule our lives like to constantly remind us is precisely three weeks? (I like “the 3 Weeks Season” in the email above – like “the Holiday Season” in December, the invention of “The Three Weeks” is a ready-made marketing invasion meant to draw in nervous patrons with ready cash on hand before the music-less calamity hits.)

Discussion: The idea of not listening to music between Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, Rama, or Mishna Berura (such as in Orach Chaim 551), presumably because less than ten chapters later (see O.C. 560:3) they state explicitly, although to varying degrees of stricture, that music is prohibited year-round anyway. Thus it would have been more surprising if they had mentioned only a limited rule in O.C. 551 and then extended it more generally in O.C. 560.

Nevertheless, we can be somewhat mollified by the fact that Rav Moshe Feinstein, in Iggerot Moshe, seems to begrudgingly accept the fact that, appropriately or not, we people do listen to music year-round, and thus a new Halachic reality needs to be considered. In a letter dated 4 Tammuz 1958, Rav Moshe discusses at length the prohibition surrounding music in our days, concluding as follows:

שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק א סימן קסו
ובימי ספירה יש לאסור בזמרא דמנא (with instruments) אף להמתירין. ידידו, משה פיינשטיין.

Please be aware that that was not a Teshuva about Sefirah, and Rav Moshe did not mention Sefirah until that last line. Especially given the fact that the letter was written on 4 Tammuz, less than two weeks before the Three Weeks were to begin, it really would have been perfectly simple for him to add the words “ובימי בין המצרים” if he had felt that that would be a valid additional stringency for those who listen to music year-round. Rav Moshe, of course, was a careful and deliberate writer, especially in the case of his published material.

Nevertheless, the masses of Jewry wanted to accept this additional stringency upon ourselves. That being said, we needed to make a decision: Three Weeks, Nine Days, Shavua She’chal Bo (the week in which Tisha B’Av falls), or only Tisha B’Av itself?

This chart lays out the schedule of restrictions in the days and weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av as understood by the Mechaber (Sefardi), Rama (Ashkenazi), and Mishna Berura (Ashkenazi). (The Chart is presented in the order of the Shulchan Aruch, not chronologically.) A look at the chart shows that the “Three Weeks” concept was not very important to the Mechaber. The only things which the Mechaber proscribes for all three weeks are either tentative on his part (fasting or at least refraining from meat and wine, which the Mechaber admitted could be taken on for less time) or less than consequential (walking alone during certain hours of the day, hitting students). She’hechiyanu is perhaps one exception; we will come back to that in just a moment.

The Be’er Hagolah, usually interested in giving sources for the Mechaber and Rama, in this case supplies us with reasons for the Mechaber’s strict rulings on these issues (perhaps he is surprised that the Mechaber would restrict anything for three weeks):

  • Meat and wine, because the daily Tamid offering and libations were lost on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz;
  • Eating and drinking, either because of Daniel’s three weeks of fasting or to mark the period of the surrounding and destruction of the city [during which historical time righteous people may have fasted];
  • She’hechiyanu because, the Mishna Berura explains, how indeed can we thank Hashem for “bringing us to this time,” one of sorrow and despair? Nevertheless, the Mishna Berura cites the Gra, Taz, and “Harbeh Acharonim” who disagree with this “Chumra Yeteira” altogether, on which basis the Mishna Berura permits the Berachah to be made on Shabbat.

Those are the consequential Three Week customs as given by the Mechaber. In contrast, court cases, business, joyous building and planting, weddings, engagement parties, haircuts, laundering, wearing freshly laundered clothes, wearing new clothes, creating new clothes, and showering are all, according to the Mechaber, to be limited either from Rosh Chodesh or only during the actual week of Tisha B’Av.

Is it possible that, if he hadn’t prohibited music year-round, the Mechaber would have added music to the much shorter list of activities prohibited for three weeks? Maybe so – remember the Be’er Hagolah’s reasoning behind not eating meat or drinking wine during this time period, that the Tamid and libations ended on 17 Tammuz? Perhaps we could say that because the music of the Levi’im also came to an end at this time, it is a worthwhile stringency to limit music during this time. But for that matter, we would have to prohibit a cappella music, too. And standing on platforms. And visiting a petting zoo.

It is really the Rama, writing for Ashkenazim, who put the “Three Weeks” on the map by famously adding weddings to the list of three week-long prohibitions (see end of 551:2). The Rama (middle of 551:3) also stretched many “within week” bans to the Nine Days (haircuts for adults, laundering, wearing freshly laundered clothes, wearing new clothes) and resolved some ambiguities on the side of Nine Days (eating meat, drinking wine, showering), and the Mishna Berura (551:82) extends the haircut ban to the whole Three Weeks period. But the list of “Three Week prohibitions” relevant to contemporary Ashkenazim is still relatively small: Weddings, haircuts for adults, saying She’hechiyanu, walking alone from 4:00-9:00 pm, hitting students, and walking from heat to shade (MB 551:102). (The Mishna Berura also says that we should cry from about 12:30-1:00 pm every day during this period – ibid :103.) Activities in which even contemporary Ashkenazim can safely participate from 17 Tammuz until Rosh Chodesh include court cases, dressing nicely, any business, all types of building, any planting, engagement parties, haircuts for children, laundering, wearing freshly laundered clothes, wearing new clothes, creating new clothes, buying new clothes, selling or giving new clothes, eating meat, drinking wine, and showering. So again, with such a small list, is it really necessary to add music to the list of prohibited activities from 17 Tammuz until Rosh Chodesh? Is that consistent with the general trend in the Rama and Mishna Berura?

Maybe so, because music and weddings are certainly linked in other contexts. See, for example, the debate about the extent of the year-round music ban in 560:3, where the Rama limits the Mechaber’s year-round ban on music (“וכן גזרו שלא לנגן בכלי שיר וכל מיני זמר וכל משמיעי קול של שיר”) to particularly joyous situations: ויש אומרים דוקא מי שרגיל בהם כגון המלכים … או בבית המשתה … וכן לצורך מצוה, כגון בבית חתן וכלה, הכל שרי. The Aruch Hashulchan (551:8), in discussing the Three Weeks, also makes such a link explicitly:

ערוך השולחן אורח חיים סימן תקנא סעיף ח
וכן אין נושאין נשים מראש חודש ואפילו בלא סעודה … ואפילו שמחת מריעות נראה דאסור, והוא הדין שידוכין אצלינו – מותר להתקשר מראש חודש ולהלן, אבל בלא סעודה, וכל שכן בלא ריקודין ומחולות. ואפילו בשבת אסור לעשות סעודה בשביל זה. ואפילו מי”ז בתמוז אסור ריקודין ומחולות, כמו שאנו נוהגין לבלי לעשות נשואין מי”ז בתמוז עד אחר תשעה באב, ולא דמי לסעודת מילה ופדיון הבן שמותר דהזמן גרמא וגם אין בזה שמחה דאין שמחה אלא בענייני זיווגים שעליהם מברכין שהשמחה במעונו ולכן כל השייך לזה האירוסין והקישורי תנאים הוי שמחה ולא מילה ופדה”ב:

The Aruch Hashulchan clearly prohibits “dancing and merrymaking” (“ריקודים ומחולות”) during the whole Three Weeks period, with an exact parallel made to the ban on weddings during this time. Whether background music on ITunes while I am alone in my house infers the same connotation as the Aruch Hashulchan’s “ריקודים ומחולות” is perhaps an open question. Perhaps with the proliferation of music in our days, we should not be so quick to make the most immediately accessible leap from the less common and more joyous music of 100 years ago to the relatively benign and almost unnoticeable music which floods our lives from morning to night.

In any event, if we are to make the wedding-music connection, we need to know how Sefardim rule regarding the extent of the ban on weddings during this time period, which the Mechaber left very open-ended. The ambiguity on this issue even today is perhaps best expressed in this fine article:

Some Sephardic communities, as do virtually all Ashkenazic communities, desist from having weddings and musical functions for the three weeks. Most Sephardic communities, as is the practice in Israel, following Shulhan Arukh, desist for nine days only, beginning Rosh Hodesh Ab. For many decades the Aleppo-derived Brooklyn Syrian community has not held weddings during the three weeks.

(Some+Most=?) If Sefardim cannot make the wedding-music connection, can they at least make the meat-wine-music connection that we proposed earlier (all three were ended on 17 Tammuz)?

Beginning Rosh Hodesh Ab … [w]e refrain from meat, including chicken, and wine during these days. Out of respect for Rosh Hodesh, the Syrian community begins these latter stringencies from the second of the month.

Verdict:Sefardim – Krum. It is difficult to create a reasonable Halachic paradigm for forbidding music for all three weeks which accords with historical Sefardi practice, in which limiting meat and wine from 17 Tammuz until Rosh Chodesh is at best a Chumra which seems never to have gained widespread acceptance and in which weddings are restricted only during the Nine Days. After all, if Sefardim are holding weddings from 17 Tammuz until Rosh Chodesh, would they still not listen to music in their car on the way home from the wedding? Hard to say. Connecting music to She’hechiyanu is a tough one.

This Chumra essentially makes music more of an issue than meat and wine, weddings, and many other items explicitly permitted during this time by the Mechaber, which rewrites the books on whether those items were “correctly” permitted in the first place. While the Mechaber was busy building a neat pile of Halachot, we are throwing on a Chumra which does not match and which distracts from the paradigm he was trying to create. We always have to be careful that our Chumrot are not a patch of neon wallpaper on an otherwise plain grey wall. This Chumra threatens to distract from the uniqueness of the Nine Days and Shavua She’Chal Bo which were important to the Mechaber to impart.

Ashkenazim – Frum. Ashkenazimhave somewhat more to stand on, as the Ashkenazi poskim were at least equally interested in building a paradigm around the Three Weeks as the Nine Days (or certainly Shavua She’Chal Bo). Although we likewise never accepted upon ourselves the Mechaber’s Chumra to limit wine and meat as early as 17 Tammuz, and although a connection to She’hechiyanu or haircuts is hard to make, our practice to restrict weddings from the earlier date may, especially in light of the Aruch Hashulchan’s ban on “ריקודים ומחולות” during the longer time period, be a valid Chumra. Nevertheless, this Chumra should be taken within its proper context. Besides having very little Halachic basis, it similarly calls into question many other practices which are only observed for the Nine Days.

Most importantly, we hope and pray that any effort expended in learning and clarifying these Halachot serve only to hasten the days when they will be no more than a historical relic.

Credit for identification of the Aruch Hashulchan in this article goes to my brother-in-law Yisroel Simcha Abramson and his very thorough Sefer Yismach Yisrael: Likutei Halachot B’Inyan Zemer. See there, especially Chapters 10-11 and Appendix 3:8 for more on some of these matters and other important issues, including attempts at resolution of the Mechaber and Ramas’ year-round rulings with the contemporary stringency during the Nine Days. Also see there (in the Appendix) for an interesting perspective that perhaps, since music is banned year-round anyway, those authorities who mention a specific Three Weeks-related ban mean to prohibit even a cappella music which might, at least in certain situations, be permitted the rest of the year.

This entry was posted in Frum ... Or Krum??, Halacha, Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av. Bookmark the permalink.

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