The Three Weeks, also called Bein ha-Metzarim are a period of mourning in Jewish tradition. The term literally translates as “between the straits,” referring to a period of physical and even spiritual exile undergone by the Jews in ancient times. The observance is a mournful one, commemorating the first and second destructions of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. During the Three Weeks, Jewish people may fast, avoid meat, refrain from celebrations, and even stop listening to music.
The commemorative period works according the Jewish calendar, beginning on the 17th day in the month of Tammuz and ending the ninth day of the following month, Av. Both the beginning and end dates are traditionally fasts corresponding to the destruction of the temple. Though there is some confusion about the exact historical dates of the razing, the first destruction is believed to have occurred around 586 BCE, and the second in 70 CE.
According to religious texts, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem had stood for several hundred years when it was destroyed by the Babylonians on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the rebuilt temple was completed around 515 BCE. The second destruction by the Romans in 70 CE was a disaster for the Jewish people. The temple has never been rebuilt, though parts of the outer wall, called the Western or Wailing Wall, remain intact.
During the Three Weeks, traditional readings are given at Jewish temples from their holy books. The three readings of rebuke or affliction are prophecies regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, and explain why the tragedy occurred. These are followed by the seven readings of consolation, which give comfort and describe how a reunion of the Jewish people and God will follow the destruction. Two final readings, called the two of repentance, complete the cycle of specific texts.
The last nine days of the Three Weeks are often the most restrictive, lasting from the first day of Av until the conclusion of the mourning period on the ninth day. Followers are supposed to restrict themselves from any activity that brings them joy, including leisure shopping, vacations, weddings, parties, and consumption of more than basic food. Some Rabbis even recommend avoiding washing clothes or taking warm baths and showers. The Nine Days culminate with the fasting day of Tisha B’av, which ends the three weeks.
The degree of seriousness with which these customs are observed varies on an individual level as well as between different sects of the faith. Ashkenazi Jews often carry out the strictest observances. Sephardic members may only observe some of the customs, or may do so for a shorter time. Yet the degree of participation varies from person to person, and some Jews may not undertake any customary restrictions at all during the Three Weeks.