Thursday, March 30, 2023

Why did my Sephardic neighbor get a haircut in the middle of the Three Weeks and even in the midst of the Nine Days? Why are they doing their laundry and bathing during the Nine Days? Doesn’t this run counter to the halacha?

The answer is that it runs counter to the Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, who is the major arbiter of Ashkenazic Halacha. However, Rav Yosef Karo, the father of Sephardic Halacha (referred to reverently by Sephardim as Maran) is far more lenient than Rama regarding mourning during the Three Weeks and Nine Days.

When examining the original halacha as presented in the Mishnah and Gemara of the last perek of Masechet Ta’anit (as well as the Rambam), one discovers that Sephardim hew very closely to the original halacha. Bathing, haircutting and laundry are forbidden only during the shavua she’hal bo Tisha B’Av, the week in which Tisha B’Av is observed. Ashkenazic custom has expanded the prohibitions of bathing and laundry to the entire Nine Days, and haircutting to the entire Three Weeks.

Sephardim are even more meikel (lenient) in a year such as ours when Tisha B’Av falls out on Shabbat but is observed on Sunday. Maran cites two approaches in the Rishonim as to whether the entire week before the Ninth of Av in this year is regarded as the shavua she’hal bo Tisha B’Av. The primary opinion, as explained by Hacham Ovadia Yosef and Hacham Yitzhak Yosef, does not regard the week before the Ninth of Av that falls on Shabbat as the shavua she’hal bo Tisha B’Av. Thus, bathing, haircutting and laundry are permitted this entire week for Sephardic Jews.

The question, though, is why Sephardim have not adopted a stricter approach to the mourning of the Three Weeks and Nine Days. A standard answer is that Sephardic Halacha tends to be more conservative than Ashkenazic Halacha. As we know, the Rambam was much more of a “strict constructionist” than the Baalei Tosafot. Ashkenazic practice is more open to expanding stringencies than are Sephardim. Those who have studies Hilchot Shehita, for example, are familiar with the myriad of humrot (stringencies) adopted by the Ashkenazic community regarding shehita, which are far more restrictive than the rules presented in Masechet Hullin.

Menahem Besthof, a beloved member of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, offers an additional explanation for why Sephardic practice tends toward a lenient observance of the Three Weeks and Nine Days. He notes that these periods of mourning are intended to ease us into the mourning of Tisha B’Av. Menahem argues that in a certain way, such preparation is inappropriate since we are bidden to hope and yearn for the Mashiah’s arrival each and every day. Why should we prepare for Tisha B’Av if we are not certain that Tisha B’Av will be observed as a mournful day this year? Thus, Sephardim observe a much more minimal mourning during the Three Weeks and Nine Days.

Often, Ashkenazic Jews need to observe Sephardic practices in order to understand their own. The Ashkenazic practice to recite Av HaRahamim, for example, does not date back to the time of the Gemara. Rather, it was composed in the wake of the suffering of Ashkenazic Jewry during the Crusader era. Thus, noticing the absence of Av HaRahamim from the Sephardic liturgy facilitates a greater understanding of the Ashkenazic liturgy. Similarly, observing one’s Sephardic neighbors adopt a more lenient approach to the Three Weeks and Nine Days offers a precious insight into the Ashkenazic halachic tradition, as we have outlined.

In the final analysis, all Jews share Menahem Besthof’s hope that our observance of the Three Weeks and Nine Days should be for naught and that this Tisha B’Av should be one of rejoicing over the arrival of the Mashiah and rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash.

Rabbi Haim (Howard) Jachter is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

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