Parshas Devarim.


The laws of the Ninth of Av.


1. The Ninth of Av is certainly the saddest day of our calendar. It would take too long to describe all the sad events that happened to us on this day. Some of them include the decree that the generation that came out of Egypt should not enter the Holy Land and remain in the desert for 40 years, the destructions of both Temples in Jerusalem, the end of Bar Kochba’s revolt and the exile of Spanish Jewry. We will only concentrate on one more recent event that happened on the Ninth of Av: the beginning of World War 1. This terrible bloody war caused tremendous upheavals in the reasonably established Jewish communities, many Jews were uprooted from their homes and became refuges, many were taken as soldiers to the army to never return ...


One of the sad results of World War 1 was the tremendous decline of traditional observance in the Jewish communities. Shabbos violations became very common around most of Europe, the Rabbinical authority began to rapidly decline. Until then, most Jews in Central and Eastern Europe were very religious, scrupulously observing the commandments of the Torah. Only the Jews of Western European countries had left their religion some time before (as Enlightenment and Reform movements succeed to swing most of the population to their side). However after World War 1, even the Jews of such countries as Poland and Lithuania started to fall in their observance following their "Western brothers".


One of the most drastic immediate results of World War 1 was the weakening army of the Russian Czar that made it possible for Bolshevik (Communist) revolution to take place. The communists not only succeeded in overthrowing the royal authority but also annexed Ukraine after a few years of terrible war that brought with it untold suffering to our people.


The Ukrainians who had hated the Jews for centuries, got another chance to destroy there arch enemy - the Zhid. They were especially encouraged to kill their Jews since they considered every Jew - a hated Communist. Pogroms over Ukraine were ranging non-stop. It is estimated that a few hundred thousand Ukrainian Jews were killed in just a few years.


After the Russian armies won the war, the pogroms were stopped but the spiritual level of our already weakened people went into further decline. Within years most Russian and Ukrainian Jews would sign up as atheists.


Meanwhile, as a result of the weakened economy of European nations, a mass immigration to "Golden countries" like America, Canada and South Africa started. At that time, these countries had no Yeshivas, almost no Rabbis and very few Jews who would be willing to stay committed to Torah, despite the difficulties.


Many of the factories worked 6 days a week including Saturday, and working on those factories while observing the Shabbos was out of question. Those few families that wanted to stay observant despite the odds faced another challenge: education of kids. A child coming out of public school rarely saw any reason to keep the mitzvos of the Torah. To him, these commandments were just an extra burden that prevented him from integrating into the society.


Meanwhile, two movements were spreading among the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. The first was Socialism together with Communism, which promised equality for the "working class" and for all nationalities. The second – was nationalism (secular Zionism), which called for resettling all Jews in one country, so that their fate will no longer depend on the good will of other nations. The common denominator of these two movements was their fierce hatred towards a traditional Jew.


As these two groups were winning the hearts of the youngsters of our nation, the few loyal (traditional) Jews found themselves in a very uncomfortable position – that of oppressed minority. It is hard for us to imagine the feeling of a young Yeshiva student in Europe in that generation. Even presently religious (Orthodox) Jews are not always the most well liked group, but we don't feel much hatred directed towards us either. In that generation, however, religious Jews were simply despised. It was not uncommon for Communist or Zionist Jewish youngsters to simply beat up a Yeshiva student.


Our people now saw for themselves the fulfillment of the terrible curses predicted for the generation of "Chevley Moshiach" – birth pangs before Messiah. The Talmud (Tractates Sotah page 49 and Sanhedrin page 97) vividly describes some of the characteristics of the Jews in that generation – audacity, disrespect for the old, despise for observance and for those who fear Heaven, the face of the generation being like that of a dog, nobody to rebuke the evildoers ... Together with the terrible decline of our people, the decrees against us began. Prohibitions against ritual slaughter, obligation to keep the stores open on Saturday – these are just some of the laws issued in various European countries. As usual, the punishment was "Mida Keneged Mida" – measure for measure. The violations of Kashrus and Shabbos caused that keeping these commandments became harder and harder.


Meanwhile, Germany was very unhappy with the results of its defeat during World War 1. It lost its power and prestige, it was experiencing major economic problems. Fifteen years after the end of the war, a uniquely wicked individual rose to power, we all know his name – Hitler (may his name be erased). According to Hitler, Jews were responsible for the German defeat in WW1 (as well as for all other world tragedies). Soon after Hitler came to power he started building up an army ready to compensate for Germany's last shameful defeat.


In the meantime many laws against the Jewish people were passed, here also the principle of measure for measure was operating. Jews could no longer intermarry with gentiles, they could not go to gentile places of entertainment (theaters and like). Later Jews were forced to wear their own distinct clothing – a yellow star. They had to add Jewish names – every Jewish man was Israel – every Jewish woman – Sarah.


While the German Jews were experiencing this unusual treatment – some, hoping that it will soon pass and life will return to normal, others trying to find ways to leave Germany, the sages of Torah in the Eastern European countries were trying desperately to return the Jewish people back to observance. Like Mordechai in his generation, when the thread of annihilation hung over the heads of our people, they were calling on the masses to do Teshuva. Reading their great works now (such as writing of Chofetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Maggid of Kelm, Rav Simcha of Dvinsk and many others) we can see how these great sages clearly foresaw the terrible tragedies that would befall our nation if we don't repent. Unfortunately, their voices were not heeded to. Germany made a pact with Russia to split Poland between them. Within a short time, over 3 million Polish Jews found themselves under two enemy regimes – the Nazis and the Communists. This punishment was also measure for measure, after all, most of Polish Jews were either Communists or nationalists (Zionists) and they were now split between the Nazis (who were nationalists) and the Russian Communists.


Everybody knows what happened next. Germany was systematically destroying the Jewish population of one country after another. After the war was over, the European Jewry was almost totally annihilated. Moreover, most of the countries where some religious Jews were still living were turning Communist with threatening speed.


This was probably the lowest point on our history – the number of religious Jews throughout the world was probably smaller than ever before, and many of them lost large parts of their families. They remained scattered, poor, with hardly any hope or even reasons to continue living. And it is then that the Teshuva movement of return started, as the Torah predicted would happen after all the suffering. The numbers of people returning to the observance of commandments increased manifold within the last two generations and it continues increasing.


"And it shall come to pass when all these things happen to you – the blessing and the curse that I had placed before you, and you shall contemplate among the nations where your were scattered by G-d your Lord. And you shall return to G-d your Lord and you shall hearken to His voice, like all that I command this day – you and your children with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deuteronomy 30: 1-2)


2. Because of the sadness of these days, our nation accepted on itself certain restrictions in the three weeks prior to the Ninth of Av. As the sad day approaches, the prohibitions become more and more severe.


3. We don’t listen to music starting the fast day of the 17th of Tamuz. (In general, listening to modern songs on the radio is forbidden throughout the year as well, as we mentioned in Parshas Noach. Listening to Jewish music and to classical music may be permitted by some Rabbis, but during these weeks the custom is to forbid it.) Ashkenazim have a custom not to marry throughout the 3 weeks but some Sephardim allow marrying until the end of Tamuz. In general, any happy celebrations should be avoided from the first of Av till after the fast.


4. The Ashkenazi custom is not to do laundry after first of Av, but Sephardim are only forbidden starting Sunday of the week of the Ninth of Av. Starting this time, wearing freshly laundered clothes is also forbidden – one should wear each cloth for some time before Av.


5. Most Sephardim don't eat meat and don't drink wine starting the 2nd of Av. Ashkenazim keep this prohibition starting the 1st of Av – a day earlier. Weak people, who need to eat meat for health reasons should ask a Rabbi, if meat can not be avoided, it is better to eat chicken than beef. On Shabbos, eating meat and drinking wine is permitted.


6. Sephardim don't take haircuts on the week of the Ninth of Av until after the fast day. Ashkenazim are not allowed to cut hair for the entire 3 weeks. Cutting nails on the week of the Ninth of Av until the fast should also be avoided.


7. The evening before the Ninth of Av, we eat the last meal before the fast – Seudas Mafsekes. We are not allowed to eat more than one type of cooked food during this meal. It is proper to conduct this meal while sitting on the floor. If the Ninth of Av falls on Sunday (or if it falls on Shabbos and is therefore moved to Sunday), we eat the third Shabbos meal normally, but no eating is allowed after sundown.


8. During the Ninth of Av, besides eating and drinking, the following is forbidden:


- Learning Torah except sad topics that have to do with mourning or the Ninth of Av itself.

- Washing, but one is allowed to wash the fingers after sleep or the bathroom.

- Smearing oils, creams or soaps into the skin.

- Wearing leather shoes.

- Marital relations


9. We don't greet people on the Ninth of Av. During the evening, the prayers are recited while sitting on the floor with lights dimmed. We continue to sit on the floor in the morning till the afternoon. In most places, Tefillin and Talis Gadol is not put on until Mincha time.


10. Regular work should be avoided during the Ninth of Av, if one needs to do some urgent work, a Rabbi should be asked.


11. Some laws of mourning apply to the next day – the Tenth of Av as well. In general, we start feeling the real happiness only by the fifteenth of Av, which used to be a small holiday in Talmudic times. In the future, the Ninth of Av and all other sad days will be turned into holidays.