The Mishna in Maseches Ta’anis famously teaches that “Mishenichnas Av Mema’atin BeSimcha”, ‘When the month of Av arrives (Rosh Chodesh Av), we lessen our joy’. Since many catastrophes and national tragedies befell our people during this time period, including the destruction of both of the Batei HaMikdash on Tisha B’Av, halacha dictates various restrictions on us in order to mourn our great losses, and properly commemorate by feeling the devastation. One of these restrictions is not to bathe during the “Nine Days”, the nine day mourning period from Rosh Chodesh Av until Tisha B’Av. Although bathing is noticeably absent from the Gemara’s restrictions of the Nine Days, all the same, this opinion of the Ravyah is codified as halacha by the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Rema (Orach Chaim 551, 16).
Nevertheless, and quite interestingly, the most common question a Rabbi is likely to receive this time of year is if it is permissible to take a shower during the Nine Days.
Although, at first glance from a preliminary reading of Rabbinic literature on topic, showering seems to be black on white prohibited, yet, from the works of many contemporary authorities it seems a better question would be if there is a hetter not to take at least some sort of shower during the Nine Days!
First of all, it must be noted that with the vast majority of world Jewry living in the Northern hemisphere, the Nine Days (not so conveniently) falls out during the hottest part of year, during the blazing summer. When someone is asking his rabbi for a halachic dispensation to take a shower, he is not merely asking a theoretical question. It is usually someone sweating heavily, caked in perspiration and often afflicted from odoriferous emanations. This is especially germane this summer, with the mercury in some places nearing 100°F (37°C) already in June! [I can’t wait for August!]
Hygiene or Pleasure ?
If we were to ask our suffering friend why he wanted to take a shower, he would most likely reply “to get rid of the sweat and stickiness and feel like a human being again”. The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 551, 37), already in the 1890’s, ruled that one whose body is dirty can bathe during the Nine Days (even using hot water) in order to get clean, since he is not bathing for pleasure. In other words, the Aruch Hashulchan is teaching us that the restrictions of the Nine Days are meant to lessen our enjoyment, not to force us to give up basic hygiene.
But, before the righteously indignant among us question how the Aruch Hashulchan made such a distinction, it should be stressed that the halachos of the Nine Days parallel those of a mourner, and even a person mourning the loss of his parents is permitted to be ‘ma’avir es hazuhama’, ‘remove the sweat’, even during shiva, since it is not done for pleasure. The Mishna Berura (554, 15 s.v. sicha & Shaar HaTziyun 38) adds that it’s so obvious that this is permitted during the Nine Days, that there was no need for the Shulchan Aruch to even make mention of it!
Another proof several contemporary authorities cite is from Hilchos Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and the only Biblically mandated fast day that comes with its own set of restrictions including washing, the Shulchan Aruch emphatically declares that only pleasure washing is technically forbidden. Although the Mishna Berura stresses that on Yom Kippur one should not rely on this unless in dire need, nevertheless, if hygienic washing to remove sweat on Yom Kippur is me’ikar hadin permitted, then it certainly is permitted during the Nine Days.
Another important factor is that the Chayei Adam and Mishna Berura explicitly permit certain types of washing during the Nine Days (head, arms and legs) if one is accustomed to bathe every week. Several contemporary authorities, including Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l, maintain that nowadays, with everyone (hopefully) showering more than once a week, this dispensation should include everyone, especially when considered necessary. If one is unsure if or when this is relevant to himself, he should ask his spouse, friends, or the guy davening next him in shul! Remember, Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro constitute half of the Aseres HaDibros!
An interesting point raised by Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun zt”l, in his Sha’arim Metzuyanim B’Halacha is that when Chazal enacted the original prohibitions of the Nine Day, the only way to bathe was to go for an enjoyable lengthy dip in a steamy bathhouse. But nowadays, with the advent of quick and easy showers, which are meant for a hygienic wash and not for pleasure bathing, it is possible that they would not be included in the prohibition. Remember, not too long ago showers were not too prevalent.
This ‘Shower Exclusion’ during the Nine Days for hygienic purposes is ruled decisively by the vast majority of contemporary authorities including Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld zt”l, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner shlit”a, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul zt”l, Rav Ovadia Yosef shlit”a, and the Sha’arim Metzuyanim B’Halacha zt”l. However, and although there are differing reports of his true opinion, it must be noted that the Chazon Ish zt”l was quoted as being very stringent with showering during the Nine Days, even for hygienic reasons, and even though most other Rabbanim were mattir.
Additionally, this ‘Shower Exclusion’ is by no means a blanket hetter. There are several stipulations many of these poskim cite, meant to ensure that the shower will be strictly for cleanliness, minimizing enjoyment and mitigating turning it into ‘pleasure bathing’:
- There has to be a real need: i.e. to remove excessive sweat, perspiration, grime, or dirt. (In other words, ‘to actually get clean!’).
- One should take a quick shower in water as cold as one can tolerate (preferably cold and not even lukewarm).
- It is preferable to wash one limb at a time and not the whole body at once. (This is where an extendable shower head comes in handy). If only one area is dirty, one should only wash that area of the body.
- One shouldn’t use soap or shampoo unless necessary, meaning if a quick rinse in water will do the job, there’s no reason to go for overkill. Obviously, if one needs soap or shampoo to get clean he may use it.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, while wryly noting that actual mourners do not usually ask for special halachic allowances related to the halachos of mourning as opposed to many who do so during the Nine Days, nonetheless cautions the overzealous among us not to forget about the spirit of the law. It is important for us all to remember that these restrictions were instituted by Chazal to publicly show our mourning during the most devastating time period on the timeline of the Jewish year. Our goal should be to utilize these restrictions as a catalyst for inspiration towards Teshuva. It is worthwhile to do so, as well.
As the Kaf Hachaim relates, everyone who observes the halachos of the first ten days of Av, thereby demonstrating their personal mourning over the destruction of Yerushalayim, will merit witnessing ten incredible miracles reserved for the days of Moshiach. May it be speedily in our days.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. He can be reached at his email: email@example.com