Judaism Takes A Holiday?Brief thoughts on ‘the other three weeks’
This is the calm before the storm of Ellul.
We’re now in the middle of an interesting phase of the Jewish calendar. The phase begins on the evening of 10 Av (26 July this year), the ending of the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple. It ends three weeks later on 1 Ellul (16 July this year) the month that begins the process of repentance and introspection that culminates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
What’s so interesting about this phase? It is its apparent lack of Jewish interest. With the minor exception of Tu B’Av (often a date for weddings in Israel) these three weeks contain no festivals, nor is it a transitional phase such Ellul, the Omer, or the three weeks before Tisha Ba’Av. True, such periods occur elsewhere in the Jewish calendar (most of the period between Chanukah and Tu Be’shvat for example), but there’s something about the last two thirds of Av that seems special; a kind of ‘calm before the storm’.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel argued, Judaism is a ‘religion of time’ in that, post-Temple at least, it builds holiness into the rhythms of the week, month and year rather than in buildings. Shabbat and festivals, although they do provide opportunities for rest, are not leisure-time activities. Indeed, the more observant you are, the more likely it is that your Shabbats and festivals are crowded with prayer, study and other activity.
The corollary of the Jewish sanctification of time is that Judaism leaves relatively little time ‘unprogrammed.’ Again, the more observant you are, the more likely it is that your life throbs with activity; indeed Haredi Judaism in particular is highly suspicious of ‘wasting’ time.
Yet in the latter 3 weeks of Av, at least some of this pressure to fill time is relaxed. Even in the Haredi world, this is one of the rare times of year when yeshivas often close.
Judaism never takes a holiday — its requirements persist throughout the year, and Shabbat recurs without a break. So perhaps we should see the ‘free’ weeks of Av in Jewish terms as well. Its sacredness lies in its apparent ‘emptiness’, its apparent lack of Jewish significance. This is precious and worth savouring as much as the full calendar that precedes and follows it.