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Bein haMetzarim: Are we avoiding celebration, pleasure or danger?

Why are certain activities prohibited during the Three Weeks and Nine Days?

Av 5783 | July 2023


A brief intro to “Bein HaMetzarim”: Mourning and misfortune

The Three Weeks, also known as “Bein Ha-Metzarim,” refers to a time of communal mourning for the destruction of both Batei Mikdash (Temples) and the resulting exiles. The period begins with the fast day of the 17th of Tamuz, which marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, and culminates with the fast of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av), the date both Temples were destroyed.[1]

The mishna teaches “With the coming of Av, we reduce joy.”[2] A beraita in Yevamot teaches that between the first and tenth of Av the people restrict their trade, building, planting, engagements, and weddings.[3] In addition to a time of mourning, the midrash describes this period as inauspicious and advises against certain dangerous activities.[4] As we will see, a few customs are based in a concern for the danger of the time, but most traditions are related to mourning – some parallel those of mourning the death of a close relative, others specifically relate to the loss of the Temple.[5]

Some customs are generally shared, others are particular to certain communities. The timing varies as well. The custom of most Sephardic communities follows Shulkhan Arukh – mourning customs begin with Rosh Chodesh Av and are intensified the week of Tisha B’Av.[6] Ashkenazic custom, as noted by Rema, is to begin mourning from the 17th of Tamuz, intensifying Rosh Chodesh Av, and further the week of Tisha B’Av.[7]

As this is a time we mourn a destruction caused by baseless hatred and intolerance, it’s important to respect each other’s customs.[8] Additionally, the Jewish families, knowledge, and traditions lost with every destruction and exile our people have experienced make it imperative that we respect and cherish those traditions that have stood the test of time and persecution.

At the same time, our day-to-day lives have changed drastically over the generations. While some argue we should be lenient over certain customs, such as listening to recorded music on certain occasions, others develop new traditions, such as those who refrain from watching movies in the theater.[9]

Prohibited activities

From 17th Tamuz until Rosh Chodesh Av

As noted, this is relevant to Ashkenazim and those Sephardic traditions that begin mourning before Rosh Chodesh Av. Rema prohibits haircuts, weddings, engagement celebrations, and unnecessary building, planting, or decorating projects from the 17th of Tamuz.[10] These are generally assumed to be particularly joyous activities.[11] What about fun or pleasure? Are these also prohibited?

Rav Chaim Faladji wrote about a local enactment that prohibited walking in orchards and on riverbanks during Bein HaMetzarim.[12] Rav Alexander Susskind ben Moses of Grodno taught that pleasurable activities should be avoided.[13] Yet these opinions are the minority. Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik compares the mourning in this time to that of a child mourning their parent in the year following their death. At this time celebrations with friends (simkhat merei’ut) and haircuts are prohibited.[14]

While some refrain from other “fun” activities, this is not the letter of the law; based on the sources we saw, there seems to be a clear difference between joyous and celebratory activities on one hand, and pleasurable, enjoyable activities on the other. From the beginning of the mourning period (17th of Tamuz for Ashkenazim, Rosh Chodesh Av for Sephardim) fun is allowed, celebration is avoided.[15]

Some are careful not to schedule vacations during this period. Depending on the vacation this may be an unnecessary stricture. When planning activities one should try to judge if the atmosphere is celebratory or just enjoyable. A beach outing with the family is fun; going with a large group of friends and having a barbeque may be more of a celebration, especially if it is not a regular occurrence. Playing classical music is fun; a dance party or concert is a celebration.[16] An amusement park with rides may be permitted, but if you’re going with a large group, only do this once a year, or the park also has musical performances it is preferable to schedule it at another time.

Safety is always important, but it is an extra concern here. Therefore, throughout the Three Weeks it’s preferable to refrain from activities that contain an added element of danger but are generally halakhically permitted.[17]

The Nine Days

As we saw, the mishna teaches: “With the coming of Av, we reduce joy.” Additional customs of mourning that begin at this time include refraining from eating meat, drinking wine, bathing for pleasure, swimming, and doing laundry.[18] While many halakhic authorities permit enjoying vacations and day trips that are not particularly celebratory after the 17th of Tamuz, many note that it’s inappropriate as of Rosh Chodesh. During the Three Weeks we limit celebrations, during the Nine Days we limit joy, pleasure, and danger.

Swimming: Limiting danger or pleasure?

Ashkenazim and many Sephardim refrain from swimming during the Nine Days, although Rav Ovadia Yosef allows it. The Ben Ish Chai records that the community in Baghdad refrained from swimming during this time but admits that some are lenient with children who began learning how to swim prior to this time, as they are not swimming for pleasure but are learning, which is their “profession.”[19]

During this time many summer camps permit instructional swim, perhaps based on this idea. Similarly, there are those that permit swimming for exercise under certain circumstances, although others argue it should be avoided if it’s not for therapeutic purposes.[20]

It seems that if swimming were prohibited due to danger it would be prohibited in these cases as well.[21] Terumat haDeshen records that people would bathe in the river during the Nine Days without censure.[22]

Conclusion: Bein HaMetzarim for Adults

This period of Bein HaMetzarim and the month of Av are considered inauspicious for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, there are only a few halakhot that mention danger as a reason to refrain from activities – such as swimming, certain types of travel, and surgeries or court cases that can be postponed.[23]

Most of the laws and customs of this time are designed to reflect mourning. Based on the sources above it seems that those who begin customs of mourning from the 17th of Tamuz should refrain from celebratory activities, but do not need to stop having fun or taking trips. Celebrations including dancing, music, and/or groups of friends or strangers should be avoided if they are not for a mitzvah, such as a Brit Mila.

From Rosh Chodesh Av we limit joy.[24] From this time activities should be more subdued. People should not begin new building or craft projects. Swimming for pleasure is prohibited. It seems that other similar activities done for pleasure, and certainly ones that are done rarely – such as vacationing – should also be avoided.[25] Activities such as hiking and day trips are questionable. If the activity includes something that is expressly prohibited – such as swimming, dancing, or music – it should be avoided in most situations. Activities that are enjoyable but also primarily for health or educational reasons are generally permitted. If an activity falls into both – such as swimming laps – consult with a halakhic authority.

What about activities for children? See the teshuva.

[1] The term Bein Ha-Metzarim, lit. “between the straits,” is borrowed from Megillat Eicha (1:3). While both the fasts of Tamuz and Av as well as the term “Bein Ha-metzarim” date from the destruction of the first Temple, the earliest sources to specify the period in between can be found in sources composed after the destruction of the second Temple, such as the midrash of Eicha Rabba, which explains the verse “All her (Jerusalem’s) pursuers overtook her between the straits (Bein Ha-Metzarim).” (Eicha Rabba 1:23)

[2] TB Taanit 26b

[3] TB Yevamot 43b.

[4] Eicha Rabba 1:23, see note 2.

OC 551:1, 18 – Shulkhan Arukh advises against scheduling a court case against a non-Jew, Rema brings Beit Yosef who warns not to walk alone in certain hours or to strike another – even teachers should not strike students at this time. (Many authorities note that, in general, teachers may no longer hit students.)

[5] Kol Bo 62 brings Rabbeinu Asher who observed women who refrained from wine and meat from the 17th of Tamuz until the 10th of Av, based on a tradition they received from their mothers. This is not a widespread mourning custom observed when a relative dies, and it’s understood to be a form of mourning particular to the loss of sacrifices and wine libations in the Temple. See Tb Bava Batra 60b; Taanit 26b.

[6] Shulkhan Arukh Orach Chaim 551:2 lists activities based on the gemara in Yevamot. He explains that the building and planting limitations refer to projects meant for pleasure or joy and not necessary repairs, and that betrothals are allowed, but a celebratory betrothal feast is not.

[7] Shulchan Aruch rules this heightened stage begins the week of Tisha b’Av, Rema rules it begins Rosh Chodesh. Sephardim generally follow Shulchan Aruch in this case, Ashkenazim – Rema. Shulchan Aruch describes a second tier of restricted activities, such as laundry and haircuts, that begins later. Ashkenazim generally refrain from haircuts throughout the entire period.

[8] Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Tshuvot v’Hanhagot 4:128) rules that if an Ashkenazi who is already observing the mourning period, is invited to the wedding of Sephardim before Rosh Chodesh Av.

[9] When these laws were first codified, most people did not have the option to listen to music on a regular basis; it was reserved for special occasions such as weddings. This may be the reason music isn’t mentioned by earlier sources. Magen Avraham ibid 10 adds that dancing is prohibited, and later authorities add music.

For more about music see Iggerot Moshe OC 1:166, YD 2:137; Yechaveh Da’at 6:34; Tzitz Eliezer 15:33. These authorities prohibit listening to recorded music throughout the mourning period. Tzitz Eliezer even prohibits acapella music.

Some contemporary authorities are more lenient. Rav Shlomo Daichovsky’s article in Techumim 21 and Rav Zalman Melamed in Peninei Halakha make room for music that is not meant for dancing or celebration, or music that leads to reflection. There are also authorities who allow for music in the background when doing work, or for exercising, mental health reasons, practicing playing an instrument, and more, for all or some of the period.

[10] OC 551:2-4

[11] It may be difficult for us to understand why haircuts were on the list. This may make more sense if we assume that they were rare, perhaps only done before special occasions.

[12] See Sdei Chemed, Pe’at HaSadeh, Bein HaMetzarim 1:10

[13] Yesod v’Shoresh ha’Avoda 3:9

[14] Tb Moed Katan 22b; Rambam Hilkhot Avel 6:6

[15] Except in the case of mitzvah celebrations that have a set time, such as a Brit Mila.

[16] See note 10 above for more about music. See discussion in Peninei Halakha Zemanim, 8 The Customs of the Three Weeks, 6 “Hiking, swimming, and hotel vacations”

[17] Some dangerous activities are never halakhically permitted.

[18] Ashkenazim generally observe these customs from the first day of Av through midday on the 10th of Av (since the Temple continued to burn on that day). Some Sephardic communities continue through the end of the 10th, although many only begin after Rosh Chodesh, and others limit some of these prohibitions to the week of Tisha B’Av.

Shulchan Aruch and Rema (OC 551:16) prohibit bathing throughout the Nine Days, although Shulchan Aruch mentions that some allow for bathing in cold water. Rav Ovadia Yosef insists that Sephardic custom limits this to shavua she-chal bo. (Yabia Omer, Yechave Da’at 1:38)

Nowadays we are more sensitive to dirt, odor, and perspiration. Therefore, many contemporary halakhic authorities allow bathing for hygienic reasons, or to remove perspiration on hot summer days. (Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 3:84, Nefesh Ha-Rav) Nevertheless, as Ashkenazic custom prohibits bathing for pleasure it is appropriate to use cooler water and to shorten the length of one’s shower – there is no need for the water to be cold enough to be painful or uncomfortable.

[19] Rav Po’alim OC 4:29

[20] Yechaveh Da’at 1:38, Shulkhan Gavoha 551

[21] There are some who cite danger as the reason swimming is prohibited, but this seems to be a minority opinion. See Mekor Chayim 551:4; Responsa Yechaveh Da’at 1:38.

[22] Terumat HaDeshen 150

[23] Yalkut Yosef Moadim pg. 557.

[24] As stated above, some communities hold some of these activities are permitted until the week of Tisha b’Av.

[25] Rivevot Efraim 1:374 brings this opinion and disagrees, Peninei Halakha advises against vacations during the Nine Days.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.