When Do ‘The Three Weeks’ Start?
Several years ago, a certain Talmid Chacham could not find an available wedding hall for the wedding of his daughter. The only open date was the night of Shiva Assar b'Tammuz. To the astonishment of many, he booked it! Although he made sure that the Chupa was before nightfall, he was heard to have commented that many people do not realize when the period known as ‘The Three Weeks’ actually starts.
We are entering the period of mourning that the Midrash refers to as “Bein HaMetzarim”, or ‘Between the Confines (Straits)’. This period of Three Weeks commemorates the heralding of the beginning of the tragedies that took place prior to the destruction of both Batei Hamikdash, from the breaching of the walls of ancient Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz, until the actual destruction of the Beit HaMikdash on the 9th of Av. As detailed in the Mishna and Gemara Ta’anit both of these days have since become communal Fast Days in remembrance of the tragedies that happened on these days.
In order to properly commemorate and feel the devastation, halacha dictates various restrictions on us during these “Three Weeks”, getting progressively stringent up until Tisha B’Av. These restrictions include not getting married, not getting haircuts unless specific need, refraining from public music and dancing, not putting oneself in an overly dangerous situation, and not making the shehechiyanu blessing on a new item (meaning to refrain from purchasing a new item which one would be required to make said blessing).
These above restrictions follow Ashenazic practice as instituted by many Rishonim and later codified by Ashkenazic authorities. Although there are several Sefardic authorities who maintain that Sefardim should at least follow the Ashkenazic minhag of starting the 9 Days restrictions from Rosh Chodesh Av, nevertheless, most Sefardim start these restrictions only from the actual week of Tisha B’Av as per the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 551:10).
There is some debate in recent Rabbinic literature as to when these prohibitions of the Three Weeks actually start. I was actually asked this sheilah a few times yesterday alone.
“Rabbi, I know tonight the Three Weeks technically start, since the start of a halachic new day is the preceding evening, but since the Fast of 17th of Tammuz only starts in the morning, can I still get a haircut and/or shave this evening?”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addressed a similar question over 60 years ago, whether one may get married on the night of the 17th of Tammuz. He noted that there is some debate in the early authorities whether the restrictions depend on the fast day itself. Meaning that if the ‘Three Week’ restrictions are dependant on the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, then they would only start at the same time the fast does - on the morning of the 17th. But if they are considered independent of each other, then the restrictions would start on the preceding evening, even though the fast itself would only start the next morning. Rabbi Feinstein maintained that since that is not clear-cut in the Rishonim, and the whole issue of the restrictions of the ‘Three Weeks’ is essentially a minhag to show communal mourning, which is only recognizable in the morning when everyone is fasting, and especially as a wedding is considered l’tzorech - a considerable need - he ruled that one may be lenient and get married on the eve of the 17th of Tammuz.
Several poskim extrapolate that Rabbi Feinstein would have held similarly by a haircut - that if there is great need, then one may be lenient as well on the eve of the 17th of Tammuz.
However, Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner disagrees with this theory and maintains that regarding a wedding (especially on Motzai Shabbat, which actually was the original question asked to Rabbi Feinstein) there is more halachic rationale to rely upon than for a simple haircut. Furthermore, he concludes, haircuts are generally not considered a great need.
Interestingly, years later, Rabbi Feinstein addressed this issue directly, ruling that the same leniency does apply to haircuts and one may therefore take a haircut on the evening of the 17th of Tammuz in times of great need, and not as Rabbi Wosner understood his opinion.
Nevertheless, many contemporary halachic decisors, including Rabbi Wosner, as well as Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and the Tzitz Eliezer, feel that the issue is a moot point, and that even for a wedding, let alone a haircut, one should not exercise leniency, as the evening of the 17th is already considered part and parcel of the ‘Three Weeks’, and included in the restrictions thereof.
So, even if one feels he needs a haircut desperately (perhaps someone suffering from lycanthropy) on the 16th of Tammuz, it is definitely preferable to get a haircut right away and not wait until evening and thereby subject oneself to a halachic dispute.
However, it’s important not to lose the forest for the trees. Instead of debating the finer points of whether a haircut is permitted or forbidden, it is important for us all to remember that these restrictions were instituted by Chazal to publicly show our mourning during the most devastating time period on the timeline of the Jewish year. As the Mishna Berura notes, the focus of these days of sorrow serve to remind us of the national tragedies that befell our people, and the events that led to them. Our goal should then be to utilize these restrictions to focus inward, at our own personal challenges in our relationship with G-d, and rectify that negativity which led to these tragic events in our history.