According to the Mishna (Ta’anit 26b), the prohibition on eating meat and drinking wine only applies to the se’uda ha-mafseket, the final meal before the fast of Tisha B’Av begins, and this is the custom of Yemenite Jews. Nonetheless, the Rishonim adopted the stringency of refraining from consuming meat and wine during the entirety of the Nine Days of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Some Jews are machmir (stringent) not to eat meat or drink wine for all the weekdays during the Three Weeks, while others are machmir only during the week of Tisha B’Av.
In practice, the Ashkenazic custom is to abstain from meat and wine throughout the Nine Days, including Rosh Chodesh Av. This was also the Arizal’s custom. According to the custom of most Sephardim, however, one may eat meat and drink wine on Rosh Chodesh, which is a festive day.
Drinking Alcoholic Beverages
Q: Why is wine prohibited, while all alcoholic beverages are permitted?
A: Wine is considered the most important and finest drink, therefore, in principle, it is also considered the drink that makes one happiest.
Another reason for the custom of prohibiting meat and wine is that after the destruction of the Temple, it would have been appropriate that we completely refrain from eating meat and drinking wine, as the baraita says: ” The Sages taught: When the Temple was destroyed a second time, there was an increase in the number of ascetics among the Jews, whose practice was to not eat meat and to not drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua joined them to discuss their practice. He said to them: My children, for what reason do you not eat meat and do you not drink wine? They said to him: Shall we eat meat, from which offerings are sacrificed upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist? Shall we drink wine, which is poured as a libation upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist?” (Baba Batra 60b). In practice,
Rabbi Yehoshua replied to them that it is impossible to overdo mourning, and therefore, what the Sages enacted in memory of the destruction is sufficient. Nevertheless, on the designated days when the destruction is especially mourned, in consequence of the cancellation of the sacrifices, it is appropriate to refrain from eating meat, and on account of the cancellation of the wine libations, it is appropriate to refrain from drinking wine.
On Motzei Shabbat Chazon, one is permitted to drink from the wine one made havdala over, and even drink the entire cup. It is preferable to make havdala over grape juice because it does not make one happy.
According to the custom of some Ashkenazim, if there is a child present who has reached the age of chinukh for reciting berakhot before eating, but does not yet understand why we mourn over Jerusalem (age six to nine, approximately), the person reciting havdala has the child in mind when reciting the berakha of Ha-gefen, and the child drinks the wine. If no such child is available, however, the adult who recites havdala drinks the wine (Rema 551:10; MB 70).
Curtail Business Transactions
We curtail joyous business transactions during the Nine Days. That is to say, one may not buy luxury items like jewelry, clothing, fancy appliances, new furniture, or a car for personal use. Shopping via the Internet is also prohibited.
However, if one comes across an opportunity to buy an item that brings joy at a bargain price and is afraid that he will lose this opportunity if he waits until after Tisha B’Av, he may purchase it during the Nine Days. However, it is best to bring it home or begin using it only after Tisha B’Av.
It is preferable to curtail even ordinary, non-joyous transactions. For example, if one usually makes a big shopping trip and stocks up on food and household items only once every few weeks, he should ideally do so before or after the Nine Days.
Prohibition of Laundering During the Week of Tisha B’Av
The Sages prohibited laundering clothes during the week in which Tisha B’Av falls (Ta’anit 26b). This is an expression of mourning; out of pain and identification with the deceased or with the Temple’s destruction, one ceases to take care of himself and pamper himself. Ironing and dry cleaning are included in this prohibition.
One may not even wash clothes in order to wear them after Tisha B’Av, because one who does laundry appears as though he is taking his mind off of mourning over the Temple’s destruction.
The Time of the Prohibition According to the Customs of the Different Ethnic Groups
The custom of most Sephardic Jews goes according to the law of the Mishna, i.e., that the prohibition of laundering only applies in the week in which Tisha B’Av falls. All Ashkenazi Jews and some Sephardi Jews, like the Libyan community, are accustomed to be machmir in the prohibition of laundering from Rosh Chodesh Av, and only in honor of Shabbat Chazon do they wear laundered and ironed Shabbat clothes.
In Djerba, as well as in some Moroccan Jewish communities, the custom was that washing clothes was prohibited from the second day of Av (Brit Kehuna. OC 200:9).
Prohibition of Wearing Laundered Clothes, and Permitted Clothes
Just as one may not wash clothing during this period, each ethnic group according to its customs, one also may not wear freshly laundered clothing. This includes spreading fresh sheets on a bed, putting a freshly laundered tablecloth on a table, and using freshly laundered towels or cloth napkins.
During this period, one may wear clean underwear and socks and change soiled hand towels. Since people are accustomed nowadays to changing these items frequently, changing them does not have any element of pleasure; rather, it is simply removing something repulsive.
In a time of need, when one is left without any clean underwear, one may launder those items.
The Solution of Changing Clothes
Since the prohibition on wearing laundered garments lasts for several days, there is a custom to prepare a sufficient amount of “worn” clothes for this period. The procedure is as follows: before the prohibitions take effect, one must wear multiple articles of clothing in succession, each for about an hour or more. This way, the garments are no longer considered freshly laundered and thus may be worn during the prohibited period.
One who did not manage to prepare clothes for himself before the prohibitions began to take effect may take a laundered garment, throw it on the floor, and even step on it. By doing so, it is no longer considered laundered and may thus be worn.
If one’s shirt becomes stained may clean the stain with water and soap, because this is not considered laundering. It is preferable to do so while one is still dressed, because then it is obvious it is not a regular washing method. If the entire garment has become dirty, and one no longer has an appropriate garment to wear, the entire garment may be washed as usual (see, Gesher HaChaim 21:10; Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 11:11).
Wearing Festive Clothes
On all the days when laundering is prohibited, each ethnic group according to its custom, festive clothes, such as Shabbat clothes, should not be worn, even if they are not laundered.
In anticipation of a brit mila, the father, mother, mohel, and sandak may bathe and wear festive clothes, and if necessary may shave and cut their hair (MB 551:3). Close relatives of the boy’s parents, such as their parents and siblings, may wear festive clothes but may not cut their hair. The other guests may wear respectable clothes but may not wear festive clothes, such as those worn on Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 8:19). The law is the same regarding a pidyon ha’ben, where the main participants of the happy occasion are the father, mother, and the Kohen.
Laundering Young Children’s Clothing is Permitted
Clothes worn by babies who regularly soil their outfits are not included in the prohibition. Likewise, one may wash sheets and blankets of young children who wet themselves at night. In addition, many people are lenient, in a time of need, with regard to washing older children’s clothes, because they soil their clothes as well, and there is no element of joy in doing laundry for them (Rema 551:14).
When one is washing children’s clothes in a washing machine, one may not add adults’ clothing to the load. In addition, it is preferable, if possible, to dry even children’s clothing discreetly, inside one’s home, so as not to appear as if he is not mourning.
The Stringent and Lenient Customs in the Past
Even though the Sages prohibited bathing on Tisha B’Av only, the Rishonim were stringent and would refrain from bathing on the days preceding Tisha B’Av as well.
The machmirim were customary not to bathe even in cold water for the entire Nine Days, and only in preparation for Shabbat Chazon did they bathe a bit in cold water. And the meikilim (lenient) were customary to not bathe in hot water during the week in which Tisha B’Av fell, and they did not avoid bathing in cold water at all.
Since all the Ashkenazim were customary to be machmir about it, some are mistaken in thinking that all the Sephardim are lenient; however, in practice, many Sephardic communities as well, held it customary to be machmir, so that in practice, the majority of Jewish communities in the past held it customary to be machmir.
In most North African communities, it was even customary to be machmir not to bathe in cold water for the entire Nine Days, as stated in the various books of minhagim (Jewish customs). And this was the custom in Babylon for all the Nine Days.
The lenient custom was widespread in the communities of Sephardic origin in the vicinity of the Land of Israel (Shulchan Gevoha, 551:49), and in some communities in North Africa.
The Enormous Change in Bathing Habits
Today, however, our hygiene and bathing habits have changed completely. In the past, people did not have running water in their homes, and bathing was thus considered a special occasion, and a rare pleasure. Because of this, people barely suffered when they refrained from bathing. Nowadays, though, when people shower regularly, this has become a routine practice. Many people shower daily with soap, and would suffer if they were to go even a single day without showering. Some even have difficulty falling asleep as a result.
The change resulted from the development of the water and sewage systems, which allow us to maintain cleanliness. Today we have faucets for washing, as well as sewage pipes that remove excrement and urine. In the past, foul odors were commonplace, as sewage would flow in canals in between the houses, or was buried near villages. Therefore, we are more stringent nowadays with regard to allowing prayer in the presence of foul odor (see, Peninei Halakha: Prayer 3:10).
In addition, our bathing habits have changed completely, as we shower much more frequently than in the past. Thanks to the water pipe system and the invention of soap in recent generations, we can bathe and clean ourselves more efficiently than before, to the point where almost everyone is considered an istenis (someone who is especially sensitive to the cleanliness of his surroundings) in this area. It is worth noting that the development of water and sewage systems and cleaning habits contributed greatly to the extension of life expectancy. Thanks to them, infections, diseases and epidemics that were prevalent in the past, have greatly decreased.
The Halakha in Practice
Therefore, one who feels pain when he refrains from washing himself may shower in lukewarm water, so that he does not take pleasure in his washing, but rather that the sole purpose of this activity should be his own cleanliness. One may even use soap in order to remove a bad odor from one’s body. And if one cannot tolerate having unclean hair, he may wash his hair with shampoo.
These rules apply according to Ashkenazic custom throughout the Nine Days. According to Sephardic custom, they only apply during the week in which Tisha B’Av falls; before then, one may shower using hot water for pleasure.
Even if having unpleasant body odor due to lack of showering does not bother a particular person, he should nonetheless shower during the Nine Days and the week of Tisha B’Av to remove this odor, because of the great value of human dignity. Moreover, many people are sensitive to bad odors nowadays, and if one fails to wash himself, he will cause a desecration of God’s name.
Swimming in a Pool
If the purpose is to improve one’s health, however, like those who swim daily for half an hour, it is permitted, according to Sephardic custom, until Shabbat Chazon. Afterward, though, it is proper to be stringent and refrain from all swimming. According to Ashkenazic custom, one may not swim even for health reasons throughout the Nine Days. One who needs to swim for therapeutic purposes may swim until the day before Tisha B’Av.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated