Beginning on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and ending with the 9th day of the month of Av, the Jewish people, as individuals and as a collective whole, mourn and commemorate the many painful attempts at our destruction which occurred in this time.How do we diminish the pain and suffering which comes when Av enters?
The list of tragedies associated with this time period is overwhelming. Tammuz 17, the day which starts these three weeks, is the same day when, in the year 1313 BCE, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were broken.1 On that same day, some 1380 years later, the legions of Rome breached the walls of Jerusalem after a 30-month siege. For three weeks the battle raged in Jerusalem, until the city was vanquished, the Holy Temple destroyed and the Jewish people driven into exile. Thus we entered the state of galut (physical and spiritual displacement) in which we still find ourselves today.2
And yet, this was only the beginning.
Three tragic weeks later we arrive at Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. Predominantly known as the day on which both the first and second Holy Temples were destroyed—the First Temple by the Babylonians in 423 BCE, and the Second Temple by the Romans in 69 CE—the Ninth of Av is also associated with many other horrific events, preceding the destruction of the Temples and continuing until the present.3
(By a cruel irony, the day originally chosen by the Israeli government for the expulsion of thousands of men, women and children from their homes in Gush Katif and the other settlements in the Gaza Strip fell within the Three Weeks. But that date was changed due to tremendous pressure from Jews the world over, aghast that the government of Israel would add to the list of our sufferings during this tragic period.)
Jewish law mandates a series of mourning observances during the Three Weeks. The 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are both fast days. For the entire Three Weeks we do not hold weddings; like mourners, we refrain from cutting our hair, listening to music, or purchasing or wearing new clothes. In the final nine days of the Three Weeks (i.e., from the 1st to the 9th of Av) we enter a period of heightened mourning: in addition to the above mourning practices, we do not eat meat or drink wine, do not bathe for pleasure, and in general refrain from any activities whose purpose is pleasure and enjoyment.
These three weeks are referred to by the prophet Jeremiah as bein hametzarim, literally “between the constrictions.” The word meitzar, “constriction,” is the root of the word mitzrayim, “Egypt,” alluding to our days of being enslaved in our first galut. When we are constricted, we are in a state of exile—we are not able to express ourselves or be who we truly are.
Yet, as is true with most everything in Judaism, nothing is as simple as it appears. Our prophets prophesied that the Ninth of Av will ultimately be revealed as the greatest and most joyous of all the days of the year. Even now, as we fast and mourn on this day, Jewish law alludes to its future status as a moed, a day of joyous celebration: it is for this reason that we omit tachanun (“supplication” prayers and confession of sins) from our daily prayers on the Ninth of Av, as we do on festivals and other joyous days in our calendar.
In the Kabbalistic work Zohar we are shown how the entire period that we consider a period of mourning, the whole Three Weeks, is actually the seed for what will become this day of celebration.
The 21 days of the Bein HaMetzarim period begin on the 17th of Tammuz. The number 17 is numerically equivalent to tov, the word in Hebrew for “good.” Clearly this “good” is not a revealed good, yet concealed within the darkness is the good which will be revealed. Furthermore, while we have 21 days of this mourning state, we find that throughout the Jewish calendar there are also 21 days of festivity: Shabbat is one day; Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new month, is one day; Passover, the holiday marking our breaking out of slavery and into freedom, is seven days; Shavuot, considered the day of our wedding to our Creator, when we merited to receive the Torah, is one day; Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year, is two days; Yom Kippur is one day; Sukkot is seven days; and Shemini Atzeret (Simchat Torah) is one day. Thus: 1+1+7+1+2+1+7+1=21. Now, if these numbers seem off to you, there is a reason. The days equal 21 only if they are calculated according to how the festivals are observed in the Land of Israel, where most holidays are one day shorter than they are in the Diaspora. This already is an allusion that the true way to celebrate our holy days is the way that it is done in the Land of Israel. And we know that one of the first things that will be done when we are redeemed is that all Jews will be returned to our true home, in the Holy Land of Israel.
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) we are told that the 21 days of the Three Weeks correspond to a vision that the prophet Jeremiah had concerning the destruction of the Temple. Jeremiah saw a makel shaked, “a staff of almond wood,” and heard G‑d warning him that evil was imminent—“For I will hasten (shoked) My word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:11–12). The Talmud explains: “The almond takes 21 days from when it blossoms until it ripens. This corresponds to the 21 days between the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the Ninth of Av, when the Holy Temple was burned.”Everything, no matter how dark or how seemingly bad, has the ability to turn around . . .
The famed “Gaon of Rogatchov” (Rabbi Joseph Rosin, 1858–1936) writes that inherent in G‑d’s warning to Jeremiah was a consolation. Almonds start off bitter and become sweet as they develop (in contrast to another kind of nut called luz, which starts off sweet and becomes bitter). This is why the 21 days of Bein HaMetzarim are alluded to by the 21-day “staff of almond wood”: not only are we able to negate the bitterness of these days, but we are capable of turning their bitterness to sweetness, of transforming these days of mourning into days of rejoicing and gladness.
Another allusion to this is in the famous Talmudic statement, Mishenichnas Av memaatin besimchah. The basic meaning of these four words is “When Av enters, we decrease in joy.” However, because the original Talmudic text contains no punctuation marks, this statement can be read in two ways. On the one hand, yes, practically speaking, because of the tragedies that befell the Jewish people during the month of Av, we minimize our joy. However, now that we know that the good is only hidden and will soon be revealed, we can also read it another way: “When Av enters we decrease, in joy.” How do we diminish the pain and suffering which comes when Av enters? Specifically through the simchah, through a positive outlook and a joyous approach.
And we end the three weeks with a similar reminder. On the Ninth of Av we read the kinot (“lamentations”), a collection of poetic prayers describing the terrible events that we suffered as a people. Yet if we just turn the letters around, we have the word tikkun, rectification, showing that everything, no matter how dark or how seemingly bad, has the ability to turn around.4
Being that the Ninth of Av is in the month of Av, we must also look at the esoteric dimensions of the month itself to have an even deeper understanding of this time period. As is explained in Sefer Yetzirah (the earliest book of Kabbalah we have, and which is attributed to Abraham himself), each month of the Jewish year has a letter that represents it, and each letter can be interpreted according to its form, its shape, its numerical value and its meaning.
The letter which represents the month of Av is tet, which is the 9th letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and its gematria (numerical value) is also 9. As the first letter of the word tov, the tet represents the concept of concealed good which is waiting to be revealed. It also represents the concept of pregnancy, both in its form (with its rounded, introverted shape) and numerical value (alluding to the nine months of pregnancy). See image above.
Indeed, one of the classic metaphors in Jewish thought is that pregnancy represnts a state of constriction, for it is a time when hidden good is concealed and constricted within, until the moment comes for it to be birthed and revealed into this world. It is vital to remember that pregnancy does not exist just on a physical level, but rather we are all—both men and women— considered to constantly be in various stages of pregnancy, be it spiritual or emotional or intellectual. Thus the mitzvah of pru urevu, “Be fruitful and multiply,” does not just mean to physically have children, but also that we are commanded to be creative, to use our G‑d-given talents to create within this world.
The state of pregnancy is thus a state of being constricted, in which we are not yet able to fully manifest our potential or the latent or hidden good that is within. But as we often find, it is the work we accomplish when enslaved and constricted that allows us to truly appreciate our freedom. Only through limitation can we understand what it means to be limitless. And so, the very key to our celebration, our redemption, can be found in this time of constrictedness.
The Ninth of Av is the tet day of Av, the pregnant day of the pregnant month. Incredibly, the sages teach that Moshiach will be born on the Ninth of Av (and there are different opinions as to whether this will be his physical birth or his spiritual birth). In other words, our redeemer will be revealed and bring our world to a state of revelation on the very day that during our exile has represented terrible destruction. In the midst of our destruction, we have the ability for rebirth.
The same is true of the day that marks the beginning of our mourning period, the 17th day of Tammuz. If our walls are always up, then no one can come in and we cannot get out; they are a barrier that becomes a prisonOn this day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, leading to the destruction and the exile. However, there is something positive that can result from the breaking down of walls. There is some “good” (alluded to in the number 17 = tov = good) here which can also be the seeds of a very positive process. The only way we can rebuild is when we are willing to first tear down the present structure, to break down the walls. This is certainly true not only on a physical level, but psychologically, emotionally and spiritually as well. If anything, these barriers are often harder to break than even the highest and thickest physical wall.
A wall is something that keeps others out, that protects and hides what is kept behind it. Walls are necessary, especially in an imperfect world. However, there are times when we need to let down our walls in order to truly experience and feel and grow. If our walls are always up, then no one can come in and we cannot get out; rather than mere protection, they become a form of escape, of separation, a barrier that becomes a prison.
This is the true work that we must do, both individually and globally. We must look within and without, and start breaking down our walls. We must break our walls of fear, distrust, ignorance and hate, and we must destroy them to the ground. Then, when we are standing in the midst of the rubble, when we can finally see one another again and there is nothing blocking us, we can begin the process again, brick by brick. But this time, rather than building a wall, we will build a home, a home that can be shared by all, and where all are welcome. And through this, we will finally be able to reveal the goodness that has been concealed for so long, and bring meaning to the confusion and purpose to the apparent chaos. Then we will no longer experience these days as days of mourning, but rather of celebration and joy, for we will truly be redeemed.