– Author: Rav Eitan Aviner

In our day and age we have been blessed with an ever-growing learned community. More and more people are entering the world of intense Torah study, and the general level of Torah knowledge has sky-rocketed. The yeshivot are bursting and the Daf Yomi classes are packed. There is an overflow of rabbanim being ordained every year. However, when it comes to poskim – those unique individuals who have the capability to decide a halachic ruling – they are few and far between. A posek is more than just a rabbi who happens to be well versed in the body of halacha. He is more than just a Jewish law encyclopedia. Rather, a posek is a unique individual who embodies distinct characteristics and virtues that set him above and beyond the rest.

In particular, there are three characteristics that make a posek who he is. First, a posek is someone who understands his community, its needs and limitations, and knows accordingly which halachic mechanisms are relevant or applicable. Second, a posek is one who knows how to balance his way through the delicate tightrope of opposing halachic values, such that none are undermined and harmony is retained. Finally, but certainly of no less importance, a posek understands the greater holistic halachic system – its mechanisms and structure, from the fundamentals of its roots to the fine details of its fruits – and thus how it should impact the case at hand.

In this article we will take a case study – that of shaving during the Three Weeks – and examine how three great poskim of the previous generations dealt with the issues at hand, and how each exemplified one of these three characteristics. By entering the halachic minds of these great individuals, we will come that bit closer to understanding the making of a posek.[1]

Our journey begins with the Mishna in Ta’anit[2] that states that although the obligation to minimize one’s joy begins at the beginning of the month of Av, the restrictions of mourning, such as hair trimming and laundering (which itself includes not only the act of laundering but also wearing freshly laundered clothing), are only applicable during the actual week in which Tisha B’Av falls. Although the Gemara[3] notes that this question is subject to debate among the Tanna’im, the Gemara concludes that these restrictions apply only from the beginning of the week in which Tisha B’Av falls until the end of Tisha B’Av itself.

Despite this relatively clear ruling, the Beit Yosef[4] quotes the Kol Bo, a fifteenth century compilation on Jewish law and practice, that there is a long-standing custom to refrain from hair trimming even prior to that week. The Kol Bo explains that the basis of this custom is in order that one will enter Tisha B’Av with a disheveled appearance, like that of a mourner. Although Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch[5] writes that the restrictions only apply to that week itself, the Rema[6] states that the Ashkenazi custom is to refrain from laundering from the beginning of Av and from hair trimming from the seventeenth of Tamuz. So practically speaking, both Sefardim and Ashkenazim refrain from hair trimming during the week of Tisha B’Av, but Ashkenazim have the additional custom to refrain from the seventeenth of Tamuz – colloquially known as the beginning of the Three Weeks.

Understanding One’s Community – Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein, arguably the greatest posek of American Jewry in the twentieth century, was faced with a relatively modern halachic quandary. No more than a generation after immigrant Jews struggled and risked financial survival in the face of the sanctity of Shabbat, a different dilemma arose for the new generation. In a society where first impressions make lasting imprints, to go unkempt in a clean-cut business world sometimes meant missing the deal, losing clientele, or even not making ends meet. The question raised to Rav Moshe was whether there is any room for leniency with regard to an Ashkenazi shaving during the Three Weeks.[7]

Rav Moshe begins his analysis by discussing another restriction that applies during the Nine Days – the limitation to engage in commerce. Along with the prohibition of hair trimming and laundering, Chazal also obligated one to limit business interaction during this period of communal mourning.[8] However, the Beit Yosef[9] comments that already in his time, it was prevalent for people to be conducting business as usual. The Taz,[10] justifying the established behavior, explains that the restrictions of commerce were never implemented in cases where great financial burdens due to taxes and the sort were present. Rav Moshe[11] argues that the same should be true regarding other rabbinic prohibitions of mourning during this time period. Based on this, Rav Moshe writes that if it will be a cause of great financial loss, then one may trim one’s hair for business needs. However, Rav Moshe distinguishes between the week of Tisha B’Av itself, when the prohibition is of rabbinic nature, and that of the period prior – from the seventeenth of Tamuz – when the limitation is merely a custom. While during the former one may only be lenient concerning the loss of existing assets, during the latter one may be lenient even concerning the loss of potential gain. Rav Moshe Feinstein, a posek who was equally renowned for his sensitivity to the human condition as for his Torah knowledge, was able to place the halachic dilemmas of his specific community and generation in their proper context.[12] To be a posek is not to just know what the halacha says, but to understand how it applies to the specific case at hand.

Conflict of Values – The Pri Megadim & Rav Ovadia Yosef

An Ambiguous Leniency

The first recorded leniency to this seemingly all-encompassing restriction of hair trimming is actually mentioned in the Mishna itself. As mentioned above, the Mishna states that haircuts and laundering are forbidden during the week prior to Tisha B’av. The continuation of the Mishna then states that it would be permitted on the Thursday prior to Tisha B’Av due to the honor of Shabbat. The Gemara[13] explains that the Mishna refers to a scenario where Tisha B’Av falls out on Friday,[14] in which case it would be permitted in order to properly prepare for and honor the upcoming Shabbat.

The Mishna’s leniency, though, is ambiguous, as it is does not specify whether it applies to laundering alone or haircuts as well (which are not as necessary on a regular basis), both of which were mentioned in the previous line. In fact, Rishonim dispute the extent of the leniency. Rashi[15] and Rav Ovadia Bartenura[16] only mention the permissibility of laundering, and omit any mention of haircuts, implying that haircuts would not be allowed. However, Tosafot[17] clearly state that the leniency applies equally to laundering as well as hair trimming. The Beit Yosef[18] does not explicitly address this debate. But he does quote this comment of Tosafot in a different context, questioning a certain novelty mentioned by Tosafot in the very same line. Yet the Beit Yosef takes no issue with the fact that Tosafot included hair trimming in the leniency. One may infer from this that Rav Yosef Karo accepted the extension. Nevertheless, in the Shulchan Aruch he makes no mention of the leniency, neither regarding laundering nor hair trimming.

The Rema does mention the leniency, at least partially. The Rema writes that even though we are stringent regarding the onset of the mourning practices before Tisha B’Av that they begin from Rosh Chodesh and not only from the week of Tisha B’av itself, nonetheless there are still leniencies for mitzvah purposes, such as a woman in the purification process laundering and wearing white clothing, or wearing freshly laundered clothing for the honor of Shabbat. Thus, the Rema appears to permit laundering in honor of Shabbat during the Nine Days, though he does not mention any leniency concerning haircuts. The Magen Avraham[19] explains that there haircuts are not allowed since hair trimming is not something that is done on a weekly basis. Therefore, the expression of aveilut of not cutting one’s hair would not be recognizable if it were permitted for Shabbat, since one’s hair would never become excessively long. This would explain why both Rashi and Rav Ovadia Bartenura omitted hair trimming from their explanations of the leniency in the Mishna.[20]

The Magen Avraham’s logic fits with the Kol Bo’s explanation above. Just as the custom was to extend the prohibition to trim one’s hair prior to the week of Tisha B’Av in order that one should enter it in a disheveled manner, so too one may not trim one’s hair for Shabbat so that the hair retains that disheveled appearance. The Aruch HaShulchan[21] uses the same train of thought to explain the discrepancy regarding the onset of the different prohibitions. The Rema writes that even though the prohibition on laundering takes effect only at the beginning of Av, nonetheless we refrain from hair trimming almost two weeks earlier, on the seventeenth of Tamuz. The Aruch HaShulchan explains that since hair trimming is less frequent, it requires a longer period of abstention for it to be noticeable.

Based on this explanation in the Magen Avraham, the Mishna Berura[22] and Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata[23] write that the prohibition on hair trimming applies throughout the three-week period, even for the sake of Shabbat.

Totza’ah versus Kiyum

The Pri Megadim[24] accepts the Magen Avraham’s distinction between laundering and hair trimming but indicates that it applies only regarding the Nine Days. During that period, the leniency regarding laundering for Shabbat applies, but not regarding hair trimming. But it seems from his focus on refraining from it specifically after Rosh Chodesh that from the seventeenth of Tamuz until the beginning of Av, one is permitted to trim one’s hair in honor of Shabbat. The Pri Megadim here seems to have a different approach from that of the Kol Bo. If the extension of refraining from haircuts during the Three Weeks was designed in order for one to appear disheveled for Tisha B’Av, it would not be logical to allow for weekly leniencies, as it dissolves the effect.[25] Rather the Pri Megadim seems to understand these prohibitions in and of themselves as expressions of mourning. They are not prohibited solely for their desired outcome (totza’ah); rather, the act of refraining itself is an expression and fulfillment of mourning (kiyum aveilut). Therefore, it would be permitted during the Three Weeks for the sake of Shabbat. The Pri Megadim weighed the custom of mourning during the first part of the Three Weeks against the obligation to honor Shabbat[26] and came to the conclusion that one may, and perhaps even be obligated to,[27] trim one’s hair for Shabbat even during this period. Many others saw the conflict between these two values and were left with no resolution other than for one to override the other. However, by means of his novel understanding of what the essence of the prohibition was (the act of refraining itself), the Pri Megadim was able to find a place for co-existence, where both values remain intact. The greatness of a posek at times is not just his expansive knowledge of the laws, but his ability to make peace between them.

Rav Ovadia Yosef[28] similarly writes that even Ashkenazim, who do not shave during the entire Three Weeks, are permitted to shave for Shabbat.[29] Rav Ovadia too dealt with the conflict between honoring Shabbat on the one hand, and properly mourning the events of Tisha B’Av on the other; however, his psak was, to a great degree, based on a different line of reasoning, that of the Chatam Sofer, as will be explained below.

The Greater Halachic System – The Chatam Sofer, Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Until now the assumption has been that the hair trimming under discussion applies equally to the head as well as to the beard. However, the Chatam Sofer[30] argues that the Magen Avraham and others were only discussing haircuts. Close shaving, whereby refraining can cause tremendous discomfort and dishevelment to one who is accustomed to shaving on a regular basis, was never included in the prohibition. Not only that, says the Chatam Sofer, but it isn’t something which would have even occurred to the Chachamim to institute. But on what basis is the Chatam Sofer making his claim? Isn’t dishevelment and discomfort something that Chazal envisioned for a mourner? Wasn’t this the very basis behind the Kol Bo’s explanation for extending the prohibition prior to the week of Tisha B’Av?

Sorrow vs. Pain

Rav Hershel Schachter’s comments regarding the different facets of the mourning process may shed light on this opinion of the Chatam Sofer. Rav Schachter[31] explains that in each of the three periods of mourning there is a different level of conduct and behavior that the Chachamim envisioned for the mourner. One could explain that these periods and the restriction that they entail shed light on the mourning process itself. Regarding the seven-day mourning period, which is closest to the moment of loss and therefore the most extreme, the Chachamim instituted that the mourner should be in a state of complete dishevelment. He should appear completely unkempt and in a state of disarray – an external expression of an inner turmoil. During the stage which follows, that of the thirty-day mourning period, the mourner should remain disheveled and in disarray, but only to a minor extent. The mourner is now in a process of stepping away from his grief. During the next stage of mourning, that of the twelve-month period, the mourner should not appear disheveled at all, rather he is only required to minimize excessive pleasure, as defined by the Chachamim. The mourner at this stage is stepping further away from grief and moving towards a new normalized reality. However, explains Rav Schachter, at no point in the mourning process did the Chachamim institute that the mourner should be in physical pain or excessive discomfort. Chazal understood that infliction of physical pain as an expression of mourning is not a Jewish value.

Although the Chatam Sofer and Rav Schachter do not give a source for this distinction, perhaps it can be seen on a Torah level regarding the unique prohibition to inflict lashes upon one’s body over the death of a loved one.[32] As opposed to other religions, where this was an accepted form of grief and mourning, the Torah tells us that there is a mourning process, but self-mutilation and affliction is not part of it.

In this light, the comment of the Chatam Sofer is right on the mark. Refraining from shaving for someone who normally shaves on a regular basis can quickly lead to pain and discomfort. This, says the Chatam Sofer, is not something that the Chachamim would even think of instituting, and therefore it should be permitted to shave before this point is reached.

Aveilut Yeshana vs. Aveilut Chadasha

Rav Soloveitchik[33] uses these distinct stages of mourning to develop a novel approach to understanding Tisha B’Av and the weeks which proceed it. Although Rav Soloveitchik sometimes employed the style of a Rosh Yeshiva (such as developing general categories and principles) in rendering halachic decisions more than he employed the style of a classical posek (who often carefully examines the rulings and responsa of later Acharonim and poskim), he clearly embodied one of the main virtues of a posek, as will be shown. Rav Soloveitchik explains that in the same manner as the process of mourning for a relative (known as aveilut chadasha) evolves in stages following the death, the mourning of Tisha B’Av (known as aveilut yeshana) evolves in stages prior to the day. The customs of mourning from the seventeenth of Tamuz are equivalent to that of the twelve-month period. For Sefardim, the week in which Tisha B’Av falls is equivalent to the thirty-day shloshim period, and for Ashkenazim, the parallel applies to the period from the beginning of Av. Finally, Tisha B’Av itself is equivalent to the seven-day shiva period. This is true both regarding the extent to which the grief should be felt, as well as the laws of mourning which apply to them. Accordingly, argues Rav Soloveitchik, for someone who regularly shaves on a daily basis, it should be permitted to shave from the seventeenth of Tamuz until the beginning of Av, irrespective of the honor of Shabbat. The reason is that this period is equivalent to that of the twelve-month mourning period, and during that period one must only refrain from hair trimming to the extent that would cause reprimand from his friend. For someone who shaves on a regular basis, this threshold would be met even after a short period of time. However, it would be prohibited even for this person to shave from the beginning of Av until Tisha B’Av, as that time period is equivalent to that of the thirty-day period, when reprimand from one’s friend is of no relevance. Rav Lichtenstein even goes so far as to say that if there is a permissibility to shave during any part of this period, then for the honor of Shabbat one would be obligated to do so.[34]

Through Rav Soloveitchik’s keen ability to place every detail of halacha into the construct of its larger holistic system, he was better able to understand the nature of the specific halacha at hand, along with its applications and limitations. Rav Soloveitchik’s ruling regarding shaving during the Three Weeks was neither a leniency based on strenuous circumstances, such as Rav Moshe’s, nor a compromise between conflicting values, such as the Pri Migadim’s or Rav Ovadia’s. Rather it was a natural outcome of the construct of the prohibition itself.

A Deeper Understanding

Rav Soloveitchik’s systematic approach to the Three Weeks provides us with a deeper understanding of this time period, as well as of the prohibitions and customs which it encompasses. Aveilut chadasha is a directional process. It is meant to bring a person from his place of a grief-stricken halted reality to a place of acceptance and normalization. The mourner is in the process of digesting the recent loss and adapting to a new reality. Aveilut yeshana, as can be seen through the reversal of its laws and stages, is the inverse process. It brings a person from his desensitized place of acceptance of the unnatural current state of human existence, one in which God’s revelation is limited and distant, to a place of disarray and longing. It brings him to a place of recognition of a broken reality – that this is not the way that things are supposed to be, and this is not the way that things have to be. Something is missing. The mourning, in part, is on the desensitization itself.

Concluding Thoughts

Through viewing how the great poskim of the last generations comprehended, weighed, and analyzed these prohibitions, not only have we obtained a greater understanding to the making of a posek and the unique characteristics which set them apart, but we have also gained a deeper understanding of these prohibitions, the mechanisms they run by, and the system from which they stem. If such is the case, then the great power of a posek is not just in issuing halachic decisions, but in illuminating the halacha itself.


[1] It is important to note that the halachic deciders who prohibit shaving in the cases discussed below may also be considered as great poskim, but due to the principle that ko’ach de’hetera adif, namely that more halachic strength is required to permit something rather than prohibit, this article will focus on those poskim who permitted it for various reasons, as will be discussed.

[2] 26b

[3] Ta’anit 29b – 30a. See also Tosafot there, s.v. v’tarvayhu

[4] O.C. 551:4a

[5] O.C. 551:3

[6] O.C. 551:3,4

[7] A similar question can be raised regarding the period of sefirat ha’omer, although the parallel between the two periods is not exact and is beyond the scope of this article.

[8] Shulchan Aruch O.C. 551:2

[9] Ibid.

[10] Taz, O.C. 551:1

[11] Igrot Moshe, O.C. 4:102, 5:24:9, C.M 1:93

[12] Cf. Halichot Shlomo p. 414; Ma’adanei Shlomo pg. 51, in the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach for a similar leniency.

[13] Ta’anit 29b

[14] Although with the establishment of our current Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av is not able to fall out on Friday, at the time when the new month was sanctified by beit din, this was a possibility.

[15] Ta’anit 26b, s.v. b’chamishi mutarin

[16] Mishnayot Ta’anit ch. 4, s.v. b’chamishi mutarin

[17] Ta’anit 30a, s.v. tarvayhu

[18] O.C. 551:4

[19] As brought in the name of the Hagahot Ashri.

[20] It should be noted that the Magen Avraham claims that practically, one should be stringent even with regard to laundering for Shabbat, as the custom is to refrain from bathing in hot water for Shabbat even though it is technically permitted, and laundering should have the same status. This is indeed the accepted custom nowadays in normal situations, as recorded by the Mishna Berura (551:32).

[21] O.C. 551:16

[22] Mishna Berura 551:32. See also Bi’ur Halacha s.v. v’chein. Cf. Hagahot Rabbi Akiva Eiger, note 5, who references the opinion of Tosafot mentioned above, namely that haircuts are equivalent to laundry in this regard and therefore permitted even during the week that Tisha B’Av falls. It is unclear whether R. Akiva Eiger brings this divergent opinion because he thought the halacha should follow it, or that it was simply brought as a contrast to the codified halacha mentioned in the Rema.

[23] Ch. 42, footnote 52

[24] Eishel Avraham 551:14

[25] It is also possible that the Pri Megadim does subscribe to the idea of the Kol Bo but felt that refraining from a haircut for the period of the Nine Days would also achieve a sufficiently long hair length that was recognizable as an expression of mourning. But this approach would likely only be tenable if the Pri Megadim’s ruling refers to shaving as well as haircuts.

[26] See Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 30:1, where he implies that the obligation to honor Shabbat is of a biblical nature.

[27] Cf. the opinion of Rav Lichtenstein, discussed below.

[28] Chazon Ovadia, Arba Ta’aniot p. 162; Yechaveh Da’at 3:39; Yabia Omer 3:31:5

[29] Rav Ovadia Yosef here is even more lenient than the Pri Megadim, who permits it only until Rosh Chodesh. The reason why Rav Ovadia specifies Ashkenazim in his leniency is that Sefardim would in any case be permitted to shave any time prior to the actual week of Tisha B’av.

[30] Responsa of the Chatam Sofer, Y.D. 2:348

[31] B’Ikvei HaTzon 38:5

[32] As it states in Devarim 14:1, “You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” See Rambam, Hilchot Avoda Zara 12:13; Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 180.

[33] See Shiurei HaRav on the matters of Tisha B’Av, ch. 10; Nefesh HaRav p. 191; and B’Ikvei HaTzon 39:6.

[34] After making aliya, Rav Lichtenstein inquired from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach regarding this leniency, to which he responded that one may apply it to the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer, but not to the Three Weeks. It is possible that in the opinion of Rav Shlomo Zalman, the difference is based both on the nature of not shaving during those respective time periods, as well as the differences in social norms between Israel and America.

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