Jews are good at mourning. We have had a lot of practice doing so over the many past centuries and certainly over this last past one. Jewish suffering, many times accepted with stoicism, nevertheless was immortalized in the rituals and traditions of the liturgy and practices of Jewish life. This week marked the beginning of a three week period of mourning which will culminate on the ninth day of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
This three week period of mourning is inextricably connected with the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of Israel from its homeland. But there is other tragedy and sadness that is subsumed in this time of mourning as well. Moses’ act of breaking the tablets of stone at Sinai upon witnessing the Golden Calf being worshipped by Jews, the burning of the Torah by oppressors of Israel and other such sad events are all included as reasons for this mourning period.
And in our time, every fast day and time of mourning always carries with it, officially or unofficially, an overtone of sadness and commemoration regarding the destruction of European Jewry sixty five years ago. But it is the destruction of the Temples and of Jerusalem, millennia ago, that lie as the root cause of all of our later tragedies, for all of these sad events are products of our being in a long and forced exile, an alien and defenseless people, the available scapegoat for all ills and failures of others.
There are different customs within the groupings of Israel as to the outward manifestations of mourning during this three week period. Ashkenazic Jewry refrains from solemnizing marriages during this period of time. New purchases of clothing and other major items are avoided and at least curtailed. Even the consumption of new fruits is limited and not approved. Haircuts and shaving are also prohibited. These are, as mentioned, outward signs of mourning. But true mourning occurs within the psyche and soul of a person.
Reflections on the causes and results of the tragedies that have befallen us are the true barometer of our mourning. In our dangerous world where, God forbid, personal and national tragedy lurks around every corner we should be cognizant of past errors of judgment and behavior. When Israel strayed from its observances and worship of God consequences flowed.
When hatred and demonization of other Jews by Jews became the norm of society, bitter consequences followed again. It is not a matter of preaching good that really matters. It is a matter of doing good that counts. All of the outward manifestations of mourning during this three week period of the Jewish calendar are meant to draw attention to our inner selves – to the problems and challenges that yet face us in our daily and national lives.
Being content with outward signs and customs of mourning without internalizing the messages that they represent defeats the very purpose for those observances of mourning. God wants our hearts and souls and not only our hair and beards.
Why such a long three week period of mourning? After all, should not the observances of the day of the ninth of Av suffice to remind us of the tragedies that have befallen us? Well, if external ritual observance was the only purpose of these mourning practices, a point can perhaps be made that three weeks of mourning may look to be somewhat excessive. But if the goal is to internalize within mind and soul the lessons of tragedies past and present and somehow to improve ourselves thereby in our attitudes and behavior then obviously three weeks is not an excessive time frame at all.
It takes a long time to rehabilitate a human being. Rabbi Yisarel Lipkin of Salant said that the loudest sound made in our universe is that of a human habit being broken and changed. One needs time and reflection to mourn properly and in a balanced fashion. Judaism in fact prohibits excessive mourning regarding personal tragedy.
Mourning is defined and limited by halacha and custom in terms of time and proscribed behavior. No matter how great the anguish we do not throw ourselves on the funeral pyre. Yet in order to properly internalize the causes, effects and emotions of tragedy, time is required.
The rabbis who commented on the Talmud characterized the period of mourning of the three weeks and of the ninth of Av as being “the ancient period of mourning.” By that they meant that it became the paradigm for all mourning in Jewish human life. Learning from mourning can therefore become the start of the process of personal and national redemption.