The Nine Days/DEVORIM (Deuteronomy, 1:1-3:22)/Tisha B’Av — “Wearable Clothes for Terrible Times”

Whatever you do, do it like you mean it.

I once attended the funeral of a very dear friend who passed away at the age of 22.  One of the speakers at the funeral was our Rebbe, one of the great Sages of Israel.  His words of eulogy brought me to tears.  He himself seemed hardly able to control his emotions, so overwhelmed as he was by the terrible loss.

That night, my Rebbe attended his nephew’s wedding.  In celebration of this wonderful event, he danced up a storm.  Anyone witnessing his joy at the wedding would never have guessed that a few hours earlier he seemed heartbroken.

Which emotion was real?  Did he put on a show of sorrow at the funeral, only to become his happy self at the wedding?  Or was he shattered by the tragic death of a student, and forcing himself to dance through the tears?

The answer, of course, is that both sentiments were real.  In life, it is important to recognize, as King Solomon writes, that:

There is a time for everything under the heaven; A time to be born and a time to die… A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to wail and a time to dance.  (Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2, 4)

The irony of life is that often these times seem to overlap.

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We are now in the middle of an intense period of national mourning.  Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the disastrous month of Av.  Tisha B’Av is the day when we sit on the floor with non-leather shoes like mourners sitting Shiva.  We express our bereavement over the destructions of  both Temples, and an array of other catastrophic events in our history.

But we don’t mourn just on Tisha B’Av.  During the three weeks leading up to the fast we don’t listen to music, take haircuts or make weddings, similar to a mourner in the 12 months following the death of a parent.  In the nine days up to and including Tisha B’Av we refrain from meat and wine (like a mourner before a funeral) and refrain from bathing and wearing freshly laundered clothes or Shabbos clothes (like a mourner during Shivah).

It is not good enough to say we’re in mourning.  We have to look like mourners and dress like mourners in order to properly feel like mourners.  Someone who has lost a loved one is unconcerned about whether his shirt is appropriately starched or whether he’s got a few days worth of stubble that he needs to shave off.  The clammy feeling of needing a shower serves to further bring home the feeling of depression over one’s loss.  Shivah is not a time to engage in creature comforts.

The Sabbath is an interesting array of mixed messages.  The original practice of Ashkenazic Jewry is to carry over the mourning of the Nine Days into Shabbos itself.  “Lecha Dodi”, a song/prayer that introduces the Sabbath, is sung to the tune of of “Elee Tziyon,” one of the dirges recited on Tisha B’Av.  The Haftara is read to the tune of the Book of Lamentations, which is read Tisha B’Av night.  Shabbos during the Nine Days is not like Shabbos during Shivah.  An individual interrupts the mourning of Shivah to put on his Shabbos clothes.  However, during this time of PUBLIC mourning, we wear weekday clothes even on Shabbos.  I recently heard that in the Chofetz Chaim’s Lithuanian home town of Radin, the farmers used to come to Shul on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av in their work boots.  Yes, we may eat meat and drink wine on that Shabbos, but we must still dress like mourners.

It must seem strange to envision people celebrating the Sabbath in a less-than-“Sabbatical” mode of dress.  Can you imagine sitting in Shul Friday night next to a carpenter in his overalls and the Roto-Rooter guy in his galoshes?

Actually, most people don’t follow that custom.  The Chofetz Chaim writes that the prevalent custom is that of the city of Vilna where they permitted the donning of Shabbos clothes on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av.  One of the reasons given for this custom is that the practice of  wearing weekday clothes was established at a time when weekday garb was similar to Shabbos clothing, except that the Shabbos clothes were a little nicer.  Since the difference is rather subtle, it is not a blatant affront to the honor of Shabbos.  However, when one’s clothes are significantly different, (e.g., Chassidim who wear fur Shtreimels rather than simple hats, and shiny satin robes rather than simple suits) the distinction is more obvious.  Dressing in a manner which conspicuously departs from Shabbos fashion would constitute a violation of the prohibition against public mourning on the Sabbath.

As a result, most people do wear their Shabbos clothes on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av.  There are various customs regarding bathing.  Some people take a quick, cold shower in order to be clean for Shabbos.  Others honor the Sabbath by taking a full hot bath or shower just like on the eve of every other Shabbos.  (Remember, going without a shower during nine days in July can make one feel rather mangy!)

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One may be tempted to ask – Isn’t this rather superficial?  What difference does it make?  Why so much emphasis on what you’re wearing?  If you want to dress for Shabbos, dress for Shabbos!  If you want to wear weekday clothes, wear weekday clothes!  What’s the big deal?  And, as long as we’re on the topic, why don’t you rejoin the human race and take a bath?!!

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The answer is that it is only because of a lack of sensitivity that we could even ask the question.  We are all rather removed from understanding what Torah is all about.  It has been pointed out that the farther removed we become from Mount Sinai, the more distant we find ourselves from a true understanding of G-dliness.

Let’s talk a bit more about clothes. The way we dress illustrates how we feel, and also affects how we feel.  (See “Dress to Impress”.)    We all have our own ideas about appropriate modes of dress.  Consider that time you went to your best friend’s wedding.  (Or your own!)  You want to dress your very best; this is a major milestone in your life.  Suddenly, you see your reflection in the mirror.  You are missing a button.  Or there is a tiny stain on your suit/blouse.  You are distressed.  You want to be dressed perfectly on this special day, and now your outfit is ruined!

Or, consider the opposite.  You are dressed to the nines.  You have to go to a funeral.  As you walk in, everyone compliments you on your beautiful dress, your lovely necklace, and your stylish Shaitel.  This is a sad time.  You are upset.  The last thing you feel like hearing right now is how great you look.

Do you know why we may feel ambivalent about the clothing requirements of the Nine Days, and Shabbos?  Probably because we don’t fully appreciate the enormity of either.

The Fast of Tisha B’Av has been compared to the Fast of Yom Kippur.  There are many similarities. Unlike the four other fasts days of the year, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are full day fasts, from night to night.  On both days we are prohibited from bathing and wearing leather shoes.

The difference, however, is stark.   On Yom Kippur, we are considered to have reached the level of angels; we don’t require physical nutrition.  On Tisha B’Av, we are distraught mourners.  On Yom Kippur we say, “Who needs to eat?”  On Tisha B’Av, we say, “Who can bring oneself to eat?”

If we truly understood the extent of the suffering we have endured and continue to endure, we would tear our clothes, put on sackcloth, and cry our hearts out in utter desperation and beg G-d to send the Messiah and rebuild the Temple.

What about Shabbos?  Do we have any idea what that’s all about?  Shabbos is a day that is infused with sanctity.  It is the day that our Creator “rested” from His constructive labor of earth building.  It is a day when the angels in Heaven rest.  Our abstinence from work on the Sabbath makes us partners in Creation.  What an uplifting experience!  What a lofty feeling!  When we come home from the synagogue on Friday night, we are accompanied by two angels.  That is why we begin our pre-meal ceremonies by singing, “Shalom Aleichem – Peace to you, Ministering Angels…”

If we had the slightest clue as to what Shabbos is really about, we would long for it all week, every week.  (That’s why the Hebrew names for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. are First Day, Second Day, Third Day, etc., and only Saturday has a real name – Shabbos.  We count the days till Shabbos.)  We would go to every effort to honor this special day with the very best foods and very best clothes.

If we understood how terrible the Nine Days are, and how holy the Sabbath is, we would feel the pull in both directions; the need to celebrate and the need to mourn.  We would be torn by the dilemma.  Unfortunately, for most of us there is no dilemma.  We have become desensitized to all we have lost by the Destruction and to all we gain through celebrating the Sabbath.

We are so far from understanding the tragedies of our history; and that, perhaps, is the biggest tragedy of all.

Have a Good Shabbos, and a meaningful fast.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives

“Dropping Hints and Lifting Spirits” (2011)

… I have a question.  Why is Moses beating around the bush?!  What’s with the hinting?  Why doesn’t the Torah describe Moses coming out with a shotguns-blazing, Fire-and-Brimstone reprimand?   Why doesn’t he say, “Listen Israel, your behavior has been horrendous!   You complained about the lack of food.  You worshipped Baal Pe’or.  You displayed a lack of faith at the Red Sea.  You listened to the lies of the spies.  You complained about the Manna and supported Korach’s rebellion.  You turned all that gold into a Golden Calf.  YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!!!!!” …

Read more.

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“Back to Normal?” (2009) 

…The people were concerned.  Sure, they had seen plenty of miracles.  But that was when Moses was around.  What would happen “post-Moses?”  Would the miracles still flow like the waters of the traveling well? Would Heavenly Bread still fall in front of their tents?  Would those pillars of fire and cloud still lead them?

Joshua was a fine student.  He was Moses’ best protégé.  However, to paraphrase  Senator Bentson:  “We served under Moses.  We know Moses.  He is a prophet of G-d.  Joshua, you’re no Moses!”…

Read more.

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“Wearable Clothes for Terrible Times” (2007)

… It must seem strange to envision people celebrating the Sabbath in a less-than-“Sabbatical” mode of dress.  Can you imagine sitting in Shul Friday night next to a carpenter in his overalls and the Roto-Rooter guy in his galoshes?

Actually, most people don’t follow that custom.  The Chofetz Chaim writes that the prevalent custom is that of the city ofVilnawhere they permitted the donning of Shabbos clothes on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av …

One may be tempted to ask – Isn’t this rather superficial?  What difference does it make?  Why so much emphasis on what you’re wearing?  If you want to dress for Shabbos, dress for Shabbos!  If you want to wear weekday clothes, wear weekday clothes!  What’s the big deal?  And, as long as we’re on the topic, why don’t you rejoin the human race and take a bath?!!…

Read more.

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 “Torah Talk” (2006)

“Hey, how’d he do that?”

“How’d WHO do WHAT?”

“Didn’t you hear that speech?”

“Yes, of course, it was very inspiring.  But he is, after all, a great man.  So why are you surprised?”

Because he doesn’t know how to do that!!!”

It all started almost 120 years before.  The Talmud (Shemos Rabbah,1:26) describes how Baby Moses upset his adopted grandfather…

Read more.

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“Cry, O Zion …” (2005)

… “Cry, O Zion, and her cities, like a woman in the pains of childbirth, and like a young woman dressed in sackcloth, mourning for her young husband.”  (From the Tisha B’Av prayers.)

Imagine the agonizing physical pain of childbirth; what could be more painful?  Envision the emotional pain of a young widow; what could be more heartrending?…

Read more.

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“Selective Memory” (2004)

… Did Moses give a fair description of the events as they actually occurred?  Based on Moses’ version, it seems like the people heard a positive report and rejected it.  In reality, as we see from actually reading about it, there was a spirited debate.  Ten spies said it was bad; two spies said it was good… why did Moses change the story?  Why did he imply that there had been no negative report at all? …

Read more.

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 “How Did This Happen??!! (And How Do We Fix It?)”  (2002)

… In the book by that name, the prophet Jeremiah cries, “Eichah — how can it be that the city once filled with people has become like a widow…?”  (Lamentations, 1:1) Jeremiah stares with disbelief as he sees the once-great city ofJerusalem lying in ruins.  It is almost beyond comprehension that he sees that theTemple has been destroyed and the royal house of  Israel has been led, in disgrace, into captivity.

Jeremiah’s wail continues to this day.  Throughout the world, Jews will sit and read Jeremiah’s words and cry over the pains of our exile…  “Eichah,” how could it be that the Jews of  Warsaw were deported to Treblinka beginning on Tisha B’Av?  “Eichah,” how can it be that a world tolerates the wanton murder of innocent people by a nation that sacrifices its own children for the “Mitzvah” of killing Jews?  “Eichah,” HOW MUCH MORE CAN WE TAKE?!! …

Read more.

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“Tears of ‘OY’ and Tears of Joy” (2001)

… I had a very interesting experience this week … the prohibition of eating meat and drinking wine … doesn’t apply at a Bris… It was a strange inconsistency. On the one hand, we are in mourning for theTemple. On the other hand, we are having a party! Where is our concern for our people? Aren’t we supposed to remember our brethren who were burned at the stake inSpain?! Aren’t we supposed to lament the victims of the Holocaust and the Intifada?! How can we cry to G-d to rescue us from our anguish when we’re eating prime rib and parve ice cream?! …

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 2:58 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting D’rash. Has humanity passed a critical point and now it is impossible to connect with the true meaning of our religious practices?
    Do we just practice our best guess?
    Have a meaningful Shabbos, Howard

    • THat is why one of our greatest obligations is the Mitzvah to LEARN. It is incumbant upon us to understand, to the best of our abilities, the reasoning behind why we do what we do. When we don’t know, we need to ask.

      Your closing is perfect: Have a MEANINGFUL Shabbos!


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