Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mourning and Minhagim: How to Decide

Yes, I know what everyone is going to say: You should have figured this out before you got married! Come on!

But what do I know? As a convert married to (for all intents and purposes) a ba'al teshuva, I really didn't anticipate all of the issues with "do we do this? do we not do this?" that would come up in our marriage. Technically, before Tuvia and I got hitched, I could have adopted Sephardic customs (although, let's be honest, it would be hard to describe to anyone why I, a fair-skinned, dark-haired Jewess is eating rice on Passover). Likewise, because the customs that Tuvia inherited within his family are few and far between, with very few regarding kashrut or general family minhagim, he, too, could have chosen his path. In the end, we adopted a Yekki style of hand-washing before kiddush and motzi on Shabbos (what!? it streamlines the process!), but that's about it. (Yekki = Jew of German descent)

Right now, then, the question about customs to which I'm referring involve The Three Weeks -- those days weeks that started with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (on Tuesday) and culminate with Tisha B'Av. There are a lot of customs, a lot of minhagim that many adhere to in public and private, others just in public, and some not at all.

For example, many will not shave, get a haircut, get married, or listen to music during The Three Weeks, and this is standard Ashkenazic custom. When the Nine Days arrive, leading up to Tisha B'Av, many Jews won't eat meat or do laundry, either.

Where does this come from? The first source for a special status of The Three Weeks as Bein ha'Metzarim is found in Eikhah Rabbati 1.29, which glosses Lamentations 1.3's "All Zion's pursuers overtook her between the straits" and understands "straits" as "days of distress." These days of distress are 17 Tammuz through 9 Av, as cited by Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau in his book Minhagim, a record of Austrian customs. His opinion was then cited as halacha by Moses Isserles in Rema on Shulchan Aruch.

And where does the seriously decreased happiness during The Nine Days come from? In Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6, "from the beginning of Av, happiness is decreased." Okay, that makes perfect sense. But what does that mean? I can decrease my happiness while still eating meat and listening to music, right? What if I only listen to Britney Spears, which makes me sad? And I overcook my steak? Well, many refrain from meat and wine, laundry, and warm baths. Sephardim tend to only observe these restrictions from the Sunday prior to 9 Av, and Yeminite Jews don't maintain any of these customs. (And don't we often cite the Yeminite community as being "the closest" thing to "authentic" old-school Judaism?)

Here's my take: Weeks of mourning tend to diminish the impact of an event itself. When something happens suddenly, your body, soul, and mind are assaulted by the event. I imagine that the Israelites of the First Century BCE didn't think it would really come down to the destruction of the Holy Temple, just as the Jews of Europe didn't think that Kristallnacht would lead to the destruction of 6 million Jews. The sudden impact of reality is what shatters the soul into complete mourning. 

Am I a tzaddik? Am I a rabbi? No. I suppose not. But for Tuvia and I to sit down and have a conversation about what we will and will not do during The Three Weeks and The Nine Days, well, I think that we have to be aware of community standards as well as our own expectations and understanding of the meaning of these times.

What do you observe? What don't you observe? Are there any special family minhagim for this period that you've adopted?