The Day Before Tisha B’Av

Erev Tisha B’Av (the day before Tisha B’Av) has all of the Laws of the Nine Days, but since it is so close to Tisha B’Av it takes on a few of the Laws of Tisha B’Av. For example, we may not play games on Erev Tisha B’Av, nor otherwise spend the time in diversions of leisure and pleasure.

The final meal on Erev Tisha B’Av is called the “Seudah Hamasekes”, the Separating Meal. The Seudah Hamasekes declares that this is the last thing we are eating before the fast begins. Nevertheless, it is permitted to eat after the Seudah Hamasekes until sunset. It is best, however, to declare out loud that you intend to eat after the Seudah Hamasekes, so that the Seudah Hamasekes should not constitute a formal acceptance or an oath that you will eat no more until after the fast. Continue reading

The Day After Tisha B’Av

The Tenth of Av

On the seventh of Av, the enemy entered the Holy Temple. They ate, drank, and defiled it on the rest of the seventh and continued on the eighth of Av. On the ninth of Av, they set fire to the Holy Temple.

We therefore fast on the Ninth of Av because the beginning of a catastrophe is considered to be more tragic.

The Holy Temple burned until late on the tenth of Av. Around midday, the fires began to subside. Therefore, the restrictions of the “Nine Days” do not end until midday of the Tenth of Av, the day after Tisha B’Av.

So, the fast of Tisha B’Av ends at night when the Tenth of Av begins, which is when the stars come out. But the “Nine Days” does not end then. Some aspects of mourning are still required until midday the next day (at the Halachic «noon.» Check MyZmanim for your local listings). Then the “Nine Days” end. Continue reading

The Fast of the Ninth of Av

The term “Tisha B’Av,” means “the ninth of av.” “Av” is the fifth month of the Jewish year, so “Tisha B’Av” refers to the ninth day of the month of Av.

Tisha B’Av is the day that both Holy Temples were destroyed. The First Holy Temple was destroyed in the year 3338 after Creation (422 B.C.E.). The Second Holy Temple was destroyed 490 years later, in 3828 after Creation (68 C.E.).

It was a day marked for evil. On that day in 2448 (1312 B.C.E. — 890 years before the Destruction of the First Temple), the Children of Israel accepted and believed the false report of the Spies (see Numbers 13:1-14:45.) On that day, Hashem decreed that because of this sin the generation that left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel, and only their children would, forty years later. Moreover, Hashem decreed that later evils would befall the Jewish People on the anniversary of that day.

And, sadly, this has proven true. On that day, in 3893 (133 C.E.), the city of Beitar was destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt. And on that day (I guess in 3894 after Creation — 134 C.E.), the wicked Tinneius Rufus, Roman Governor of Israel, plowed over the site of the Holy Temple. Many later events throughout our history also took place on Tisha B’Av, such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. World War I began, which, it is said, was the direct cause of World War II, a tragic time for world history, and particularly for the Jews.

For more events that took place on Tisha B’Av throughut the millennia, visit the Ohr Somayach website

The primary reason for the fasting and other observances of Tisha B’Av, however, is because on the Ninth of Av the enemy set fire to the Holy Temple.

Therefore, on this day we observe a greater level of mourning than during the rest of the Three Weeks. We mourn the destruction of Hashem’s Holy House, which was and will be our greatest location of blessing and spirituality; we mourn the Exile of Hashem’s Glory; we mourn the scattered exile of all Jews and the pain and suffering we have been through and are still put though in many places; we mourn the fact that we cannot keep all the Commandments because there is no Holy Temple; we mourn the fact that we cannot conduct our own lives entirely as Hashem wants us to because we are under the subjugation of other people.

Thus, on Tisha B’Av, from the night before until the stars come out at the end of the day (approximately 25 hours in most areas) we may not eat or drink anything at all—not even water. (We may not even wash out our mouths.)

Note that unlike any other fast besides Yom Kippur, the fast begins the night before. All fasts, except Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, begin in the morning and last until the night. Only Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av span a night and a day, lasting about 25 hours each.

(The reason it lasts 25 hours and not 24 is because it is not clear if a new day begins (and the previous day ends), according to the Torah, when the sun goes down or when the stars come out. Therefore, to cover all the bases, we begin when the sun goes down and continue until the next day when the stars come out. This prevents us from transgressing the Law at either time.)

On Tisha B’Av you may (and must) feed your pets or other animals that depend solely on you for food.

We may not bathe. When we wash our hands at any time in the day—even when we first wake up in the morning— we wash only up to the joints at the base of our fingers and not the rest of the hand. We may wash areas that have become soiled or stained, but no more than that.

We may not wear footwear that has any leather (other leather clothing, such as a leather belt or leather gloves, is permitted). It is forbidden to have marital relations.

We sit on the floor or on cushions or very low chairs, and not on regular chairs or benches. (This last is in effect only from sunset the night before until half-day on Tisha B’Av. After that time, we may sit on regular chairs.)

Anything needed for medical reasons is permitted (and is sometimes compulsory, if the doctor says so).

Levity, games, or any activity that takes one’s mind off mourning (except sleeping) is forbidden. We may not greet each other. We may not give or accept gifts (charity is permitted). We should not conduct business. Going to work is permitted only if financial loss will be caused otherwise, or if you could lose your job. Housework should not be done. Preparing food is permitted after midday.

Before midday, smoking is prohibited. After midday, if you absolutely must smoke, you may smoke in private.

The study of Torah is also forbidden, except for things that are appropriate on Tisha B’Av. This is because the Torah says «Hashem’s Laws are righteous, they make the heart happy…» (Psalms 19:9).
However, it is permitted to study topics of Torah that are relevant to Tisha B’Av or to mourning. Some examples of these are the Book of Lamentations and its commentaries, the story of the Destruction of the Holy Temple as told in the Talmud and other Rabbinic Writings, the Laws of Tisha B’Av, the Book of Job and its cmmentaries, the Laws of mourning, and the warnings of the Prophets before the Destruction.

Tisha B’Av is not a Holiday. We may drive our cars, turn on and off lights, and so forth, like any other weekday.

Everything forbidden during the Three Weeks and the Nine Days is forbidden on Tisha B’Av. We may not listen to or play music, take haircuts (like in the Three Weeks); we may not go swimming or wash our clothes (like in the Nine Days).

On the night of Tisha B’Av we read the Book of Lamentations after the Nighttime Prayer, and recite a few «Kinnot,» special prayers for and about Tisha B’Av. We pray Shacharis (the Morning Prayer) without tallit and without tefillin, because they are adornments of pride and joy. After Shacharit we recite a lot of Kinnot.

We wear our tallit and tefillin for the afternoon Mincha prayers.

All this mourning is done to spur us to full repentance.

The month of Av is also called Menachem Av, the consoling month of Av. This is because we hope and pray that Hashem will soon turn this time of sadness into a time of joy by bringing us the Rescue From Exile that we have been awaiting for almost 2,000 years. Then we will be able to serve Hashem as He wants us to.

When that time comes, and the Holy Temple is rebuilt, when all the Jewish People will return to the land of Israel, when we will have no enemies, when all Jews will know Hashem, study Torah and understand and observe the Commandments, when all the world will accept Hashem as the Al-mighty, and everyone will live in peace, at that time Tisha B’Av will become a day of joy and a Yom Tov (Jewish Holiday).

May Hashem make this happen soon!

Laws of the Nine Days

Chazal (our Sages, of blessed memory) tell us that “When the month of Av enters, joy
diminishes.” Starting from Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of Av, all forms of joy are suspended until after Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av. We call this period “the Nine Days,” even though they actually comprise Nine and a half days.

The month of Av has long been a month of tragedies and terrible events for the Jews. Therefore, if a Jew has a lawsuit, he or she should try to postpone it for sometime after the month of Av is over. From Rosh Chodesh Av until after Tisha b’Av, you should try to decrease your business activities, unless that would cause significant loss of income or lasting damage to your career or business. If you work for someone else (as do most employed people today), it is forbidden to slack off on the job, so this would not apply to you.

The Nine Days begins the night of Rosh Chodesh Av (the first night of the month of Av).

During the Nine Days we may not buy new objects, especially objects related to simchah (joy), such as an engagement ring, or silver for a wedding or newly married couple.

During the Nine Days one should not proceed with any construction, painting, wall-papering, or any kind of decorative home improvement on private homes. However, for a mitzvah, such as building a shul or a mikvah, it is permitted. Likewise, it is permitted (indeed, it is mandatory) to build a fence around a dangerous platform such as a roof, as well as any other safety railing or device. Repairs are generally permitted, but it is best to ask one’s Rabbi before beginning.

During the Nine Days, one may not plant flowers or plants for pleasure.

During the Nine Days engagements are permitted, but no meal may be served. However, cakes and drinks and other refreshments may be served, as long as no bread is served or eaten.

During the Nine Days we may eat no meat nor drink any wine or grape juice. The primary reason for this is because you experience joy when eating meat and/or drinking wine. But it is also forbidden because we must remember and mourn the fact that we were forced to cease offering the Sacrifices at the Bais Hamikdosh (Holy Temple) when it was destroyed. Those sacrifices involved wine, meat or fowl.

This Halachah does not apply during Shabbos/Shabbat. We eat meat or poultry on Shabbos, as we are required to do every Shabbos. We also may drink wine or grape juice on Shabbos, and do so for Kiddush. Customs vary regarding Havdalah after Shabbos. Some have the Custom to use wine or grape juice. Some have the Custom to take a sip and give the rest to a child to drink if one is available. Others use beer for Havdalah during the Nine Days. Generally, children are also required to obstain from grape juice and meat during the Nine Days, but Havdalah is an exception.

Sick people and nursing or pregnant women may eat meat if necessary for health reasons. If possible, it is better in these cases to eat chicken, if the doctor says that’s good enough.

It is permitted to eat meat and drink wine during the Nine Days when attending a Seudas Mitzvah. That would include the seudah (meal) of a Bris Milah, Pidyan HaBen, or at a siyum. A siyum means concluding a mesechta (tractate) of Talmud or a seder (order — i.e., a section) of Mishnah. Anyone invited to the siyum may eat meat at the seudah, including the waiters, even though the only person who learned it was the person who is making the siyum.

During the Nine Days we refrain from washing clothes, linen, handkerchiefs, tablecloths towels, and so forth. It is also forbidden to give your clothing to a non-Jew to clean during the Nine Days. It is permissible for a Jew to clean the clothes of a non-Jew, especially if it is his income. If all your clothing are dirty and you have nothing else to wear, you may wash what you need. It is permitted to wash children’s clothing.

During the Nine Days we also don’t wear freshly cleaned clothing, even if washed before the Nine Days. This applies to bed sheets as well. This does not apply to clothing worn next to the skin, especially if it can cause discomfort, or anything worn to absorb sweat. What people do is wear each article of clothing for a short period of time before the Nine Days begin, and then it is permissible to wear the clothing during the Nine Days. Of course, where health issues are concerned, we may wear fresh clothing or use fresh bed sheets and linen.

During the Nine Days we do not don new clothing of any sort, whether it be a shirt, a dress, socks, etc. This is true even if you bought them before the Three Weeks. Furthermore, you may not buy or make new clothing during the Nine Days even if you do not intend to wear them until after the Nine Days are over.

However, if you suddenly discover during the Nine Days that you do not have the proper footgear for Tisha b’Av (which we shall learn about, Hashem willing), you may buy them.

During the Nine Days, we do not engage in needlecraft, knitting, embroidery, needlepoint, and so forth, even if it is for clothing that won’t be finished or worn until after the Nine Days are over.

If your livelihood is making shoes or clothing, you may continue to do so during the Nine Days, especially if you have no other option or source of income.

It is permitted to repair or patch clothing and shoes during the Nine Days.

During the Nine Days bathing or showering for pleasure is forbidden. It is, however, permitted to bathe (or shower) and wash your body and/or hair in lukewarm water for health reasons or simply to remove dirt or sweat, and even hot water is permitted if absolutely necessary for health or medical reasons. These Halachos also apply to washing or shampooing hair.

Washing your face, hands and feet with cold water for pleasure is permitted.

It is forbidden to swim during the Nine Days, again unless one needs to for health reasons (such as for exercise).

Bathing for a mitzvah (such as a woman before going to the mikvah) is permitted. Someone who bathes or showers every Erev Shabbos likovod Shabbos (to honor Shabbos), as indeed we are supposed to do, may do so Erev Shabbos during the Nine Days. If you bathe or shower every Erev Shabbos with hot water, then you may do so on Erev Shabbos Chazon (the Shabbos before Tisha b’Av) as well. The same applies to shampooing.

The Shabbos during the Nine Days is called “Shabbos Chazon,” because the Haftorah (Reading from the Prophets) this Shabbos begins with the words “Chazon Yishayahu ben Amutz…” “A vision that Yishayahu (Isaiah) the son of Amutz saw regarding Judea and Jerusalem…” from the first chapter of Isaiah. In this chapter the Prophet Yeshaya warns us to repent to avoid the Destruction (which later took place because they did not repent).

May the prophecies of Yeshaya promising us that Hashem will restore us to a rebuilt Jerusalem and rebuild the Holy Temple come true soon!

The Three Week

The Three Weeks span from the morning of the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz until midday of the day after the Fast of Tisha B’Av.

During the Three Weeks we may not perform or attend weddings under any circumstances, even if no festive meal is served. It is permitted to get engaged during this time, and a seudah (meal) may be served.

During the Three weeks it is forbidden to dance or play or listen to musical instruments. We may not buy or don new clothing. This does not apply to all types of clothing. For example, we may buy new socks, undergarments, shoes or shirts.

It is also forbidden to take a haircut or to shave, or even to just trim one’s beard. Someone who must shave for business reasons and has a hetter (dispensation ruling) from his Rabbi, may do so during the Three Weeks, but not during the Nine Days. It is permitted to trim a moustache that interferes with eating.

A Married woman may cut hair that protrudes from beneath her hair covering. She may also pluck her eyebrows and trim her eyelashes.

It is permitted to cut one’s nails during the Three Weeks.

It is permitted to comb your hair during the Three Weeks, even though it is possible that some hair may get torn out during the combing.

It is permitted, on the day of a bris milah, for the father, the mohel and the sandek (man who holds the baby during the bris) to take a haircut. But it is NOT permitted to take a haircut in honor of a Bar Mitzvah.

During the Three Weeks one should refrain from doing anything that might be dangerous in any way. This is a time when evil things have happened to the Jewish People, many times, over the past two and half thousand years. During the Nine Days especially, the statistics of fatal Jewish teen car accidents in the United States is way out of proportion with those of the rest of the year, to name the most notable example.

During the Three Weeks the Haftoros (passages from the Prophets) that we read on Shabbos (the Sabbath) are relevant to this period of time. These are the Three of Pur’oniyos (misfortune), wherein the Prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah warn of the impending Destruction of the Holy Temple and our exiling to Babylon. They are part of the general tone of the Three Weeks, and it is the only concession that Shabbos makes to that sad tone.

This is a sad time, which is difficult for a religion and people that live so much in joy. But just as serving Hashem with joy is an obligation the entire year, keeping a measure of sadness during this time is also our obligation, and is, during the Three Weeks, how we must serve Hashem.

But Hashem will overturn our sadness to joy, when he takes us out of exile and restores to us our judges, courts, our land, the city of Jerusalem, and His Service in the Holy Temple. May it happen soon!

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz

Over the centuries, several terrible events happened on the seventeenth day of Tammuz.

Five disasters took place on the 17th day of Tammuz.

1) The first of the Two Tablets containing the Ten Commandments were broken when Moshe Rabbeinu (our Teacher Moses) came down from Mount Sinai. This too place the year we left Egypt, in the year 2448 after Creation (1312 BCE). Moshe Rabbeinu came down and saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, and he attempted to absolve them of guilt by destroying the Two Tablets.

2) Menashe the son of Hezekiah erected an idol in the Holy Temple. This took place somewhere around the year 3280 After Creation (481 B.C.E.).

3) The Korbanai Tamid (the two Daily Sacrifices offered at the Holy Temple) were stopped and couldn’t be continued. This took place during the siege of the First Holy Temple (probably during the year 3338). This alone was enough of a calamity to cause a fast day to be instituted.

4) A wicked man by the name of Apostumos publicly burned the Torah. The details of this event are shrouded in history, since the Rabbis did not elaborate much about it, but some believe this took place around the year 3610 After Creation (151 B.C.E.).

5) The enemy penetrated the walls of Jerusalem prior to the Destruction of the Second Holy Temple, around the year 3828 After Creation (68 CE — some say 70 CE). This began the worst part of the Destruction.

All of these fives events occurred on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz.
The 17th day of the month of Tammuz was therefore ordained as a fast day. On the 17th of Tammuz we may not eat or drink, nor attend festivities, listen to music, take haircuts, nor buy or don new clothing. All this, including the fasting itself, begins in the morning of the 17th day of Tammuz.

The primary (but not sole) purpose of a fast day is to stir our hearts to repentance, and to serve as a reminder to us of our own actions and those of our forefathers. These sins are responsible for the terrible events that befell our people. Remembering these tragedies should lead us to examine our conduct and return to Hashem.

Fasting alone is not the point. Fasting is important for us, but changing ourselves is the way to get Hashem to take notice and change things. The only real way to change the world is to change ourselves.

The 17th day of Tammuz also marks the beginning of what we call ”the Three Weeks, a period during which we observe several types of mourning because of the events that happened to us during that time.

When the 17th day of Tammuz falls out on Shabbos we fast the next day, on Sunday, the 18th day of Tammuz.

About the name “Tammuz.” It seems odd that a month in the Jewish calendar would have the name of a Sumerian/Babylonian idol. But there is a history to it.

There was a brief period when a minority of people from some of the exiled Ten Tribes repented and were returned to the Land of Israel, during the time of the First Holy Temple. They wanted to constantly remember to thank Hashem for returning them to the Land of Israel, so they decided to institute a reminder. They therefore decided to rename the months of the Jewish calendar, using the names of the months that the Assyrians used for their calendar. Now we use those names in our calendar, instead of their original names.

I have heard that the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) writes that when the Messiah comes, and our exile will end, we will use the names of the months of the civil calendar now in use (January, February, etc.), and apply them to the months of the Jewish calendar, as a reminder that we must thank Hashem for rescuing us from exile and recreating the Kingdom of Israel and the Holy Temple.

May it be soon!

Why do we Mourn for the Holy Temple?

At some time in the future, we know, the Jews will return from exile to the land of Israel, the Holy Temple will be restored, and the city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, not necessarily in that order. The Prophet Isaiah tells us, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her! Rejoice with a rejoicing, all you who mourn for her. . . . Like a man whose mother consoles him, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem, you shall be consoled” (Isaiah 66:10,13). The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Taanis 30b) expound: Those who mourn for Jerusalem today, will merit to see the rebuilding of Jerusalem and to rejoice with it.

While it is part of our thoughts throughout the year, mourning for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple comes to a sharp focus during the time we call “the Three Weeks,” and particularly on the fast of Tisha B’Av. But simply saying “mourning for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple” doesn’t say it all, and doesn’t explain it very well. Why do we mourn? What’s the big deal? And how can we possibly mourn over an event that took place almost two thousand years ago?

Perhaps we can learn to understand what it is we have lost, and what we still hope and pray to regain. The loss is greater than most people know, and it is very relevant to us today. To understand this, I have (loosely) translated the words of a great Rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (b. 1740, d. 1810), who discusses what some people mourn for, and what we should be mourning.

The primary reasons to mourn are:

  • the destruction of the Holy Temple
  • the destruction of Jerusalem
  • the Jewish People being sent into exile.

These are deeper than they first seem, and each person can mourn them at his or her own level of spiritual development.

The Holy Temple

At a simple, unsophisticated level, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple, we mourn the desolation of our holiest site, our glory, the place we all loved to see and visit, the source of the greatness of our power and might. From that Holy Temple came a multitude of outpourings of unsurpassed good. It provided us with great strength and encouragement, and it allowed us to be victorious over our enemies. Because of the Holy Temple, we were able to withstand all enemies. We were always in complete and perfect peace, well-being, and security. We were great among the nations, a princess among the provinces. As long as we were bringing the holy Sacrificial Offerings at the Holy Temple, Hashem garnered us many good things. Isn’t having lost this a good reason to mourn?

But the truth is that this sort of mourning is for the small-minded and those not fully aware of the full value of the Holy Temple.

There is a better, more respectable level of mourning, for the more intelligent thinker; better reasons for grieving and mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple. One should consider deeply the reason we exist in this world at all, and that is to work to attain the great levels of eternal truth, the perfection that the Torah offers us. Yet in this world, as we know, we are constantly in grave danger of sinning and doing wrong. This world is full of pitfalls that can cause us to sin, and thus prevent us from attaining that perfection. The physical part of human beings is made out of the same elements as the material world, and this draws a person towards all sorts of material desires and
temptations. This makes it easy to give in to a desire, which can lead to the worst of sins.

But when Hashem’s great “palace” was on its mountain, with the cohanim (priests) performing the Service, no one could remain overnight in Jerusalem and still be sinful. The Talmud says that the two Daily Sacrificial Offerings, the one in the morning and the one before the evening, atoned for all our sins, so that no one ever stayed overnight with a sin on his slate. While not all the Sacrificial Offerings are related to sin, some are, and when someone repented of as sin while there was a Holy Temple, we were cleansed to a much higher level than we are cleansed of sin by repentance today. We are still cleansed, but it is not perfect.

This means that as long as there was a Holy Temple people were clean of sin, and therefore it was easy to attain spiritual perfection and completion. It was still necessary to study Torah and fulfill the Commandments, of course, but the Sacrifical Offerings made it possible to attain complete perfection. The Prophets said that the Sacrificial Offerings “erased our sins like clouds, and our transgressions like smoke.” But now that this glory has been taken from our lives, and the Sacrificial Offerings have ceased, we can’t reach that level of purity from sin that we had then.

Today, our only option is repentance. Yes, repentance atones for our sins, and it helps to cleanse us from them, but repentance cannot cleanse us as thoroughly and as completely as the Offerings can, and repentance does not remove all the obstacles to perfection like the Offerings do.

Besides which, today, without the Holy Temple, if we sin, we are still obligated to bring a
Sacrifice for those sins that the Torah commands us to bring sacrifices for, even after we repent. We cannot do that today, because the Torah forbids us to offer Sacrifices outside of the Holy Temple. But when the Holy Temple is rebuilt we will have to bring Offerings for all the sns we committed in exile. This alone is enough to cause mourning and grief—that one’s soul cannot reach personal perfection. How much more so must we mourn and feel great sadness over the fact that none of us can reach that perfection!

That is the higher level of mourning for the Destruction of the Holy Temple.

The City of Jerusalem

We must also mourn the fact that the holy city of Jerusalem and the cities of Judea have been destroyed.

Jerusalem, our holy city, the city of our joy, once the most beautiful of cities, the joy of the entire planet! Jerusalem, built with the greatest possible beauty and perfection. city that housed a large population and granted its inhabitants great benefits. No snake or scorpion ever hurt anyone in the city of Jerusalem while the Holy Temple stood. We cannot imagine the incredible honor it gave us when people from all over the world, leaders, princes, and governors, would visit just to delight in the splendor of the elegance of Jerusalem, and to feast their eyes on its beauty. The wisdom of Jerusalem was so exceedingly great that even the children of Jerusalem would win contests of wisdom against the oldest and wisest sages of any peoples who visited there.

But now, its beauty has passed, its splendor has departed, it has become the lowest of ruins, burnt in fire; its joy has ceased. We no longer hear in it the sound of joy and the sound of gladness described by the Prophet Jeremiah. Its gates are tumbled, it has become a joke in the eyes of the world.

But this is the lower level of mourning for Jerusalem, for those with less knowledge and

For the intelligent and knowledgeable thinker, there is a higher level of understanding, and an even stronger, more intense reason for mourning. The more elevated person thinks of the fact that three times a year all of the Jewish Nation would go up to Jerusalem, to see the Master of all: Hashem; all of Israel would come marching to Jerusalem in orderly fashion, with joyful and thankful voices, with mass celebrating. They think of the greatness, the glory, the splendor and honor that was seen and heard when people brought up the First Fruit Offerings. They would think of how even the
utensils used in Jerusalem were pure, and how all the people who came ate with holiness, and ate holy food, such as tithes and so forth, and the food from the Sacrificial Offerings that had to be eaten within her walls. They think of various buildings in the city and their holy functions, particularly the special courtyards in and outside of the Holy Temple, and the rooms that were added for the benefit of the High Court, the king and the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), and anyone else with special holiness. They think of how the Cohen Gadol looked on Yom Kippir, as he left the Holy of Holies with holiness, great honor and prestige.

We still study these ideas today, after these many years, and some of this is even mentioned in our Daily Prayers. It demonstrates that Jerusalem was of greater value than any other area on earth. Jerusalem was a very holy city, and there was more holiness within the walls of Jerusalem than in all the rest of the land of Israel, and of course much more than in any other land in the world. It is unquestionable that those who lived there constantly and continuously received a pure and holy spirit. It was therefore easy for them to attain perfection, because anyone who lives in a holy place
is automatically far from sin and close to purity and perfection. But now, all that is gone.

That is what the more elevated and intelligent person mourns for.

The Jewish People in Exile

We must also intensely mourn our being exiled from the land of Israel. We must mourn over the fact that the Children of Israel, the descendants of kings, believers in Hashem, have lost the land of Israel. Some people think also of the loss of superb foods that the land offered, unrivaled in any other country. They think about how the Jewish people were more powerful than all the nations, and above them. Kings would see them and stand up; princes would bow before them. Now they have been exiled to the worst of exiles. All the other nations call us “impure,” think of us as disgusting, and mistreat us terribly. They consider us the lowest of all nations, and they insult and abuse us.
They could take the greatest leader of the Jews and torment and torture him, and curse him with most horrible curses. And we do not have the ability to defend ourselves. We are the exiled; we are the ones they persecute and kill.

And consider some of the people who persecute Jews. They are often unrefined people, not worthy of elevated stations in life, people with no holiness in their hearts or bodies. How can it be that there are people who judge us, sons of the living G-d, and hand out punishments to us? They are often guilty of the worst crimes themselves! They treat us like insects, or toys for their children to play with and make fun of. Our shame and low position are more than enough reason for people to mourn and cry in great sorrow.

While this is a valid reason to be sorrowful, it is nevertheless a lower level of mourning, not the product of an advanced servant of Hashem.

The more advanced and knowledgeable thinker will contemplate and think deeply about the advantage of living in the land of Israel when there is a Holy Temple.

The Talmud tells us that the air in the land of Israel is pure and gives wisdom to help people attain knowledge of the Torah and its wisdom, which is the primary and true spiritual perfection of the human soul.

Moreover, only in the land of Israel can all the Commandments of the Torah be fulfilled. There are Commandments that can be performed only in the land of Israel, such as the Sabbatical year, the Jubilee, certain agricultural tithes and others. And therefore, only in the land of Israel can a person attain perfection, since that is the only place where all the 613 Commandments can be performed. For if even one is missing, perfection is incomplete, and now there are many that are missing. Even if a person strengthens himself like a lion to overcome all temptations, and fully commits himself to fulfill all the Commandments and attain perfection, he must fall a little short, because there are those Commandments that cannot be done today. So how can he attain full perfection?

This is a worthy reason to mourn, yet still not the most respected and valued level of mourning.

Yet Deeper

Those who delve yet deeper into wisdom and Fear of Hashem, those who cling to Hashem and love Him completely, will find yet in those three aspects of the destruction an even greater reason to mourn. For in the destruction of Holy Temple, the holy city Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jews, there was a result far worse than all three of those. It is so great, that those who truly cling to Hashem can never stop crying, and day and night they will groan broken-heartedly over it. It is the fact that as a result of the three aspects we discussed, Hashem’s glory has become hidden, and Hashem’s reputation is in low regard in this world, His great and awesome Name disrespected by the nations of the world. For they say, “We have fought with Hashem in His own House, and we have won! We have razed his House and turned it into a desolate desert, and we have destroyed His city down to its foundations. We have plowed His city and His kingdom and turned them into a massive pit, and have done whatever we wanted in that land for many years. And look at His children! The Father has lost His sons to exile, in hunger and thirst, naked and barefoot, with their hands manacled behind them, carrying heavy millstones on their backs and necks.”

Over this desecration of Hashem’s reputation we should scream and cry bitterly.

Whoever has vision to grasp this concept must consider it, and delve into the idea until he understands it, and mourn for Hashem’s sake. He must continue to do this until Hashem arouses a wind from on high, and brings the Messiah. Then he will return His expelled sons. And on that day Hashem will be known by all the world to be One, and His Name will be One in the minds of all people, and Hashem will give His people spiritual ascendancy once again. And He will bless His people with peace, and with the completion of His Name and His Throne. And he will drive the spirit of uncleanliness out of all the lands, and the idols shall completely pass away. And instead of people being ignorant of Hashem, they will all forever know Hashem with a great love, and they will know and they will teach that Hashem is Al-mighty, the Creator of all. And then His Name will be understood by all living things to be great and holy.

The Laws of Shavuos #1: Laws of the first night and morning of the Holiday of Shavuos

Shavuos is the Holiday during which we commemorate, primarily, Hashem’s giving us the Torah — both the Written and Oral Torah — at Mount Sinai, over 3,315 years ago.

The Laws of the Holiday of Shavuos are actually taught in the Laws of Pesach (Passover), because in a sense Shavuos is a continuation of Pesach. Hashem took us out of Egypt in order to give us the Torah, so that we could, via the Torah, become a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

It is the Custom in most communities to decorate the synagogues and homes for Shavuos with flowers and branches. It must be done before Shavuos, because on Shavuos it is forbidden to cut any growing vegetation. This is done to remember the joy of the Giving of the Torah, because, among other reasons, at that time Hashem performed a miracle and caused sweet-smelling plants to grow at Mount Sinai, where nothing usually grows.

However, it is forbidden to use an entire tree, whether large or small, because that is a gentile custom done on one of their celebrations. The Torah forbids us to do the same customs as gentiles.

It is Customary for a Jewish person to immerse in a mikvah the day before Shavuos.

On what would be the fiftieth night and day of Sefirah (though we actually count only forty-nine nights), we keep the Holiday of Shavuos. The prayers are pretty much the same as any of the three cyclic Holidays (Pesach, Shavuos, Sukkos), but at the appropriate times in the prayers we say «the day of the Holiday of Shavuos, the time of the Granting of our Torah….»

And like the other Yomim Tovim (Jewish Holidays), outside of Israel we hold two days of Yom Tov (Holiday).

We wait and pray later than usual on the night of Shavuos, because the Torah says that we must count seven full weeks of Sefiras Ha’Omer, starting from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuos (Leviticus 23:15).

The Torah tells us,

«You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the [Passover] holiday when you brought the omer as a wave offering, until the day after the seventh week, when there will be [a total of] 50 days. [On that 50th day] you may present new grain as a meal offering to God.

— Leviticus 23:15-16

That fiftieth day is the Holiday of Shavuos.

The Torah specifically says «seven complete weeks.» Therefore, we may not pray Maariv (the nighttime Prayers) at the beginning of Shavuos until the entire period of «seven complete weeks» has completely and definitely ended.

Usually, when Holidays begin, and when Shabbos begins, it is generally permitted to begin the Holiday early, and indeed, sometimes it is preferable. But we may not begin the Holiday of Shavuos early, so that the Count of Omer should be a complete seven weeks. Therefore, both nights of Shavuos we wait until the stars come out, and do not begin praying until then.

It is the Custom to remain awake all night the first night of Shavuos and learn Torah until dawn. This is because of something we are taught in a Medrash:

The night before the giving of the Torah, that is, the night of the very first Shavuos, all of the Children of Israel went to sleep. When morning came, they overslept. To amend this, it is the Custom to stay awake the night of Shavuos until dawn, studying Torah.

Once the dawn arrives, it becomes forbidden to study Torah without first saying the Blessings over the Torah again. The new dawn comes with a new requirement to say the Morning Blessings. However, we may not say many of those, because we have been awake all night, and we have not slept.

Therefore, what many people do is go to sleep, wake up a few hours later to pray the Morning Prayers, and at that time say all the Morning Blessings.

It is imperative that you wake up in time to pray all the prayers before the final time allotted for the Morning Prayers. Just as the Torah mandates set times for the offering of the Holy Temple Sacrifices, and they may not be brought once that time has passed, so too, the prayers, whose times are based and set according to the times of the Holy Temple Sacrifices, may not be recited (by men) after their time has passed. Once the time of the Morning Prayers has passed without your having said them, that is a loss that can never be recovered. (Women, however, are not bound by time the same way that men are. The rules of time-related Laws are different for them, in that in some Laws they follow time like men do, but in most things they follow Laws that are associated with their own bodies and bodies’ cycles.)

Many people, however, are not certain they’ll be able to get up again so quickly, after being awake all night. So they use another solution.

They find someone who has slept at least thirty-five minutes, and they have that person say the Blessings for them. The Halachah (Jewish Law) is that if someone who is also required to say those Blessings, says them out loud for you, and you answer Amain, it is considered as if you said those Blessings. However, this works only if both the person saying the Blessing and the person hearing the Blessing intends to fulfill the obligation of both people.

These people then begin the Morning Prayers immediately, before going to sleep. They begin to pray at dawn, which actually is the best time to pray (though the Laws of this are complicated, so don’t do it unless you are with a minyan (quorum group for prayers) that knows how to do it right). If you do that, you may not say the brachos (blessings) over washing your hands and Asher Yatzar («Who has formed mankind…») unless you first use the restroom (Mishnah Brurah 494:1).

The Laws of the other brachos are also complicated, and many people prefer to hear them said by someone who has slept, and answer amain and thus fulfill their obligation.

This includes Birchos HaTorah, the Blessings before Studying Torah that we must say each morning. After hearing Birchos HaTorah, learn the Torah that we learn every day after those brachos, which includes the Priestly Blessing and so forth (Mishnah Brurah 47:28).

However, the best way to solve the question of Birchos HaTorah is to sleep at least an hour or so during the day BEFORE Shavuos, for the purpose of being able to stay awake that night. If you do that, then you may say Birchos HaTorah by yourself, without any doubt (Mishnah Brurah, ibid, citing Rabbi Akiva Eiger).

However, this does not apply to two brachos: E-lokai Nishamah, which refers to the soul returning to the body in the morning when you wake up; and the brachah (blessing) of «Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids…» If you have not woken up recently from an hour’s (or more) sleep, then those two brachos you have to hear from someone else.

Others go to sleep at dawn and wake up to pray at the normal hour that they start the prayers every Yom Tov. (Perhaps they set an alarm clock.)

If you combine that with sleeping during the day before Shavuos, then you may say all the Morning Brachos when you wake up to pray.

Many Chassidim have the Custom to go to the Mikvah at dawn on Shavuos morning.

Some Shavuos Customs and their Meanings

It is customary — but it is not a Law — to decorate the home and synagogue with leaves and branches, but is forbidden to bring in an entire tree, no matter what size. We may not prepare these during the Holiday, but only before; if they were not cut or prepared before the Holiday, it is forbidden to do it during the Holiday.

There are a number of reasons for decorating with branches and leaves. The primary reason seems to be because on Shavuos we are judged concerning the trees, and we must remember to pray that the trees grow well and healthy.

Another reason we decorate with greens is to remember Mount Sinai, on which the Torah was given. Even though it was a mountain, it was verdant and lush with green.

Moses, who was born on the seventh day of Adar, was hidden by his mother for three months, until the sixth day of Sivan. He was then placed among the river weeds. We therefore spread greens to remember the miracle that was performed for Moses at that time.

The Midrash teaches us a parable. A king planted a garden. After some days, the king looked at the garden and found it full of thorns. He was about to destroy the garden, when he saw a rose blossoming in it. The king declared, «For the sake of that one rose, I will not destroy the garden!» So too, although the world is mired in sin and degradation, for the sake of the Torah, and for the sake of the Jewish People, whose purpose it is to fulfill the Torah, the world is not destroyed, but rather, the whole world is saved.

The first night of Shavuos it is the custom to stay awake all night (until dawn) and study Torah. Some people say Tikun Lail Shavuos, which consists of representative quotes from every section of the Torah, from the Written Torah to the Oral Torah. But many people simply study any Torah they have the ability and knowledge to learn, and most people attend a lecture or dialogue session.

The Torah reading in the synagogue for the first day of Shavuos is the Torah’s telling of the day that the Creator spoke to us at Mount Sinai, and told us of the Ten Statements (which Christians have ignorantly renamed the Ten Commandments).

During the day of Shavuos, it is customary to eat dairy foods. We eat the dairy foods, recite the after-blessings, take a half hour or an hour break, and then eat the Festival Meal, which by Law must contain some meat. (If necessary, chicken can also count as meat, but people unable to eat meat or chicken for health reasons are excused.) Some people eat challah bread twice, once with the milk and once with the meat, to commemorate the Two Loaves brought as gift offerings at the Holy Temple on Shavuos. (We may not use the same bread at each meal.)

There are a number of reasons for the eating of dairy on Shavuos. One reason is to recall that when Moses was pulled out of the water on this day, he would nurse only from a Hebrew woman and he refused the milk of any other woman. Therefore, we eat dairy foods to remember this.

Another reason is to remember that until the Children of Israel received the Torah they were permitted to eat non-kosher meat. Once they received the Torah they were not permitted to eat anything non-kosher, or even to use the dishes and utensils they had used with non-kosher food. So, after they received the Torah, they had to eat uncooked dairy foods until they could make their dishes and utensils kosher, or make new ones.

Some have the custom to eat foods with honey and milk, to recall the verse, «Honey and milk are under your tongue» (Song of Songs 4:11), which refers to one who has attained the knowledge of Torah.

The Second Day of Shavuos: Many people read the entire Book of Psalms on the second day of Shavuos, because that is the day of both the birth and death of King David.

The Torah reading in the synagogue for the second day of Shavuos is the Torah’s instructions about the various Holidays throughout the Jewish year.

During the second day we study the Book of Ruth. There are a number of reasons for this.

The events of the Book of Ruth occurred around Shavuos time, as it says, «…until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest…» (Ruth 2:23)

Ruth converted and accepted all the Commandments, just as we did at Mount Sinai.

King David was born and died on Shavuos, and the Book of Ruth recounts his ancestry.

A bit deeper: The Written Torah says that a Moabite who converted to Judaism may not marry an Israelite. The Oral Torah explains that this refers only to a Moabite, not a Moabitess. A Moabitess who has converted to Judaism may marry a Jewish man. (The reason for this is not difficult to understand, but it is too involved to discuss here.) Were it not for the Oral Torah, Boaz would not have been permitted to marry Ruth. It is therefore the Oral Torah that made King David possible. The Book of Ruth was written by the Prophets to show us that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah work together as a unit, and were both given to us at Mount Sinai.

The lesson within is therefore very pertinent to Shavuos, the time we received the Torah.

The Many Names of Shavuos

The key to understanding Shavuos is in understanding its names. Shavuos has a number of names, and each of them highlights one aspect of the Holiday and its observances.

Some of the names by which Shavuos is known are:

The Reaping Festival. The Torah says: «Also keep the Reaping Festival, in which you reap the first yield of your produce that you have planted in the field» (Exodus 23:16). Wheat is the latest grain of the year. The reaping season concludes with the reaping of the wheat, which takes place around Shavuos time, as we mentioned above.

The Day of Bikurim (first fruit), as it says: «And on the day of Bikurim, when you make a new gift offering…» (Numbers 28:26). This «gift offering» refers to the offering of the First Fruits, and the Two Loaves of Wheat-Bread.

What was the First Fruits Offering? Every farmer would bring to the Holy Temple the first ripe fruit of each of his crops. Not all his crops, mind you. Just those of the seven species praised by the Torah, which are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The Torah praised Israel for these species because there was a time — and there will yet be a time again — when Israel produced the best of these species, better than anywhere else in the world.

 The Two Loaves were also part of the First Fruits Offering, except that they were brought by the Kohanim. The Two Loaves would be baked from the fresh wheat crop that had just been cut. Until the Two Loaves were brought to the Altar at the Temple, it was forbidden to use any of the wheat from the new crop.

Shavuos (weeks) is another name the Torah gives this Holiday. The Torah commands us to count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuos (Leviticus 23:15), in preparation for the Giving of the Torah. Since Shavuos is the culmination of Passover, we connect these two Holidays by counting and preparing from the one to the next, each day of the seven weeks.

Therefore the Torah says: «Count seven shavuos — weeks — from when you begin to cut the standing grain (i.e., the barley at Passover time) . . . and then celebrate the festival of Shavuos — Weeks — for Hashem your G-d» (Deut. 16:9-10).

Atzeres. This is not a Biblical name, but a name used by the Rabbis of the Talmud. It refers to the conclusion of the Holiday of Passover. We learned above that Shavuos is the culmination of Passover. Just as Simchas Torah is the conclusion of Sukkos, so is Shavuos the conclusion of Passover. (Simchas Torah is the «Atzeres» of Sukkos; Shavuos is the «Atzeres» of Passover.)

Simchas Torah should really be fifty days after Sukkos also, just as Shavuos is fifty days after Passover, but that would have occurred during the rainy season, and it would have been hard for Jews to travel to the Holy Temple, as they used to do for each Holiday. So G-d instead set it for immediately after Sukkos. However, Passover marks the beginning of the dry season in Israel, thus there is no hardship to travel to Jerusalem for Shavuos.

Shavuos is the continuation of Passover, and it is the reason for Passover. As I said above, it was the reason G-d took us out of Egypt. This leads us to yet another name for this Holiday:

The Time of the Giving of the Torah. Around the time of Shavuos, all of the People of Israel, the entire Nation, stood at Mount Sinai and witnessed the Giving of the Torah. Moreover, every Jewish soul that was ever created was present at Mount Sinai, and was actively involved in receiving the Responsibility of the Torah.

We all assembled at the mountain, and we all saw the mountain burning with a fire that reached the heart of heaven, along with darkness, cloud, and mist. We all heard the voice of the Creator speak out of the fire, yet we saw no image whatsoever. We saw incontrovertible evidence that there is a Creator Who is an active force within the universe and on this earth.

The Creator then charged us with our mission on this earth: to accept and nurture the beautiful gift and opportunity we were receiving, to conduct ourselves with the dignity and holiness befits the Kingly-Priestly Nation status to which we had been appointed: to develop ourselves only according to the multi-faceted dictates of the Torah, and to follow no other system.

Continue on to the next article in this series: The Customs of Shavuos and their Meanings.