Allow me to preface this with a very important statement. What I am proposing here is merely in theory. The Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) indeed prescribes various fast days and days in which joy is curtailed. Therefore, any comments or ideas here cannot be taken as a move to countermand Shulchan Aruch.
Having said that….
We have too much sadness built-in to our Jewish lives.
If we follow the calendar year from Rosh Hashana, we see the following progression:
- Tzom Gedaliah (Murder of last Jewish Governor in Israel–one day)
- 10th of Tevet (Siege against Jerusalem–led to destruction–one day)
- Ta’anit Esther (Recalls fasting of Esther before pleading for the Jews- one day)
- Omer (33 days commemorating the deaths of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva)
- 17th of Tammuz (Wall of Jerusalem breached–led to destruction–one day)
- The “Three Weeks” (yes, three weeks of increased mourning practices)
- Tish’a B’Av (Commemorating destruction of both Temples– 25 hours)
All together, we have nearly TWO MONTHS out of the year dedicated to some form of sadness or mourning practices or fast days. We need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of these time periods, and if there is perhaps a different way in which to commemorate the events.
Let’s begin with a basic question: While some of these fast days are well-known (such as 9 Av), others are lesser known. The fasting may indeed proceed and be adhered to very carefully; however, how often does the person fasting know WHY he or she is fasting? Why is it significant that a person fasts nowadays for the murder of the last Jewish governor in Israel? Why do we need to fast for the siege and breach of the walls of Jerusalem, that led to the destruction? Why do we need to fast on 9 Av, at all? And what is the goal or purpose of fasting just prior to Purim?
Wait, you may say: of COURSE there is purpose and meaning in all of those fasts. On the one hand, you would be right and on the other you would be wrong. Three or four of the fasts are connected to Bet HaMikdash and the loss of our Temples. Yet, what is the overwhelming feeling during almost every fast? “WHAT TIME IS THE FAST OVER?” If the goal is to make us feel the loss of the Temple and desire to have it back in our lives, sadly, in my opinion, it does not accomplish that at all. PERHAPS due to the severity of 9 Av, there is an argument that can be made that it indeed DOES give us that feeling. However, the general goal of the day with most people is to get through the day without being sick. That is not a glamorous or worthwhile goal.
And what of Sefirat Ha’Omer and the Three Weeks? As far as the Omer time period, this time period of approximately 33 days serves almost no function with its observance. No music; no weddings; no parties…and for what? What do we GAIN from this built-in sadness? What is the goal? We are told that since the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva did not respect each other (which led to their deaths), Jews should not listen to music or get married. And that is a reason to prohibit music and marriages? Well, you will be told, it is not an auspicious time to marry. Really? Why the need to delay a wedding when a couple wishes to begin their lives? What does ANYONE “gain” from this time period?
And what about the Three Weeks? It is not enough that we have a 25-hour fast that commemorates the destruction? Yes, I am well-aware of Rav Soloveichik’s explanation of needing to build up towards national mourning in stages. Still, it adds yet three more weeks of sadness/restrictions (more for Ashkenazim than Sefaradim) and curtailing of activities.
One may suggest that since we do not have the Temple and want to see it rebuilt, that it is wholly appropriate to commemorate with sadness and fasting. Yet–every single day of the year–every single day–we pray for the rebuilding of the Temple! If we stop when we utter those words, perhaps we may actually begin to “feel” that loss. Perhaps instead of mourning and fasting, we can put more emphasis into our daily prayers to help us to connect to the Temple (it should be rebuilt speedily in our day).
I would like to suggest a shift in mind-set and practice. (And I remind you that this is merely food for thought, since the Shulchan Aruch contains these halachot and that cannot be abrogated–at least, not by ME 🙂 )
If we want these particular days to become more meaningful and to actually affect us, maybe the Jewish calendar can be restructured so that the observance of these days looks more like the following:
- The fast of Tzom Gedaliah would be removed from the calendar completely
- The fast of 10 Tevet, and 17 Tammuz and 9 Av would all be “rolled” into one specific date. That date would remain 9 Av (as it IS the date on which both Temples were destroyed), but it would be observed differently: there would not be any fasting. It would be a day in which one would not be permitted to work (as it is now). Secondly, there would be special tefillot that would be recited as part of the daily Tefillot. Gone would be the Kinnot (elegies), written in such poetic and flowery ways that many books have been written to explain them to the masses. Every community would hold a symposium on the importance of the Bet HaMikdash in our lives. (The list of potential topics is endless.) The day would culminate with communal gatherings, singing songs of redemption and praise of Hashem; the “tune” would be one of an upbeat nature anticipating the rebuilding of the Bet HaMikdash.
- The Three Week time period would be eliminated.
- The Fast of Esther would be eliminated. No need to enter Purim with a headache and not be able to concentrate on the Megilla reading.
- Sefirat Ha’Omer would change in one way and remain the same in another. The way it would remain the same is the actual counting of the Omer. We count towards the date of Shavuot and Kabbalat HaTorah; that would continue. But the time period would shift from a “no-wedding and no-music” time period to one that SPECIFICALLY would encourage weddings and music! In order to make a “tikkun” or a reparation for the actions of the students of Rabbi Akiva, we could davka encourage people to marry then!
Unfortunately, we have enough things in our lives that bring us sadness. I believe that there are things we can alter relative to the “built-in” sadness that would indeed bring us a better method by which we achieve the goals of the fast days and mourning periods.
May we merit the coming of the Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. By doing that, we will obviate the mourning practices listed above and instead will rejoice in the whole world knowing of Hashem and serving Hashem out of joy.