August 1-10 is known in the Jewish calendar as The Nine Days. These are the final days of a unit of time known as The Three Weeks, which culminates in the saddest day of the Jewish year: Tisha b’Av.
Tisha b’Av is a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temple that stood in Jerusalem. And throughout Jewish history, other calamities befalling the Jewish people occurred on this day. It is the national Jewish day of mourning.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the people reacted with extreme grief. The centerpiece of their lives, of their Judaism, had been destroyed. How were they to go on? They were left with fragmented lives. In this terrible aftermath, profound bereavement ensued. The people were left without solace; left licking their wounds, and the wounds of Jerusalem — the pinnacle of our longing as a people.
There are a number of Talmudic passages, narrative style passages, that reflect the people’s pain in wrestling with the destruction. One of the more curious ways in which grief was expressed was culinary. As food is an integral part of our daily, physical, lives, some chose to cease eating all meat and wine, as these foods were a symbol of joy.
By limiting their daily diet to a vegetarian one, it was their way of living with the constant reminder of deprivation due to the destruction of the Temple. It was a way of imposing chronic absence and, ultimately, sadness. This particular response to destruction, people attenuating their lives so completely and so chronically, was challenged.
Instead of being lauded for this effort to remember and live the destruction of the temple so viscerally, so unrelentingly, so constantly and comprehensively, the Tannaitic Rabbis of this era took a different path.
When the Temple was destroyed a second time, more Jews would not eat meat or drink wine.
Rabbi Yehoshua joined them. He said to them: “Why do you not eat meat or drink wine.” They said, “Shall we eat meat of which we would bring on the altar, when now sacrifices are cancelled? Shall we drink wine, that was poured on the altar, and now libations are cancelled?”
He said, “If so we won’t eat bread, since grain offerings are cancelled.”
They responded, “It’s possible to live on just fruit.”
This dialogue continued, as Rabbi Yehoshua illustrated to this group of people how this line of thinking can be applied to something as essential as water. “We won’t drink water, because the water libation has been cancelled.” At which point, the people fell silent.
Ultimately, Rabbi Yehoshua’s lesson was that life — even after destruction, even after or while intertwined with grief — moves forward. He referred to the limits these people had imposed upon themselves, as “excessive bereavement,” and instead promoted and taught that there are limits on grief.
But once a year, as rabbinic Judaism sought to recreate a mourning period in order to sensitize us to the absence of the Temple, it’s destruction, and most importantly, the cause for the calamity, one of the laws put in place was that for the nine days leading up to Tisha b’Av, no meat or wine is permitted.
It’s ironic that we get invited to sushi soirees and the like during The Nine Days. While true that meat or wine are not served, somehow I think that kind of excessive, luxurious dining counters the purpose of this dietary restriction.
And yet, each year as The Nine Days rolls around, it does somehow seem like an opportunity to make small changes for a limited amount of time in our Western diet which is filled with so much animal protein.
Since only dairy or pareve foods are allowed, it’s an opportunity to try and cut out beef and poultry. Although fish and eggs are still animal protein, compared to more serious animal protein infractions, they are of the healthier variety.
These days, with the deluge of information about plant based eating, The Nine Days is a wonderful opportunity to eat a little healthier and a little greener. And maybe, just maybe, it can serve as a start to eating a little more mindfully, with a little more attention to greens and beans, instead of steaks and schnapps.
Personally, I’ve always loved the dairy heavy Nine Days menus that are brought out each summer. Creamy, dreamy milchig noodle kugels, stretchy pizzas, rich soups and luxuriously cheesy pasta dishes.
But it’s actually another example of cutting out meat and not truly streamlining your eating. So I’ve been making an effort to focus on less dairy — or at least less fatty dairy — and instead add in more legumes and grains: roasted stuffed eggplants garnished with tahini, mint and pomegranates, spinach-filled spanakopita, fish tacos, deviled eggs, soups, vegetarian chili, falafel, shakshuka, gazpachos and smoothies —and of course there is always good old cereal and milk. Hey, knock yourself out.
Enjoy the healthful change during the Nine Days. It’s an opportunity to simultaneously make an effort toward increased plant based eating, while remembering the destruction of Jerusalem of Temple times.
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