Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Observing The Three Weeks

For History's Sake:  It is no secret that Abq Jew is a fan neither of fast days nor of fasting. There is nothing that focuses Abq Jew's mind on food more quickly or steadily than telling him he can't have any.  In Abq Jew's view, if the purpose of fasting is to remind ourselves of the insignificance of food - fasting fails.

How, then, should we observe the 17th of Tammuz, the Three Weeks, and Tisha b"Av?  More importantly - why should we take note of this mourning period at all?

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washingto, and one of the foremost Jewish educators of our time.

In her latest book,, In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, she brings her extraordinary teaching skills to the subject of the Three Weeks, the period of mourning commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Why - and how - should we modern Jews observe the Three Weeks?

Dr Brown recently wrote an opinion piece, Observing The Three Weeks, For History’s Sake, in The Jewish Week. 
In 1999, Dr. Ismar Schorsh, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made a rather unfortunate observation. He claimed that Conservative Jews who observe the Three Weeks, a period of collective mourning for the Temples’ destruction and all subsequent calamities, was about as rare as a polar bear at the equator.
The Three Weeks are bookended by two fasts, beginning with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz (corresponding to July 19 this year), and ending with Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av (Aug. 9), which is the most serious fast of the liturgical year after Yom Kippur.

But Rabbi Schorsh’s rather casual dismissal of the mourning period led him to the conclusion that we should abolish the Three Weeks altogether. The Jewish calendar, he argued, is too dense with tragedy. Why bother with the heaviness of it all when no one really cares?
The idea behind the Three Weeks is simple and elegant.  The Three Weeks reverse the Jewish rituals of mourning.
  • When a loved one dies, Jewish tradition mandates one terrible day of prompt burial and complete mourning;  a seven day (shiva) period of intense mourning; then a thirty day (sheloshim) period of moderated mourning.  (For parents only, an additional 11-month period of mourning follows.)  During these periods, we are to steadily increase our joy and expand our celebrations.
  • The Three Weeks, in reverse, mandate a three week period of moderated mourning, then a nine day period of intense mourning, then one terrible day of complete mourning.  During these periods, we are to steadily decrease our joy and limit our celebrations. 
The question we ask ourselves every year is: 2,000 years and more since the precipitating events occurred, do any of these practices have any meaning for us?

Dr Brown answers: Yes.  If for nothing else, to commemorate our history.  History is not just "one damn thing after another;" history has meaning.  That's the Jewish position.
Jews are not only students of history; we are its stewards. Each of us carries within us thousands of years and multiple layers of the past. We walk in the world not laden down by tragedy but uplifted by our capacity for survival. We do this not because we ignore history but because we revere it.

The rhythm of the Three Weeks helps us think about our ancient religious center, our holy city, the relationship we had with God then and the price we have paid throughout history for our commitment to tradition. We focus on loss but also pray that some of the internecine struggles and external battles we fought once will not be repeated because we have learned from our mistakes. We are also able to appreciate the long spiritual timeline that brought us to where we are today as a people. Ultimately, Jewish history’s triumphs are even more miraculous than a polar bear at the equator.
To all of us: an easy fast, and / or a meaningful mourning.

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