By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I would like to inquire about the three weeks of mourning being observed by Orthodox Jews. Why need we mourn something that happened so long ago? I always thought Jews don’t mourn the loss of a loved one forever; we accept God’s will and eventually move on. Why is this different?
— Jonathan P.
The period you are referring to, known as the “Three Weeks” is based upon a verse in Lamentations which mentions the mourning period “Between the Borders.” This is the three-week period between the 17th of the Jewish month of Tamuz and the ninth of the month of Av, known as the fast day of Tisha B’av. It began on Tuesday, June 25 and ends on Tuesday, July 16 at nightfall. During this time we mourn, among other things, the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, both destroyed on the same Jewish date of Tisha B’av.
The destruction of the Temples is the focal point of our subsequent exile and dispersion among the nations of the world. It punctuates the downfall of the Jewish people from its greatness to becoming the punching bag of the nations. This event also epitomizes the spiritual distance we created between us and the Al-mighty, from the Shechinah or Divine Presence. The Temples stood as “God’s dwelling place” among our people. Our understanding is that all subsequent calamities which have befallen our people are outgrowths of the distance between us and God, which was finalized by the destruction of the Temples during this period.
During this time, we are not only mourning what happened “once upon a time,” although that’s a significant part of it; we are not merely bereaved over the loss of that edifice called the Temple, as terrible as that loss was in its own right. We mourn the physical distance between us and the Land of Israel, the spiritual remoteness between the Jews and the Shechinah. We continue to mourn all the pogroms, inquisitions and expulsions we have suffered over the years. We mourn the Chemelnitzki massacres, the unspeakable Holocaust, the suicide bombings of Israeli cafes and buses which have plagued us until today. We also mourn the “silent holocaust” transpiring right in our midst: the complete assimilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews right before our eyes.
To understand this a bit deeper: the Talmud says that “any generation in which the Temple was not rebuilt it is as if they destroyed it.” This means that there were certain misdeeds and sins the Jews transgressed which brought about the destruction of the Temple. The second Temple’s destruction relates most directly to us as we currently are living in the exile brought by its annihilation. The Talmud cites the reason this Temple was ruined: hatred between fellow Jews. Combining this with the previous statement, we learn that if the Temple has not yet been rebuilt in our generation, we still harbor a level of loathing between one Jew and the next, which would be sufficient to have the Temple destroyed if it were standing today.
Hence we have a more profound understanding of the mourning of this period. We lament the present state of our people: lacking the love and understanding and brotherhood which make us the Jewish community that we should be. Your question is correct. We truly don’t practice open-ended grief for the loss of a loved one. We accept God’s judgment as true and just; we mourn for a period of time and then move on with our lives. The bereavement of these three weeks is different: the reason for the loss is alive and well and needs to be dealt with. Its purpose is to wake us up, to take notice of our situation, hopefully to rectify our circumstances in a way that is redeeming. In this case, going out of our way to build love, trust and respect for our fellow Jews would be a great start. Who knows, it just might tip the scale!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.