Yesterday I was privileged to deliver a Shiur on the Three Weeks period, which begins this Tuesday. Click here for the Mareh Mekomot. To these I will append the following philosophical insight which I also shared yesterday, based on the sources at the above link.
Learning through the material beforehand, I was struck by the apparently hodge-podge nature of the restrictions – court cases; building, planting, and business; weddings, meat and wine, She’hechiyanu, bathing and laundering – it’s not a list of things that would otherwise be seen together. What is the underlying theme?
Perhaps the common denominator is creative activity, of the sort that advances the world forward or improves the world in some appreciable way. Building and planting (Sources 9-12) are the two “work” categories into which most other forms of labor fall, as we see, for example, from the categories of Melacha on Shabbat, which focus on those two fields (Siddura D’Pat and Arigah). (See also link.) Significant business ventures likewise showcase our dynamic use of the world around us. Engagements and weddings (Sources 13-16) certainly demonstrate a way in which we take the world into our own hands and craft it in our own image. Court cases (Sources 6-7) allow us to exact Divinely-inspired justice on a human level (or so we hope). Even music (Sources 45-46) is a means by which to use the raw elements of nature left for us on earth to create or manipulate sensations and emotions. (See link for a post last year on music during the Three Weeks.)
Of the major pronouncements made to mankind early in Bereishit, two concern what we are allowed to eat – first vegetation, and then meat. The novelty of our being permitted (sometimes even required) by Hashem to dynamically change the world around us by killing animals with our hands and smashing grapes with our feet contains within it an opportunity to be in control of the physical universe around us, and of our own lives. Notice the odd Rama (Source 27) that a Shochet must hide his Shechitah knife during the Nine Days. This requirement may indicate that more than simply a mandate not to eat meat (Sources 27-34), there may exist during this time of year a need to reconsider our entire relationship with the physical world around us and pull back from the privilege we otherwise have to shape it in our image.
The reason for all this rescission is because this is a time of destruction, not construction. Rashi makes this point as Noach and his family are entering the Ark:
רש”י פרשת נח פרק ז פסוק ז
נח ובניו – האנשים לבד והנשים לבד, לפי שנאסרו בתשמיש המטה, מפני שהעולם היה שרוי בצער
עת לאהוב, ועת לשנוא. The time for argumentation is not the time for reconciliation, though there will surely be time for that later. Here, in the very beginnings of the darker half of the year (we reached the longest days just last week), is a time for pulling back, reconsidering our role, being less confident in the privilege we have to affect, shape, and change the world around us. And with that, two more changes – we avoid saying She’hechiyanu (Sources 39-41), inherent in which is a recognition that the world was given to us to shape and enjoy; and we avoid situations which otherwise would not strike us as particularly dangerous (see Sources 42-44), because, in a way equal and opposite to our temporarily curbing our natural neurosis to make the world a better place, Hashem responds by offering a more limited level of protection than He otherwise would (and far less than He does immediately afterward during Elul and Tishrei, when He is, so to speak, “in the field”).
This all goes to answer one further question about this period of the year. The Mishna (Source 2) lists several calamitous events which occurred on 17 Tammuz and several others which happened on Tisha B’Av, and then the Mishna ends with the famous line: משנכנס אב, ממעטין בשמחה. We noticed in the Shiur yesterday that that line does not seem to follow from what came before it. What does Rosh Chodesh have to do with anything? The Mishna should say מי”ז בתמוז ממעטין בשמחה! But perhaps the significance of Rosh Chodesh lies in its being uniquely ours, something we define, create, and determine, as opposed to Shabbat, which is determined purely by Hashem. החודש הזה לכם means that we have a responsibility to declare the new month, and in doing so to bring on the successive holidays. We declare Rosh Chodesh Av, too (assuming there is no calendar), so it is only after this declaration – this most dynamic monthly manipulation of the physical universe – that we can begin to pull back and be less creative with our world. Beginning to recede earlier would make the declaration of Rosh Chodesh Av an unwelcome interloper in the feelings otherwise inculcated by that very receding.
I made one further philosophical point during the Shiur, which I will share here as well.
The Gemara tells us (Sources 16 and 33-34) that after the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, there was a sense of confusion as to how to proceed as a nation. To that end, a law was proposed (Source 33) that no one could eat meat or drink wine, since those had been central to the sacrificial service, but this law was not publicized because it was a גזירה שאין רוב הציבור יכולין לעמוד בה, a law that would have been too hard for most people to follow. The Gemara further tells us (Source 16) that a law was enacted earlier (presumably during the first Beit Hamikdash period) that no one could marry or have children, because of a decree against Brit Milah, but that this law was not publicized because people would have married anyway – ומוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין. Music, as well, is forbidden throughout the year according to the Shulchan Aruch, but most people today find that decree too difficult to keep all year.
In all of these ways, then – weddings, meat, wine, and music – we try and create an idealized society over a three-week period, a microcosm of the world that is technically appropriate but, at least for most of our lives, pragmatically impossible. This is similar to the practice of taking on additional stringencies, such as Pat Yisrael, during the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, even while not believing that we will retain these stringencies for the rest of the year. The idea is not to lie or to be phony, but, like summer camp, to help us visualize what an ideal world would look like and then to live in that world for a brief while. May we have the privilege of seeing a day when even the idealized world is one of abundance, peace, and joy, rather than the opposite.