After the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, Chazal instituted many different halachot which are meant to maintain our connection to the Mikdash. These halachot can be divided into two primary groups. One group, such as taking the Lulav and Etrog seven days of Succot rather than the one day required by the Torah or the taking of the Arava on the seventh day of Succot, are meant to keep the customs of Mikdash alive in our hearts and minds.
A second group, are the halachot meant to express our grief and sense of loss as a result of the destruction of the Mikdash. This group is subdivided into halachot that apply all year such as the custom to leave a small area at the entrance of ones home unfinished or the custom to break a glass during a wedding ceremony. A second subgroup are those halachot that apply on Tisha Be’Av, the Ninth of Av, and during the three weeks that proceed it. As we are about to enter the three weeks that lead up to Tisha Be’Av let us try to understand the structure and rational of the halachot that apply during these weeks.
In the Mishna (Taanit 26b) we find that there are several levels of prohibitions leading up to Tisha Be’Av. First we have the days from the first of Av and on. Then there is the week in which Tisha Be’Av falls and finally the day itself starting with the eve of Tisha Be’Av. This same structure can be found Shilchan Aruch (OC 551).
Rav Yosef Dov Solevietchik explained that this structure reflects the different stages of mourning found in Halacha. When a persons parent passes away he begins with a seven-day mourning period known as Shiva. During the Shiva period there are broad limitations imposed on the mourner. With the conclusion of the Shiva period some of the limitations are lifted while other remain until the conclusion of thirty days from the time of burial known as Shloshim. In the case of mourning for a parent there is an additional period completing twelve months with some basic limitations. Rav Solevietchik suggested that the different stages of mourning for the Mikdash are the equivalent of the Shiva, Shloshim and twelve month periods.
The difference between the mourning for a deceased parent known in Halacha as “Avielut Chadasha” and mourning over the destruction of the Mikdash known as “Avielut Yeshana” is the order of progression. While in Avielut Chadasha we begin with a broad range of limitations and gradually move to less and less limitations, in Avielut Yeshana we progress from a limited set of prohibitions to a full range on Tisha Be’Av. The rational behind this distinction is simple. In Avielut Chadasha the loss confronts the mourner and the purpose of the Halachot of Avielut is to give a framework for expressing ones sorrow and then to gradually lead him back to normal life. In contrast, the intention of Halacha in Avielut Yeshana is the reverse, to pull one out of the regular order of life and bring them gradually, into a state of mind of sorrow, over the loss of the Mikdash.
Though the Shulchan Aruch begins the process of Avielut Chadasha as of the first of Av, the Ashkenazik custom as stated by the Rama is to begin the expressions of Avielut from the seventeenth of Tamuz. This period from the seventeenth of Tamuz until Tisha Be’Av is known as the “Three Weeks”. Why Ashkenazik Jewry expand the period of mourning from nine days to three weeks is not clear. One possible explanation may be found in the wording of the Mishna in Taanit. The Mishna makes a general opening statement: “Five things occurred to our fathers on the seventeenth of Tamuz and five on Tisha Be’Av. The Mishna then continues listing the five things that occurred on each of these days. If there was no intent of equating the two then the Mishna had no need to make the opening statement. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suggest that this opening statement is meant to create a framework for the tragedies that begin on the seventeenth of Tamuz and culminate on Tisha Be’Av. Though the Gemarah does not require any Halachic expression of this relationship, it may well be that the Ashkenazik Rabbis felt it was important to express the development that takes place from the seventeenth of Tamuz until Tisha Be’av with Halachic actions. Further, in a Midrash found in Aicha Raba (chapter 1 section 29) we find that Chazal interpret the term “bein hametzarim”, between the hardship and sorrow, as the days between the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha Be’Av. The same Midrash speaks of this period as a time of danger requiring extra care such as refraining from bathing in rivers. It may well be that the Ashkenazik Rishonim saw in these sources a basis for expanding the customs of mourning to this problematic time as well.
An interesting question that arises according to Ashkenazik custom is when do the prohibitions associated with mourning begin? The date of the seventeenth begins as any other day with nightfall after the sixteenth. Yet, the actual prohibition to eat begins only at sunrise of the seventeenth. When then would the prohibitions of mourning apply?
Rav Solevietchik was of the opinion that the status of Taanit applies as of nightfall and therefore the halachot of Avielut would apply then as well. In his opinion one must distinguish between the status of Taanit and the elements of mourning incorporated in it from the aspect of eating as a prohibition of Taaniyot. Though the Taanit begins at night, the prohibition of eating begins only later. Rav Moshe Feinstien was in agreement that the opinion of most Rishonim is that the Taanit begins at night, never the less he felt that the minority opinion of Rav Zerachya Halevy (the Baal Hamaor) was well established in the Gemara. Therefore, since the prohibitions during the days from the seventeenth of Tamuz until the first of Av is based on custom, in situations of need the prohibitions may be ignored until daybreak of the seventeenth.
Let us conclude with a prayer that these words of Halacha soon turn into history when the idea of mourning over the loss of the Mikdash is no longer relevant.