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The Kabbalah of the Three Weeks

Breaking Walls

Breaking Walls

The Hebrew letter Tet represents the concept of “pregnancy” in both its form and its numerical value.
The Hebrew letter Tet represents the concept of “pregnancy” in both its form and its numerical value.

There is no time more tragic, no period more painful, no suffering more acute than what has befallen the Jewish people, throughout history, during the Three Weeks.

Beginning on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and ending with the 9th day of the month of Av, the Jewish people, as individuals and as a collective whole, mourn and commemorate the many painful attempts at our destruction which occurred in this time.How do we diminish the pain and suffering which comes when Av enters?

The list of tragedies associated with this time period is overwhelming. Tammuz 17, the day which starts these three weeks, is the same day when, in the year 1313 BCE, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were broken.1 On that same day, some 1380 years later, the legions of Rome breached the walls of Jerusalem after a 30-month siege. For three weeks the battle raged in Jerusalem, until the city was vanquished, the Holy Temple destroyed and the Jewish people driven into exile. Thus we entered the state of galut (physical and spiritual displacement) in which we still find ourselves today.2

And yet, this was only the beginning.

Three tragic weeks later we arrive at Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. Predominantly known as the day on which both the first and second Holy Temples were destroyed—the First Temple by the Babylonians in 423 BCE, and the Second Temple by the Romans in 69 CE—the Ninth of Av is also associated with many other horrific events, preceding the destruction of the Temples and continuing until the present.3

(By a cruel irony, the day originally chosen by the Israeli government for the expulsion of thousands of men, women and children from their homes in Gush Katif and the other settlements in the Gaza Strip fell within the Three Weeks. But that date was changed due to tremendous pressure from Jews the world over, aghast that the government of Israel would add to the list of our sufferings during this tragic period.)

Jewish law mandates a series of mourning observances during the Three Weeks. The 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are both fast days. For the entire Three Weeks we do not hold weddings; like mourners, we refrain from cutting our hair, listening to music, or purchasing or wearing new clothes. In the final nine days of the Three Weeks (i.e., from the 1st to the 9th of Av) we enter a period of heightened mourning: in addition to the above mourning practices, we do not eat meat or drink wine, do not bathe for pleasure, and in general refrain from any activities whose purpose is pleasure and enjoyment.

These three weeks are referred to by the prophet Jeremiah as bein hametzarim, literally “between the constrictions.” The word meitzar, “constriction,” is the root of the word mitzrayim, “Egypt,” alluding to our days of being enslaved in our first galut. When we are constricted, we are in a state of exile—we are not able to express ourselves or be who we truly are.

Yet, as is true with most everything in Judaism, nothing is as simple as it appears. Our prophets prophesied that the Ninth of Av will ultimately be revealed as the greatest and most joyous of all the days of the year. Even now, as we fast and mourn on this day, Jewish law alludes to its future status as a moed, a day of joyous celebration: it is for this reason that we omit tachanun (“supplication” prayers and confession of sins) from our daily prayers on the Ninth of Av, as we do on festivals and other joyous days in our calendar.

In the Kabbalistic work Zohar we are shown how the entire period that we consider a period of mourning, the whole Three Weeks, is actually the seed for what will become this day of celebration.

The 21 days of the Bein HaMetzarim period begin on the 17th of Tammuz. The number 17 is numerically equivalent to tov, the word in Hebrew for “good.” Clearly this “good” is not a revealed good, yet concealed within the darkness is the good which will be revealed. Furthermore, while we have 21 days of this mourning state, we find that throughout the Jewish calendar there are also 21 days of festivity: Shabbat is one day; Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new month, is one day; Passover, the holiday marking our breaking out of slavery and into freedom, is seven days; Shavuot, considered the day of our wedding to our Creator, when we merited to receive the Torah, is one day; Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year, is two days; Yom Kippur is one day; Sukkot is seven days; and Shemini Atzeret (Simchat Torah) is one day. Thus: 1+1+7+1+2+1+7+1=21. Now, if these numbers seem off to you, there is a reason. The days equal 21 only if they are calculated according to how the festivals are observed in the Land of Israel, where most holidays are one day shorter than they are in the Diaspora. This already is an allusion that the true way to celebrate our holy days is the way that it is done in the Land of Israel. And we know that one of the first things that will be done when we are redeemed is that all Jews will be returned to our true home, in the Holy Land of Israel.

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) we are told that the 21 days of the Three Weeks correspond to a vision that the prophet Jeremiah had concerning the destruction of the Temple. Jeremiah saw a makel shaked, “a staff of almond wood,” and heard G‑d warning him that evil was imminent—“For I will hasten (shoked) My word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:11–12). The Talmud explains: “The almond takes 21 days from when it blossoms until it ripens. This corresponds to the 21 days between the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the Ninth of Av, when the Holy Temple was burned.”Everything, no matter how dark or how seemingly bad, has the ability to turn around . . .

The famed “Gaon of Rogatchov” (Rabbi Joseph Rosin, 1858–1936) writes that inherent in G‑d’s warning to Jeremiah was a consolation. Almonds start off bitter and become sweet as they develop (in contrast to another kind of nut called luz, which starts off sweet and becomes bitter). This is why the 21 days of Bein HaMetzarim are alluded to by the 21-day “staff of almond wood”: not only are we able to negate the bitterness of these days, but we are capable of turning their bitterness to sweetness, of transforming these days of mourning into days of rejoicing and gladness.

Another allusion to this is in the famous Talmudic statement, Mishenichnas Av memaatin besimchah. The basic meaning of these four words is “When Av enters, we decrease in joy.” However, because the original Talmudic text contains no punctuation marks, this statement can be read in two ways. On the one hand, yes, practically speaking, because of the tragedies that befell the Jewish people during the month of Av, we minimize our joy. However, now that we know that the good is only hidden and will soon be revealed, we can also read it another way: “When Av enters we decrease, in joy.” How do we diminish the pain and suffering which comes when Av enters? Specifically through the simchah, through a positive outlook and a joyous approach.

And we end the three weeks with a similar reminder. On the Ninth of Av we read the kinot (“lamentations”), a collection of poetic prayers describing the terrible events that we suffered as a people. Yet if we just turn the letters around, we have the word tikkun, rectification, showing that everything, no matter how dark or how seemingly bad, has the ability to turn around.4

Being that the Ninth of Av is in the month of Av, we must also look at the esoteric dimensions of the month itself to have an even deeper understanding of this time period. As is explained in Sefer Yetzirah (the earliest book of Kabbalah we have, and which is attributed to Abraham himself), each month of the Jewish year has a letter that represents it, and each letter can be interpreted according to its form, its shape, its numerical value and its meaning.

The letter which represents the month of Av is tet, which is the 9th letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and its gematria (numerical value) is also 9. As the first letter of the word tov, the tet represents the concept of concealed good which is waiting to be revealed. It also represents the concept of pregnancy, both in its form (with its rounded, introverted shape) and numerical value (alluding to the nine months of pregnancy). See image above.

Indeed, one of the classic metaphors in Jewish thought is that pregnancy represnts a state of constriction, for it is a time when hidden good is concealed and constricted within, until the moment comes for it to be birthed and revealed into this world. It is vital to remember that pregnancy does not exist just on a physical level, but rather we are all—both men and women— considered to constantly be in various stages of pregnancy, be it spiritual or emotional or intellectual. Thus the mitzvah of pru urevu, “Be fruitful and multiply,” does not just mean to physically have children, but also that we are commanded to be creative, to use our G‑d-given talents to create within this world.

The state of pregnancy is thus a state of being constricted, in which we are not yet able to fully manifest our potential or the latent or hidden good that is within. But as we often find, it is the work we accomplish when enslaved and constricted that allows us to truly appreciate our freedom. Only through limitation can we understand what it means to be limitless. And so, the very key to our celebration, our redemption, can be found in this time of constrictedness.

The Ninth of Av is the tet day of Av, the pregnant day of the pregnant month. Incredibly, the sages teach that Moshiach will be born on the Ninth of Av (and there are different opinions as to whether this will be his physical birth or his spiritual birth). In other words, our redeemer will be revealed and bring our world to a state of revelation on the very day that during our exile has represented terrible destruction. In the midst of our destruction, we have the ability for rebirth.

The same is true of the day that marks the beginning of our mourning period, the 17th day of Tammuz. If our walls are always up, then no one can come in and we cannot get out; they are a barrier that becomes a prisonOn this day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, leading to the destruction and the exile. However, there is something positive that can result from the breaking down of walls. There is some “good” (alluded to in the number 17 = tov = good) here which can also be the seeds of a very positive process. The only way we can rebuild is when we are willing to first tear down the present structure, to break down the walls. This is certainly true not only on a physical level, but psychologically, emotionally and spiritually as well. If anything, these barriers are often harder to break than even the highest and thickest physical wall.

A wall is something that keeps others out, that protects and hides what is kept behind it. Walls are necessary, especially in an imperfect world. However, there are times when we need to let down our walls in order to truly experience and feel and grow. If our walls are always up, then no one can come in and we cannot get out; rather than mere protection, they become a form of escape, of separation, a barrier that becomes a prison.

This is the true work that we must do, both individually and globally. We must look within and without, and start breaking down our walls. We must break our walls of fear, distrust, ignorance and hate, and we must destroy them to the ground. Then, when we are standing in the midst of the rubble, when we can finally see one another again and there is nothing blocking us, we can begin the process again, brick by brick. But this time, rather than building a wall, we will build a home, a home that can be shared by all, and where all are welcome. And through this, we will finally be able to reveal the goodness that has been concealed for so long, and bring meaning to the confusion and purpose to the apparent chaos. Then we will no longer experience these days as days of mourning, but rather of celebration and joy, for we will truly be redeemed.

The breaking of the tablets was a national tragedy of the highest order, as it marked the first breakdown in the covenant between G‑d and the people of Israel. Just 40 days after that covenant was entered into with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the people made and worshipped a golden calf, resulting in the breaking of the tablets which represented their “marriage contract” with G‑d. Since the physical and national events that befall us as a people directly mirror the state of our relationship with G‑d, the breaking of the tablets is the source of all tragedies of Jewish history. In the words of our sages, “There is no catastrophe that befalls Israel that does not have in it something of the catastrophe of the golden calf.”
Three other tragic events occurred on 17 Tammuz that are associated with the destruction of the two Temples: the service in the First Temple was disrupted, three weeks before its destruction by the Babylonians in 423 BCE; a Torah scroll was burned by Apostomos, a Greek or Roman officer; and an idol was erected in the Temple’s sanctuary.
On the ninth of Av it was decreed the generation of the Exodus would not merit to enter into the Land of Israel, following the nationally ruinous incident of the spies. It is the day when Beitar, the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem, was conquered and cruelly destroyed by the Romans in 133 CE. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was on this date. Most recently, the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which resulted in 86 deaths and at least 120 wounded, occurred on 9 Av in 1994.
From Kol Bochim (“The Crying Voice”), a Kabbalistic commentary on the Book of Lamentations, written in 1589 by Rabbi Avraham Galante, student of Rabbi Moshe Cardovero (Ramak)
Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Alma Lopez Hollywood July 11, 2013

In Our Hands Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your article, well documenting an overwhelming amount of attempts that occurred, in such a narrow time, from the 17 of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, like a flame that insisted to stay on, throughout that period of time, but as dark as appears in every angle, there is a depth in it. “The Tablets” containing the Ten Commandments were broken’ on the year ‘1313 BCE’ as you recount, a number that makes two times the number ‘1’ ‘1 and 1’, then we see the number ‘8’ as the total sum, very transparent to me. As you said ’17’ means ‘Tov’ same as ’Good’ which is when all these events started, from the ’17 of Tammuz to the ‘9 th of Av’ there are 21 days, which ‘21’ is equal to ‘very good’, then the letter ‘Tet’ that represent pregnancy, which mean ‘the greatest expectation for every, woman, home and entire family, the time when our face shine without effort, an inner excitement that goes beyond our natural stage, like the staff of Aaron blossoming with almonds overnight, it takes 21 days for the almonds to grow as well. In my humble opinion and by the Grace of G-d, I see a cloud of glory on these 21 days, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, all angles appoint to be joyful instead of sad or sorrow, why will I be sad during nine months expecting my baby? if these numbers and letters are truly convey, a twist to our DNA may happen, when the grasp of the depth of this numbers are truly telling us, for sure the outcome will go from ‘good’ to ‘very good’ to clap and dance instead of cry, and Moshiach be reveal in all His glory, as the waters cover the seas. May our will be His Will to help us.
I thank G-d for letting me express His Will in your article.

Anonymous July 2, 2013

3 weeks Nice article. Thank you.

If you count the days of the "3 weeks", with the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av, there are actually 22 days. Any explanation? Reply

Jake Waldman Upper Darby, Pennsylvania June 11, 2013

The Three Weeks Fantastic article! I found it to be very helpful and informative. I like how you included every little detail of the holiday's festivities and its past. I look forward to reading many more articles you have typed up. Keep writing! I wish you could have been my teacher. תודה Reply

Yaacov Philadelphia July 10, 2012

Nice article (Tet) Cont. This make up of the 10 commandments indicates that their application relates to the male aspect as implied by the 248 positive commandments.
It is pointed out in Sefer Raziel, the book given to Adam HaRishon by the angel Raziel, that only men have 248 limbs. Women in fact have 252. The significance of this is because G-d intended for man and woman to become one and be fruitful and multiply (Pru u'rvu). The phrase "Pru u'rvu" has a numerical value of 500 which is also the sum of the limbs of man and woman together. It also is the number associated with the distance connecting Heaven to the earth (500 years). The name of G-d usually associated with conception and birth is Shin, Dalet and Yud. Sefer Raziel explains that the middle and final letters from the expanded spelling of these letters has a value of 500 and is the source from which all of this unfolds. Reply

Yaacov Philadelphia July 10, 2012

Nice article (Tet) Interesting and timely piece. It's worth noting that sweet almond and bitter almond are two completely different species. Sweet almonds (Prunus amygdalus dulcis) are what we eat. Bitter almonds (Prunus amygdalus amara) are generally inedible and are the source of cyanide. It is worth noting that according to Torah the bitter almond in very small does is used medicinally.
The letter Tet is mention in the Bahir (Ch. 124) as being associated with the womb and also the crown of kingship as it is expressed in the feminine. This is called "Atarah" like Eshet Chayil Ateret Balah as contrasted with Keter which is the masculine aspect. This even extends to the form of the letter which is like an upright cup to receive. Rabbi Nehuniah goes on to say that the Tet is the only letter not included in the 10 commandments. In fact, the 10 commandments which hold 613 letters correspond to the 248 bones of the body (positive commandments) and the 365 nerves (negative commandments). (Continued...) Reply

David New York, NY/USA July 28, 2009

Breaking Walls & The Hidden Good Thank you for your insightful article. I particularly liked the section on metaphors and thoughts on pru u'revu ("be fruitful and multiply"). I happen to be a gay man in a committed, fulfilling and loving relationship for 30 years and never waivered from a connection with my Jewish faith in the Conservative sector while my sister and then my mother started out with little faith and became Torah Jews. Our familial relationship unfortunately had a long period of disconnect due to their changed strong stance on homosexuality and on the advisement of their rebbi to sever ties. My sister and I have since been able to mend fences as long as I live by her set of rules and keep my partner out of the picture around her 4 kids who I adore. She was diagnosed with inoperable cancer a year and 3 months ago and it has brought our family much pain but also an ironic closeness yet I never give up hope of an improved relationship with family and G-d. I am in a creative field of work so I am glad to be fruitful in that aspect. Reply

Silvia Haia Antonucci Rome, Italy July 15, 2009

Temples' destructions Dear Mrs. Crispe,
thank you so much for your article, I liked it very much, it is well written and full of interesting information. But there is something that I do not understand: you wrote that the first Temple was destroyed in 423 bce, but I know that it was destroyed in 586 bce. And you write that the second Temple was destroyed in 69 ce, but I know that it was destroyed in 70 c.e.: where did you find your information? Which is your source?
I am looking for your answer.
Silvia Haia Antonucci Reply

Dr. Amy Austin La Quinta, Ca/USA July 21, 2008

Breaking Walls...Outward and Within... Thank you for an intricate, detailed, and meaningful article. You give much inspiration and hope to those who face a myriad of challenges. From the beginning of time, Jews have faced almost insurmountable odds, only to flourish today as testimony to the light that dispels the darkness. We must know that life is a presentation of a tension of opposites. And, be aware that light still exists in the darkness. You prove the point in a historical as well as spiritual portrayal. Todah rabah (thank you) and ha kol tov (everything should be good)...

Anonymous Montreal, Canada July 1, 2007

As usual, a beautifully written article by Sarah Esther, presented in a manner which is both enlightening and easy to follow.
To Steve in Toronto: Clearly, you must still carry hope in your heart as you are searching and reaching out by reading the material presented on this site.... Reaching out is an expression of hope. As one reader suggested, consulting a rabbi would certainly prove helpful and may provide you with additional referrals which will reopen your world again and provide you with the sustenance you need at this very difficult time. Remember that you are a gift to this world. G-d bless you Steve. Reply

Jessica Klein Levenbrown Los Angeles, CA July 30, 2006

yesher koach Terrific article. You make clear and accessible very complex and dense material. Thank you so much. Reply

chana boas Givat Zeev, Israel July 13, 2006

superb article, deep and articulate. I use it a lot for teaching.May G-d bless you with the wisdom and strength to write many more such as these! Reply

sholom ber July 22, 2005

Nice article. However, if there a good part to the story of the destruction of the Holy Temple, why do we cry about it, and why did we get because of our bad deeds and not because of our good deeds? Reply

Anonymous July 21, 2005

Yes. I believe the events and rhythms of the Jewish calendar weave through the lives of individual Jews.

It is said life echos the Parsha of the week, every week all year.

I hope you will consult a Chabad rabbi about the things you mention, right away. This is the hard part of the year. In time, we will be eating apples and honey in October, but we must work for them, and get through this period.

Good Shabbos. Reply

Sara Esther Crispe July 21, 2005

Author Response Dear Steve,
Everything that we experience as a whole, as a Jewish people, pertains to each and every individual Jew on a microcosmic level. Our personal lives are likewise a reflection of us as a people. It is so hard when we undergo difficult and traumatic situations to see the hidden good, however, we are taught that while we are stuck in this state of exile, we must view it as a difficult pregnancy, in which we await the miraculous birth. And we know, as we near the delivery, the pain only increases. And it is specifically when it is most excruciating, that we know we are near the end (really the beginning). Unfortunately, in exile, we sometimes don't even know we are pregnant, so we just feel this horrible pain, that is speedily increasing, unaware that if we just hold on, the birth is about to come. I know this won't take away your current suffering, but I do pray for you that you give birth soon to a new, healthy and wonderful reality. Reply

Steve Silverton Toronto, Canada July 19, 2005

Breaking Walls Does this hidden good in the sufering of the Jewish people also pertain to individuals? I have gone through a terrible time in the last few years that culminated with a some terrible news yesterday.

I am trying to establish some hope but I am finding it difficult and I am contemplating giving up.

Please comment. Reply

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