Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Jewish Summer

While I do not disagree that summer is a time for fun. I do have to admit that the Jewish calendar does impose some challenges to the fun possibilities of summer. It is no accident that there is a Yiddish saying that highlights this decidedly “unfun” nature of the Jewish summer. In answer to what the rhythm of the Jewish summer is, the saying playfully tells us:
“Ziben vochen tzeilt men,
Drie vochen klocked men,
Feer vochen blozt men.”
“Seven weeks we count,
three weeks we cry,
and four weeks we blow.”
Each line refers to a different period during the spring or summer season, each one reflecting a specific observance, mood and custom. Let’s take them one at a time.

The first segment refers to the period that is just ending this past week. It is the phase of time that spans the weeks between the second day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. The commandment to count these days is found in the Book of Leviticus chapter 23 and is referred to as the counting of the Omer, the name of the sacrifice offered on the second day of Passover. One reason offered for the observance of this counting ritual is the notion that we are advancing spiritually from the day of the Exodus until the day of the receiving of the Torah. We count anxiously till that great moment of revelation at Sinai. Still nothing of a mournful nature here, but wait, that comes later in history.

The Talmud in Yevamot 62b relates that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died between this very segment of time between Pesach and Shavuot. We therefore have a practice to refrain from conducting public celebrations during this period of time; hence no weddings during this period, I should say during most of this period depending on your own personal custom. There are some variations and exceptions including of course the holiday of L’ag B’Omer, which is a super fun joyous day with weddings and celebrations galore.

The second period of time identified by the Yiddish saying is, the period of time that spans the three weeks from the Fast of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av when, “we cry”. The Fast of Tammuz commemorates the breach in the Temple wall along with other national tragedies that took place on that very same date. Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the Temple, seen by Jewish tradition as one of the greatest tragedies to befall our people. The three weeks between these two fast days are days of mourning for Ashkenazic Jews with no weddings or public celebrations. Sephardic Jews begin their mourning the week of Tisha B’Av. The mourning intensifies as the month of Av begins with some restricting their intake of meat and wine during these “Nine Days” from Rosh Chodesh until the fast itself on the Ninth of Av itself, excepting of course Shabbat when wine and meat are permitted.

Finally, the third phase of time “the four weeks that we blow” refers to the four weeks that we blow the Shofar on a daily basis, during the month of Elul. We do this in advance of New Year, Rosh Hashanah. During these four weeks one may marry, however it is a time of solemnity and introspection as we approach the High Holiday season. It is a month of time devoted to Teshuvah, repentance.

Some might take a look at the months ahead with dread but I strongly believe in the nobility and transcendent quality of the Jewish calendar. It presents us with ups and downs, moments of sorrow and times to rejoice, a way to express the entire spectrum of human emotions. But, most importantly it is a cycle of life that is compelling and meaningful, rich and varied. Not easy, but wonderful. Imposed sadness may be awkward or even annoying and meaningless to some, however our mourning of Jerusalem has affected the consciousness of our people. It is who we are and part of what we are about, we are a people of memory. Our very real mourning practices, sitting on the floor, fasting, crying, even led Napoleon to declare after witnessing Jews mourning with genuine fervor and grief on Tisha B’Av remarked that "a people - that passionately mourns a national tragedy that took place over 17 centuries ago - is eternal."