The Beginning of the Three Weeks

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 24 July 2022

On Sunday we entered what is known as ‘the three weeks’ – the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, the day on which many Jews fast and mourn the destruction of the Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, then by the Romans in 70 CE. Over the centuries, the day of Tisha b’Av has accumulated many more tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people – the mass suicide of Jews in the tower in York in 1190, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the horrors of the Shoah.

If we consider the context in which this time was originally framed as one of mourning and self-flagellation, we consider the fact that in the ancient middle east, these were the months when the rainwater that had been collected in the winter was now at its lowest. What was left was at greater risk of disease and contamination. This, along with the often oppressive heat, meant that this was a time of danger. In the ancient mind, this danger originated from God – and must be a judgement on our behaviour. Hence, when faced with drought and famine, our ancestors would fast and afflict themselves in an attempt to win back divine favour.

The Destruction of the Temple was seen as a similar judgment, which each year we try to correct through acts of self-denial and supplication. The Talmud teaches that the cause of the Destruction was the fact that the people acted with sinat chinam – baseless hatred – towards each other.

This past week – the same week on which we began to prepare for Tisha b’Av, we experienced record temperatures – temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade, which many of us will only have experienced previously on holidays to desert resorts or perhaps a busy Tel Aviv market. Such temperatures are unprecedented, but this week climate scientists have been preparing us for the idea that such conditions will not be considered so unusual for much longer – these temperatures are set to become the norm.

We know the cause of this – it is not hatred towards each other, but a lack of concern for how human actions might affect our planet.

Rabbi Alan Lew characterises the feeling of Destruction and desolation of this time of year as the beginning of our journey to the High Holy Days – particularly of Yom Kippur, in which we will face up to our responsibility in the world, and our power to change it, and culminating in Sukkot, in which we literally build our temporary huts that lack the grandeur of the Temple but do acknowledge our closeness to the planet – acknowledges that our fate is bound up with the very planet we call home.

So, as the beginning of the three weeks set us on our journey to self-discovery and awareness of our own power and responsibility, may the heat this week set us on a journey to a society that is more cognisant of our responsibility to the planet, and a better understanding of how we might build a world in which 40 degrees in London is not the norm.

Shabbat Shalom