Tag Archives: Lamentations

How Many Books Are in the Torah?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, there is a strange occurrence in the text of the Torah. The traditional way of writing Numbers 10:35-36 in a Torah scroll is with two inverted letter nuns around it:

There are a number of reasons given to explain this strange phenomenon. One answer from the Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) is that the nuns are there because the two verses that it surrounds make up a whole independent book of the Torah! So, the first part of Numbers, 1:1-10:34, makes up one book, then come these two verses which are a book of their own, and then the rest of Numbers, 11:1-36:13. This means that the Torah is not composed of five books, but seven books, and this is the meaning of King Solomon’s words: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) The seven books of the Torah correspond to the seven classical pillars of wisdom (which we have discussed before here).

Others hold that the nuns are there because these two verses belong earlier in the book of Numbers, but were moved here for various reasons. The Talmud does not actually say that the two verses are surrounded by nuns specifically, which led some authorities to suggest putting those nuns in actually makes a Torah scroll not kosher! This was the opinion of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, 1510-1573), who stated that the inverted nuns are an entirely Kabbalistic thing, and suggested the current way of writing it isn’t exactly accurate. (See Chokhmat Shlomo on Shabbat 115b, and his Shu”t #73.)

Whatever the case, there is some beauty in saying the Torah is made up of 7 books, considering the importance of that number in Judaism. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the Torah is a chumash made up of the Five Books of Moses, not seven. One of the earliest sources to state this is the ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-100 CE). In Against Apion 1:8, he wrote:

For we do not have an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia [Ahashverosh], who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.

Josephus explains that the first five books of the Tanakh are those written by Moses. The following 13 were composed by the prophets that followed him, until the time of Esther. The remaining four are hymns and precepts for life. Josephus explains how there are indeed more books (referring to the apocryphal ones), but they are not included in the official canon since the era of prophets had ended, and the divine nature of those additional books is uncertain. Altogether, he says the Jews have 22 books—yet today we number the Tanakh as having 24 books! How do we account for this discrepancy?

Which Books are Holy?

The standard explanation for this discrepancy is that in the time of Josephus the book of Lamentations was combined with Jeremiah (since he wrote it), and the book of Ruth was included within Judges, where it belongs chronologically. The thirteen books of the prophets were: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The remaining four “poetic” books are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Indeed, the traditional way of writing the scrolls for three of these books—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job—was unique, in two-column fashion, and with special cantillation marks. They were collectively called Sifrei Emet, “Books of Truth”, where Emet (אמת) stands for Iyov (איוב), “Job”; Mishlei (משלי), “Proverbs”; and Tehilim (תהלים), “Psalms”.

The Song of Songs was always a controversial book. Because of its explicitly sexual language, and the fact that it seemingly offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least not in its simple reading), there were those who wanted to remove it from the Tanakh. Rabbi Akiva famously defended its inclusion in Scripture, calling it the “Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). There in the Mishnah, the Sages debate the holiness of one other book: Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). This one, too, offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least in its simple reading), and of course, is quite depressing, too. The entire passage in the Mishnah is a fascinating read, and connects to our weekly parasha:

A scroll on which the writing has become erased and eighty-five letters remain, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward…” (Numbers 10:35-36) defiles the hands. A single sheet on which there are written eighty-five letters, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward”, defiles the hands. All the Holy Scriptures defile the hands. The Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands.

Rabbi Yehudah says: the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute about Kohelet. Rabbi Yose says: Kohelet does not defile the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs. Rabbi Shimon says: Kohelet is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said: I have received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah head of the academy that the Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands. Rabbi Akiba said: Far be it! No man in Israel disputed that the Song of Songs does not defile the hands, for the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. If they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Kohelet. Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, the son of the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, said in accordance with the words of Ben Azzai: so they disputed and so they reached a decision.

The Sages use the term “defiling the hands” to refer to a sacred book. If it is truly divine, it is said to cause the hands to become spiritually “unclean”. The idea is that we should be careful to touch its holy parchment. To this day, people avoid directly touching the scroll of Torah when they go up for an aliyah, and instead use their tallit. The Mishnah states that all books of the Tanakh “defile the hands”, ie. they are all sacred. The same is true for any writing that has at least 85 letters worth of Torah. How do the Sages derive this? From that special section in our weekly parasha that is delineated by two inverted nuns. There are 85 letters in them, and they are likened to a book of their own. Therefore, any time there are 85 letters of Torah written on some parchment, that piece of parchment becomes sacred.

The Mishnah then goes on to debate whether Shir HaShirim and Kohelet “defile the hands”. Rabbi Yehuda holds that Shir HaShirim is holy, but Kohelet’s status is unclear, whereas Rabbi Yose insists that Kohelet is not holy, and the status of Shir HaShirim is unclear! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that Beit Shammai considered Kohelet not holy, but Hillel considered it holy. Shimon ben Azzai confidently states that he is certain both books are holy. Rabbi Akiva is certain about Song of Songs, but suggests there may have been a dispute on Kohelet. The final word goes to Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, who concludes that the earlier Sages did debate on whether these two books should be included, and decided at the end that they should.

Considering that all of the great rabbis cited above were born after Josephus (except possibly Rabbi Akiva, who in any case was not a rabbi until much later in life), it might be that Josephus speaks of the Tanakh as having 22 books because Shir HaShirim and Kohelet were still under debate in his day. It is possible that he placed them with the other apocryphal works whose sacred status is unclear, which he briefly mentions. (In that case, Lamentations would probably be among his four books of hymns, and Ruth among his 13 prophets.) There is a certain elegance in organizing the Tanakh into 22 books, one for each letter of the divine Hebrew alphabet. Since God created the universe through these divine letters, and by using the Torah as a blueprint, and since God Himself states that were it not for His Torah He would not have created the universe to begin with (Jeremiah 33:25), having 22 books of Tanakh is fitting.

(There is a similar tradition regarding the Zohar: It is said that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught 22 volumes of mysticism, one for each letter of the alphabet. All were lost except the volume on the letter zayin, hence the Zohar.)

36 for Light, 40 for Purification

Having said all that, the reality is that the Tanakh has neither 22 nor 24 texts. Ezra and Nehemiah are always combined into one, even though they are separate books with different authors. The book of Twelve Prophets, Trei Assar, is a collection of twelve “minor” prophets, short texts that were put together for convenience. If we count each of these as a separate book (since it is), we get 36 books. This is a good number because 36 represents or haganuz, the divine light of Creation which shone for 36 hours before being concealed.

Even that number is not complete, though. The book of Psalms is actually five different books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). Each has an overarching theme, and each ends with a concluding line to close the book. (This is most evident with Psalm 72, which closes Book Two with the verse “The prayers of David, son of Yishai, have ended.”) With Psalms divided into its 5 parts, the total number of books in the Tanakh comes to 40!

Forty is not without significance either. That number parallels the forty days and nights Moses spent on Sinai receiving the Torah. This is also the number of days and nights it rained during the Great Flood to purify the world, and the minimum amount of water necessary for a kosher mikveh (40 se’ah). Study of Tanakh similarly serves to purify us, and we wrote recently of the mystical meaning of the letter mem—whose value is forty—and its intrinsic connection to the Torah.

Names of God  

The text of Ana b’Koach, and the 42 Letter Name of God on the left.

Finally, if we take this week’s parasha and the Talmud into consideration, and assume the Torah has seven books, it brings our total up again to 42. This number is associated with one of the most important names of God. The Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) states that the Forty-Two Letter Name of God cannot be revealed to a person unless they are “modest, and humble, and at least middle-aged, and does not get angry, and does not get drunk, and does not insist upon his rights.” The Talmud does not state what this name is. It is generally accepted to be the initials of Ana b’Koach, which has 42 words. At least one alternate tradition is that the Name is composed of the first 42 letters of the Torah. Another is that it is made up of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui (“letter-filling”) of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui of that. Some say there are multiple versions of the Name, corresponding to different dimensions of Creation.

The Name of 45 Using Milui

The number 42 is significant for many other reasons. It represents the entirety of Torah, since the Written Torah begins with a letter bet (“Beresheet”), and the Oral Torah (ie. the Mishnah/Talmud) begins with the letter mem (“M’imatai”), together adding up to 42. When God told us to speak words of Torah all the time (Deuteronomy 6:4, which we recite daily in the Shema), the words used are v’dibarta bam (ודברת בם), alluding to the Written and Oral Torahs. And, of course, in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.

It should be mentioned that when the Tanakh was first translated into Greek over two thousand years ago, the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were split in half. This is because while Hebrew lacks vowels, Greek doesn’t, so the translations were a lot longer than the originals. The Greek versions could not fit on standard scrolls, so they were divided in two. A whole system of numbering and citation was built around that. Eventually, that system was adopted by Jews, too, and we use it today. Although this division is seemingly non-Jewish in origin, the most likely case is that the division was instituted by Jewish scribes, as they were the ones translating the Hebrew into Greek (see Septuagint). If we maintain those divisions, the Tanakh would have 45 books!

Forty five is the gematria of Adam (אדם), and also another important Name of God in Kabbalah (יו”ד ה”א וא”ו ה”א), referred to as Shem Mah, “the Name of Forty-Five”. This is the name most associated with tikkun, man’s rectification and perfection. A person who fully rectifies themselves, ascends to the highest spiritual levels, and unites with God is said to be a complete “Adam” of Forty-Five, and is one with God’s Name of Forty-Five. This monumental task would be impossible to accomplish without study, meditation, and practice of the Tanakh and its 45 parts.

Why 24?

Despite all of the above possibilities, the Sages set the official number of Tanakh books at 24. Why this number in particular? Several weeks ago we discussed the significance of this number as it pertains to the traditional 24 ornaments of a Jewish bride. Since the Jewish people standing at Mt. Sinai were compared to a bride—with God being the groom, and the Torah being the ketubah—and a bride is to be adorned with 24 ornaments, God “adorned” us with 24 precious holy works of the Tanakh.

Another explanation is that there are 24 hours in a day. We read in the Tanakh that words of Scripture should never leave our lips, and that we should be meditating upon these holy words yomam v’lilah, “all day and night” (Joshua 1:8). This is the exact same term used in Jeremiah 33:25 (cited above) where God states that were it not for His covenant yomam v’lilah, ie. if His Torah was not observed and studied 24/7—He would “not establish the laws of Heaven and Earth.” God created this universe, with all of its natural laws and cycles, on the condition that His Torah would be diligently kept. And the most important cycle of nature for us humans, giving structure to our lives, is the daily rhythm of 24 hours. The 24 books of Tanakh appropriately parallel this.

Some scholars have pointed out another interesting parallel: in the ancient Greek world the most important text of study was Homer’s Iliad, which was generally divided into 24 books. Rabbi Burton Visotzky writes:

Much as the Greeks and Romans wrote commentary and endlessly quoted from the twenty-four books of “the divine Homer”, so the rabbis quoted and commented on the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. That the number of books is the same is not a coincidence; it required the rabbis to do some creative accounting in order to show that the rabbinic canon and the Greco-Roman “canon” were libraries with the same number of volumes. (Aphrodite and the Rabbis, pg. 11)

While Visotzky suggests that the Sages wanted to make the Tanakh 24 books so that it resembles Homer’s 24 books, it might have happened the opposite way.

Jews vs. Greeks

It isn’t clear when Homer’s Iliad was first divided into 24 books. The consensus is that it wasn’t until around the 2nd century BCE. The Tanakh was first compiled by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly”, before this. Although we saw above that the status of a couple of books was still in debate, the overall structure of the Tanakh was set by the 2nd century BCE, and it was around that same time that the Tanakh was firstly translated into Greek.

Scholars generally like to point out how much the Jewish Sages adopted from the Greeks, yet they forget how much more was adopted by the Greeks from the Jews! This was well-known in ancient times, too. The 2nd century CE philosopher Numenius of Apamea famously admitted “What is Plato if not Moses speaking Greek?” Perhaps more than any other historian, Samuel Kurinsky shows in great depth the forgotten (and often deliberately buried) impact that the Jews had on the ancient world, including the Greek world. To offer just one example, he writes of the great Pythagoras, among the most famous of Greek philosophers:

Josephus quotes from a book by Hermippus of Smyrna in which Hermippus baldly stated that Pythagoras had plagiarized Thracian and Jewish concepts, accusing Pythagoras of the “imitation of the doctrines of the Jews and Thracians, which he transferred to his own philosophy.” Josephus then adds a pointed emphasis of his own: “For it is truly affirmed of this Pythagoras, that he took a great many of the laws of the Jews into his own philosophy.” (The Eight Day, pg. 290)

Kurinsky then refers to the ancient works of Hecataeus of Abdera, a 4th century BCE Greek historian who described the Exodus, and the leadership of Moses, “famed for his wisdom and valor”. Hecataeus goes on to state that the founders of Greece, the heroes Cadmus and Danaeus, were also part of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt! Kurinsky concludes:

Hecateus thus places the purported founder of the Hellenic culture as emerging from within a Judaic matrix. Whether Cadmus and Danaeus were fictional characters or not, they symbolize the process by which fundamental Judaic precepts arrived on the Greek scene.

Therefore, it is just as likely that the Greeks organized their Homer into 24 books to mimic the Jews’ 24 books of the Tanakh! The only good argument in favour of the Greeks doing it first is that by the end of the 4th century BCE, the Greek alphabet had been reduced to its current 24 letters. So, Homer was divided into 24 parts, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet. Maybe this is why Josephus speaks of the Tanakh in 22 parts, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Repairing the Jewish World

A mausoleum in Yavneh believed to be the tomb of Rabban Gamliel II.

So how did 22 books of Tanakh become 24? One possible answer might lie with Rabban Gamliel II, a contemporary of Josephus. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 83a) states that the house of Rabban Gamliel was filled with 1000 students, 500 of whom studied Torah, and 500 of whom studied Greek wisdom. It seems Rabban Gamliel presided over a massive and important academy where scholars poured over these texts 24 hours of a day—half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Homer, and half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Tanakh. It isn’t difficult to imagine the two halves of Rabban Gamliel’s school dividing their work into an equal number of textbooks.

Rabban Gamliel lived through the destruction of the Second Temple. He was the first president of the Sanhedrin once it moved to Yavneh at the conclusion of the Great War with Rome. And this leads us to one final suggestion as to why the Sages grouped the Tanakh into 24 books.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 53b) states: “The Jews were not exiled until they had divided into 24 sects.” As is well-known, the destruction of the Second Temple was decreed in Heaven because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and divisiveness among the Jews. The antidote is ahavat hinam, love and unity among all Jews. Achieving this begins with the individual. Each person needs to refine themselves to the highest degree in order to love their fellow. And refinement is impossible without the Torah. As the Midrash states, the Torah and mitzvot were given in order to refine us (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1). And therefore, the antidote for Jewish divisiveness—symbolized by the number 24—is study and practice of the 24 books of the Tanakh.

The Right Way to Observe the “Three Weeks”

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people’s exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

This Sunday marks the start of the “Three Weeks” between the fast days of the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Av. The Talmud describes five tragedies that happened on each of these fast days, culminating with the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha b’Av. Over the centuries, many customs have emerged with regards to this time bein hameitzarim, “between the straits”. Today, it has essentially become a three-week mourning period—even though the Talmud and other early texts say nothing about it. Furthermore, many have come to believe that this is an “unlucky” or “dangerous” time for the Jewish people, and thus abstain from various activities. What is the origin of these customs and how should they be followed?

Surprises in the Talmud

Throughout the Three Weeks period it is customary to abstain from shaving and haircuts, as well as listening to music. Generally, weddings are not held (with minor exceptions), and saying the blessing of shehecheyanu (on new clothes, fruits, or other) is discouraged. The mourning intensifies once the month of Av begins. Henceforth, the consumption of meat and wine is restricted, as is bathing for pleasure, doing laundry, or purchasing valuable new things. The source for most of these prohibitions is in the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b-30a), where we read:

With the beginning of [the month of] Av, rejoicing is curtailed. During the week in which the ninth of Av falls, it is forbidden to cut hair and to wash clothes, but on Thursday it is permissible in honour of the Sabbath. On the eve of the ninth of Av, one may not partake of a meal of two courses, nor eat meat, nor drink wine.

The Mishnaic statement above simply states that once the month of Av begins, one must lessen their joy. This would presumably include going to parties and weddings, and listening to music (which, in those days, could only be enjoyed live). Still, it is only speaking of the first days of Av, not of a three week period from the seventeenth of Tamuz. The Mishnah then states that in the actual week in which Tisha b’Av falls, one should abstain from haircuts and laundry (of course, this is permissible if preparing for Shabbat, the honour of which is greater than any mourning custom). The Talmud then debates this Mishnah:

…it is forbidden to cut the hair and to wash clothes from the beginning of the month until after the fast—this is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says: It is forbidden the whole month. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: It is forbidden only on that particular week. … Rava said: The halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And Rava further said: The halachah is according to Rabbi Meir. And both decisions are in favour of the more lenient practice, and both are needed [to be stated]. For had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir, I might have said that the restriction is in force from the beginning of the month, therefore it is also clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel. And had it only been stated that the halachah is according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, I would have said that the restriction continues even on the days after [Tisha b’Av], therefore it is clearly stated that the halachah is according to Rabbi Meir.

There were three schools of thought in those days: Rabbi Meir held that we mourn from the start of Av until the fast; Rabban Shimon that we only mourn during the week of Tisha b’Av itself; and Rabbi Yehudah was the most stringent, holding that the entire month of Av is mournful. The halacha originally favoured Rabban Shimon, however this presented an ambiguity: If we are meant to mourn in the week of Tisha b’Av, does that mean we must continue to mourn for the remainder of the week after the fast is over? To clarify, Rava combines the view of Rabban Shimon and Rabbi Meir, and concludes that we mourn until the fast, and not after. For this reason, today’s custom is to intensify the mourning practices in the week of Tisha b’Av itself.

Finally, the Mishnah states that in the very last meal one eats before the fast begins, they should avoid meat and wine. The Talmud once more elaborates:

Rav Yehudah said: This restriction applies to any time after midday, but not to any time before midday. Rav Yehudah further said: It applies only to the concluding meal [before the fast] but not to any other meal… One who has a meal on the eve of Tisha b’Av with the intention to have another meal [later], he may eat meat and drink wine; but if not, he may not eat meat nor drink wine.

The Talmud makes it clear that one need only abstain from meat and wine in the very last meal before the fast begins. There is no Talmudic basis for avoiding meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh Av. In fact, the Talmud goes on to state that while Rabbi Meir said one should avoid meat and wine in that final meal, the rest of the Sages said one should only lessen his consumption of meat and wine:

How should one restrict? If he was in the habit of eating one pound of meat he should eat one half only; if it is his usual practice to drink one log of wine he should drink one half log only…

The Talmud later clarifies that salted meat and new wine is always permitted. It is only fresh meat and the finer, aged wine that shouldn’t be consumed! Despite this, many Jewish communities became more and more stringent over the centuries, and took upon themselves to avoid all meat and wine from the start of the month. Rav Ovadia Yosef held that since it is already an ancient custom, it should be continued. Interestingly, the Yemenite Jews had no such custom, and only abstained from meat and wine in that final meal before the fast, as the Talmud requires. Nonetheless, Rav Ovadia encouraged them to take on the more stringent custom, especially because now they were living in Israel where destruction of the Temple is felt more pressingly.

The Talmud also mentions the custom of bathing:

At the meal intended to be the concluding one before Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to eat meat or to drink wine, or to bathe after the meal. At the meal which is not intended to be a concluding meal prior to Tisha b’Av, it is permissible to eat meat and to drink wine, but not to bathe. Rabbi Ishmael bar Yose said in the name of his father: So long as it is permissible to eat meat it is also permissible to bathe.

The Talmud at first suggests that bathing may be one of those things one shouldn’t do the week of Tisha b’Av. Rabbi Ishmael comes to conclude that as long as eating meat is allowed, so is bathing. Thus, from a Talmudic perspective alone, bathing is permitted right up until the final meal of Tisha b’Av.

Laying Down the Law

The Rambam, aka. Maimonides

In the 12th century, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) produced his monumental Mishneh Torah, the first complete, comprehensive, and conclusive Jewish book of laws. While many more law books have been laid out since then, the Mishneh Torah is often seen as the gold standard. Some hold that it is the greatest law code in Judaism (with the Rambam regularly compared to Moses himself), and many today consider themselves “Rambamists” that strictly follow the dictates of the Mishneh Torah.

There are many reasons why the Mishneh Torah is so great. For one, the Rambam wrote it succinctly, clearly, with no grey areas, and covering every aspect of Judaism. (In fact, he himself writes that one need only read Scripture and his Mishneh Torah to know essentially everything about Judaism!) Secondly, the Rambam did not include any customs of non-Jewish origin or of an irrational nature, of which there are unfortunately quite a great deal today. He was perfectly logical and practical in his halacha. On a related note, the Rambam completely avoided anything Kabbalistic, mystical, or magical. He utterly rejected the belief in evil spirits and demons that would later become so popular (mainly due to Christian and Muslim influence). Thus, the Rambam’s law code may be described as a pure, unadulterated compendium of authentic Judaism. (For more on the Mishneh Torah’s supremacy, see here.)

With that in mind, this is what the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Ta’aniot, 5:6-8) says about the Three Weeks:

When the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy. During the week of Tisha b’Av, it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, to do laundry, or to wear a pressed garment—even one of linen—until after the fast.

It has already been accepted as a Jewish custom not to eat meat or enter a bathhouse during this week until after the fast… One should not eat meat or drink wine at the meal before the fast. One may, however, drink grape juice that has not been left [to ferment] for three days. One may eat salted meat that was slaughtered more than three days previously. One should not eat two cooked dishes.

When does the above apply? When one ate in the afternoon on the day preceding Tisha b’Av. If, however, one eats a meal before noon, although this is the last meal one eats before the fast, one may eat all that one desires.

When the day before Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one may eat and drink to the full extent of one’s needs, and one may serve even a meal resembling Solomon’s feasts at one’s table. Similarly, when Tisha b’Av falls on the Sabbath, one need not withhold anything at all.

We see from the Rambam that all of the prohibitions really only kick in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. He rules that one is only forbidden from partaking meat and wine in the afternoon of the day preceding Tisha b’Av, though there is an established custom to avoid meat the entire week. And if Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat (as it does this year), then there is essentially no mourning at all. This last statement likely reflects the position of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (the redactor of the Mishnah), who said that the fast of Tisha b’Av should be entirely cancelled if it falls on Shabbat. (Others say he wanted to abolish the fast entirely!)

If that’s the case, how did we go from minimal mourning in the time of the Talmud—and even in the time of the Rambam just 800 years ago—to today’s extensive three week period?

The Influence of Midrash and Kabbalah

On Tisha b’Av it is customary to read Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. This is the prophet Jeremiah’s gruesome account of Jerusalem’s destruction. Jeremiah writes: “Judah went into exile because of affliction and great servitude; she settled among the nations, [and] found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim [between the straits].” (Lamentations 1:3) Rashi cites two meanings for the term “between the straits” or “between the boundaries”. The simple meaning is that it refers to the borders of the Jewish people’s former farms and vineyards which have been destroyed. He then cites the Midrash by stating that “between the straits” also refers to the three week period between the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha b’Av.

An artist’s rendition of the hairy and ocular “Ketev Meriri”

Going directly to the source, the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:29) suggests that “her pursuers overtook her bein hameitzarim” means that there is an evil spirit that is particularly strong during the Three Weeks, and has the power to pursue and hurt the Jewish people. The Midrash calls this evil spirit Ketev Meriri (קֶטֶב מְרִירִי), which is mentioned just a single time in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:24), in parashat Ha’azinu: “The wasting of hunger, and the devouring of the fiery bolt, and Ketev Meriri; and the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust.” Although usually translated as “bitter destruction”, or a “plague”, or “bad vapour”, some hold that Ketev Meriri is some kind of evil entity or demon out to hurt the Jewish people.

The Midrash in question says it is a demon entirely covered with eyes and hair, and anyone who looks upon it immediately dies. While it is allowed to roam free during the Three Weeks, it is only active “between the end of the fourth hour and the start of the ninth hour of the day, and it goes neither in the sun nor in the shade, but right along the border between a sunny and shaded area.” So, this Ketev Meriri is only found for several hours in the day during the Three Weeks, and can only cause damage if a person is standing or walking, alone, right between a sunny and shaded area! This sounds like silly superstition, which is precisely why the Rambam rejects it outright.

Maran Yosef Karo, aka. the “Mechaber”

Nonetheless, it is mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim, 551:18), which warns to beware of Ketev Meriri during the Three Weeks, between the fourth and ninth hour of the day. It is important to remember that the Shulchan Arukh was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (“Maran”, 1488-1575), one of the great Tzfat Kabbalists. Although some believe that he, too, sought to keep his updated law code free of Kabbalah, one who reads the Shulchan Arukh will undoubtedly see how thoroughly mystical concepts and practices permeate it. This is one key difference between the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and Maran’s Shulchan Arukh. Of course, the latter went on to become the authoritative law code of Judaism.

It therefore isn’t surprising that a great deal of (superstitious) fear developed among Jews, worrying that something horrible will happen. Over time, it became customary to avoid going swimming, partaking in any kind of “risky” activity, or even flying in an airplane. Under such conditions, it is only natural that the entire Three Week period became one of pretty intense mourning.

Yet, even the Shulchan Arukh does not speak of such intense mourning. It, too, begins by speaking of mourning from the start of Av. And it is only in the week in which Tisha b’Av itself falls that haircuts and laundry are prohibited (Orach Chaim, 551:3). The same is true for consuming meat and wine, although Maran mentions other customs to abstain from meat and wine from Rosh Chodesh, or even from the seventeenth of Tamuz. He concludes that one who eats meat when his community does not is a sinner and will be—to borrow a Talmudic term—“bitten by a snake” (if he wasn’t already scared enough from Ketev Meriri).

The Shulchan Arukh also lists two different customs for bathing: some abstain from Rosh Chodesh, and others only in the week of Tisha b’Av. And then we are told that some fast every single day during the Three Weeks! (551:16) We see how unlike the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, which is clear as to precisely how a Jew should act, the Shulchan Arukh lists numerous customs without a clear indication which is best. This is another critical difference between the two law codes.

Summarizing the Law

To conclude, if one wants to observe the mourning period strictly as mandated by the Talmud, Mishneh Torah, and even the Shulchan Arukh, one need only abstain from music and festivities from the start of Av, and abstain from bathing, cutting hair, and laundering in the week of Tisha b’Av itself. With regards to meat and wine, although the letter of the law is only to abstain in the last meal before the fast, there is support for abstaining the entire week of Tisha b’Av, and the Shulchan Arukh holds that a person should not deviate from whatever is their local custom.

On the note of bathing and cutting hair or shaving, it is important to remember how great the honour of Shabbat is: While mourning may be an important custom, looking presentable and dignified on Shabbat is actually an halachic requirement. The Talmud makes it clear that one must bathe and cut their hair for Shabbat—even on a Thursday immediately preceding a Tisha b’Av which falls on a Friday. (This is technically not possible in our fixed calendar, but was possible in those days). The Sephardic custom reflects this halachic necessity, while the Ashkenazi custom strangely does not. Rav David Bar-Hayim, despite being of Ashkenazi background himself, holds that the Ashkenazi custom of abstaining from haircuts for the entire Three Weeks—which he traces to about 600 years ago—is plainly wrong and contrary to halacha.

Finally, there is no need to fear of calamities during the Three Weeks, unless one conducts themselves according to Kabbalah, in which case they may need to beware of Ketev Meriri between the fourth and ninth hour of the day, especially if walking alone between sunny and shaded areas.