Tuesday, 13 September 2011

JVO: Swimming During the Nine Days

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars.

This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.

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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?)


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. 
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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.

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