What is the reason behind the "no swimming during the 9 days" rule? Is it because it's fun? Because it's dangerous? Or because it's bathing? (If it's the last reason, does that really apply nowadays, when people pretty much bathe as usual during the 9 days?)
Before answering the specifics of this question, it is first important to understand the intent of the theme of these “9 Days”. Of course, the core day of this period is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a day which has been termed, in the language of our modern world, the national day of Jewish mourning. It is a day that we mourn national tragedies. It is thus, indeed, mourning which is at the essence of this day and the periods of time before it, the “Three Weeks” and the “9 Days.” To thus understand the 9 Days – and in specific terms, to answer your question – it is necessary to understand the Jewish expression of mourning. (At the conclusion of my answer, for those who may not be familiar with Tisha B’Av, the 9 Days or the Three Weeks, I will briefly touch upon them.)
Aveilut is the Hebrew term for the practice of mourning that follows the death of a loved one. There are many different considerations that are at the root of this practice but one of the most important of these is the allowance for a proper expression of the grief and sadness that is being felt. In this regard, the mourner is directed to limit actions of simcha, loosely translated as joy, and of pleasure leading to simcha. Included in these prohibitions is bathing – but it is important to recognize that it is bathing connected to pleasure that is limited, not bathing with a different purpose. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 381:61. This is the same rule that applies during the 9 Days when the mourning restrictions include this prohibition of bathing. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 551:16 with Mishneh Brura 551:89 and Sha’ar Ha’Tzion 551:94. Again, though, it is specifically bathing for pleasure that is prohibited.
An extension of this prohibition to include swimming is found in Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 551:35. The extension is actually very much straightforward for a similarity between bathing for pleasure and swimming seems rather obvious. The definition of bathing for pleasure still needs to be further defined. The Halacha distinguishes between pleasure and an action to remove discomfort. In this regard, for example, to bathe in order to remove a feeling of discomfort would be acceptable. As such, for example, Rabbi Aaron Felder, Moadei Yeshurun I, Laws of the Three Weeks and the Ninth of Av 2:17 states in the name of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that taking a cold shower during a heat wave would be permitted. It is pleasure that is prohibited, not the removal of discomfort. It is within the parameters of such reasoning that some people today, when bathing is more common then it was in the past and people feel discomfort if they do not bathe, bathe almost as usual during the 9 days. Such reasoning would, obviously, not apply to swimming as the purpose of swimming – for sure, over the length of the time of this activity -- is still pleasure rather than removal of discomfort. It should be noted, though, that in the same spirit as other laws of this time period, swimming for a different purpose would be permitted and this is why many Orthodox camps still maintain an instructional swim time during the 9 days even as free swim times are cancelled. One medically instructed to swim for exercise, of course, may also continue to swim.
So, in response to your question, it would simply seem that swimming is prohibited as an extension of the prohibition on bathing. The other two possible reasons mentioned, though, should not simply be discounted. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 551:1 states that with the beginning of the month of Av we lessen simcha and we also take into consideration the fact that this time period is one of “bad luck” for the Jewish People. Even as bathing for pleasure is a concern at this time, all activities of simcha are also to be undertaken under scrutiny. This does not mean that all activities that are pleasurable or fun are prohibited but lessening such activities during this time period is appropriate. Thus, even as swimming falls into the prohibition of bathing for pleasure and, as such, is directly prohibited, the fun nature of swimming in itself would be a consideration even if it wasn’t a derivative of bathing. In terms of the “bad luck” that is also a consideration during this time period, it is common for people to be more careful in their activities at this time and refrain from doing things that have a component of danger. In this regard, Rabbi Aaron Felder, Moadei Yeshurun I, Laws of the Three Weeks and the Ninth of Av 1:5 states that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would also tell people to avoid swimming in very deep water during the Three Weeks in consideration of the “bad luck” which surfaces for our people during these times. By extension, while swimming is prohibited for other reasons during the 9 days, there would also be a concern for danger.
* * * * *
Tisha B’Av, our tradition tells us, is a day on which many great tragedies befell the Jewish People. (See, further, Mishna Ta’anit 4:6.)The most horrific of these were the destructions of both Temples, both occurring on this day. Our tradition also informs us that it was on this day that the edict against the spies and the generation of the desert – that they would have to wander in the desert for 40 years and not enter the Land of Israel— was pronounced by God. In relatively modern times, amongst the other terrible events that occurred on this day was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Three weeks before Tisha B’Av, on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, a fast day that commemorates the breeching of the walls of the Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Second Temple (amongst other tragedies – see the above noted mishna), was established. This day also initiates a Three Week period of mourning that, culminates in Tisha B’Av. This period of mourning, unlike our normal practice of mourning which wanes with the passage of time, then intensifies as we approach Tisha B’Av. This intensification is marked by further restrictions during the 9 Days before Tisha B’Av beginning with Rosh Chodesh Av, the start of the new month.Thus there are practices which are forbidden within this whole three week period – such as haircuts and celebrations -- and some which are only forbidden for 9 days – such as the above noted bathing for pleasure.
The Mishnah states: “When [the month of] Av enters, gladness must be diminished” (Ta’anit 4:6). It is upon this basis that the somber prohibitions between the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av increase for the first Nine Days of Av. The Shulchan Arukh, compiled by Joseph Karo (1488-1575, Spain, Turkey, and Israel), is the generally accepted authority as to how this diminishment of gladness is to be observed. Among the stringencies are eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat), as well as cutting hair, bathing, and wearing freshly laundered clothes (Orach Chayim 551; to see this source online visit http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Shulchan_Aruch/Orach_Chaim/551).
Swimming in a pool is not specifically mentioned in the traditional sourcesand one can assume that the bathing prohibition has expanded to swimming in some circles. Although the Conservative Movement has not officially addressed the issue of bathing or swimming, it is noteworthy that it is not included among the prohibitions mentioned in Isaac Klein’s Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (JTS, 1979).
There are some Conservative authorities that do not emphasize or perhaps even observe many of the aforementioned mourning customs associated with the Three Weeks and Nine Days. Although, they would acknowledge, the Ninth of Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year, which must be observed, it commemorates a conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, which is no longer true. Therefore, they would say, it would be disingenuous to keep the entirety of mourning observances, knowing well that Israel and Jerusalem are under Israeli control within a Jewish State.
I contend that there is a value in adhering to the traditional spirit of the Jewish calendar, including the sense of mourning and somberness of the Nine Days. Today, it would be ludicrous, however, to expect that most Conservative Jews would refrain from bathing or wearing laundered clothes during the Nine Days. Such prohibitions conflict with our values of good health and hygiene, and social and professional etiquette. We don’t want to mistake the spirit of the law for the letter of the law.
There is no articulated Conservative standard on this issue. Therefore, I personally advise that if swimming in a pool violates the intended spirit of the Nine Days for you, then you should abstain from swimming. However, if swimming in the pool would not necessarily violate the mood of the of the season (for example, swimming for health, exercise, physical rehabilitation), then I would permit it.
Question: “What is the reason behind the "no swimming during the 9 days" rule? Is it because it's fun? Because it's dangerous? Or because it's bathing? (If it's the last reason, does that really apply nowadays, when people pretty much bathe as usual during the 9 days?)”
I presume you refer to the “nine days” prior to Tisha B’av (the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the occasion on our calendar when we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem). According to traditional authorities, many normal pleasurable activities are curtailed during the three weeks prior to Tisha B’av, and those prohibitions increase during the eight days prior to the holiday, and on the day itself.
Tisha B’av, because of the events that it commemorates, is an occasion of mourning. The evening begins with worship without music and melody, and worshipers also read the biblical book of Lamentations, a graphic depiction of the death and destruction with which Babylon afflicted the Israelite community of the land of Israel. (By the way, Lamentations is believed by tradition to have been authored by the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed first-hand the destruction of the First Temple).
The destruction of the Temple was seen as the most horrendous act that could have been perpetrated against the Israelites. The destruction of the Temple caused animal sacrifice to be completely stopped – the Temple was desecrated, and no sacrifice could be brought – and that meant that there could be no efficacious worship at the Temple, no communicating with God. The ceasing of sacrifice represented a severing of the tie between Israel and God. But more important is the understanding of the people of the time that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the Temple because God was angry at the Israelites. Their violation: They observed the letter of the Torah law, but not its spirit of helping one another. So the destruction represented God’s punishment of the Israelites.
So the 9th day of Av is a sad day – it is truly a day of mourning – as we remember the sinfulness of our ancestors. And during the three weeks prior to the holiday, traditionally observant Jews reduce the amount of joviality and gaiety that might come into our lives. For traditional Jews, weddings are not permitted to take place, nor are engagements allowed to occur. Listening to music, singing, or otherwise enjoying oneself is curtailed during this period.
Swimming for enjoyment is viewed by the traditional community as an act of fun, and is therefore prohibited during this period of “mourning.” Other “enjoyable” activities that some avoid include eating of meat, dancing, building of buildings that are for aesthetic purposes, etc.
Swimming for hygienic purposes is permitted under certain circumstances, but one should ask one’s Rabbi for specific permissible activities.
In the liberal or progressive communities, the observance of Tisha B’av is taking on a different complexion in this era. Some believe that we have no more sustained reasons to mourn since we have a land and a holy city that we can visit and venerate. Others turn the commemoration into days of service to the community, performing the actions of tzedakah that our ancestors, according to the book of Jeremiah and Lamentations, did NOT perform. That is, they are trying to recover the spirit of the law, in addition to its letter.
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