Few halachot are as intimidating as the prohibition against bathing during the Nine Days. According to a plain reading of Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 551:16), one must go over a week without showering – a prospect most contemporary Jews consider unbearable. What is the background of this prohibition, and does it apply today?
Chazal only forbade washing one’s body on Tisha B’Av itself; they legislated no prohibition against doing so during the Nine Days. Nevertheless, the Rambam already mentions a universal Jewish custom to refrain from “entering a bathhouse” as a gesture of aveilut during the week preceding Tisha B’Av (Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:6).
It seems, then, that the original minhag only applied to formal, hot baths (hence the Rambam’s reference to a “bathhouse”), and began only on the Sunday before Tisha B’Av (shavua she’chal bo). Medieval Ashkenazic communities extended the scope of this prohibition – to all washing except of one’s hands, feet, and face with cool water – and began observing it on Rosh Chodesh Av (Ra’aviya 882, Terumat HaDeshen 150, Mishnah Berurah 551:94).
Most Sefardic communities continue to observe the original timeframe of the minhag, but many follow the Ashkenazim in applying the restriction even to cool water (see Chazon Ovadia, Arba Ta’aniyot pp. 238ff., Responsa Or LeTziyon 3:27:5).
The Ashkenazic custom to avoid bathing for such an extended period poses, not only a hygienic problem, but a halachic one as well: It stands in direct conflict with the mitzvah to bathe on Friday in honor of Shabbat. According to the original version of the minhag, which proscribed bathing beginning on the Sunday before Tisha B’Av until immediately after the fast, there is obviously no clash. But if the prohibition begins on Rosh Chodesh, it necessarily will apply on a Friday.
Most poskim have ruled that one should adhere to the Nine Days restrictions even on Friday (see Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 551:36) since washing one’s face, feet, and hands – which is allowed during the Nine Days anyway – technically suffices to fulfill the halacha of bathing for Shabbat (Orach Chayim 260). (Washing one’s whole body is only preferable.) They do permit, however, washing one’s hair on the Friday before Tisha B’Av (Responsa Maharil 15) since many sources require hair-washing before Shabbat (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 260).
In terms of the water temperature allowed when washing for Shabbat: The Maharil forbids using warm water whereas the Rema allows it for washing one’s hair only (Darkei Moshe, Orach Chayim 551:7). The Chayei Adam, followed by most later Acharonim, permits warm water for one’s hands, feet, and face if one is always careful to wash in warm water in honor of Shabbat (133:19).
It should be evident that our ancestors were exceedingly stringent regarding the minhag not to bathe during the Nine Days. It is also clear, though, that people bathed much more infrequently in previous eras; today, going nine days without washing one’s body is quite a challenge – for oneself as well as for those in close proximity. Is there any room to relax the restrictions in contemporary times?
One must bear in mind that halachic prohibitions against bathing are fundamentally geared toward washing for pleasure. It is true that so much as touching water is generally forbidden on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur (Pesachim 54b), but even on those days washing is allowed to remove dirt or to fulfill halachot like netilat yadayim upon arising in the morning (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 554:9ff).
In fact, some authorities even permit rinsing one’s body if one perspires excessively (see Mishnah Berurah 613:2). It would seem, then, that any washing that is intended for hygienic purposes should certainly be allowed during the Nine Days, whose halachic status is much less severe than that of Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av (Responsa Salmat Chayim, Orach Chayim 319).
An additional reason to be lenient is Chazal’s statement that a very sensitive person (an istenis) is exempt from the prohibition against bathing during shiva (Mishnah, Berachot 2:7; see Yerushalmi). While poskim are generally hesitant to apply the full dispensation afforded by this category (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 381:3), it is quite reasonable to argue that virtually everyone nowadays is considered a quasi-istenis relative to the hygienic standards of medieval Europe. Those who truly suffer if they do not bathe daily certainly are included in this category (cf. Hilchot Chag BeChag Bein HaMetzarim 4:61).
One should also note that although classical poskim completely forbid using soap and shampoo during the Nine Days – even on Friday (Mishnah Berurah 551:96) – it appears that this prohibition does not apply nowadays. In the olden days, cleansers were considered pleasurable, whereas today people use soap merely to assist in properly removing filth from their bodies (Kovetz Halachot, Bein Hametzarim, ch. 14 n. 4, Responsa Shevet HaLevi 8:127).
In light of the above, one need not (and probably should not) completely refrain from showering during the Nine Days in today’s day and age. Nevertheless, it is crucial to be cognizant of the fact that washing is only permitted for considerations of cleanliness. Thus, one may not shower simply out of daily habit (unless one is extremely sensitive or frail). Before bathing, one must honestly assess whether or not it is needed for hygienic purposes. Failure to do so displays insensitivity to mourning the Beit HaMikdash and our nation’s exile.
If a shower is truly necessary, the water should be as cool as one can tolerate (it need not be freezing cold [Kovetz Halachot 14:4]), and soap and shampoo should only be applied where needed to remove sweat or dirt. One should exit the shower as soon as one is clean and not stay longer to enjoy the feel of the water. When preparing for Shabbat, one may wash one’s head, feet, and hands in warm water even if they are not dirty.
- When Rosh Chodesh Av falls on Friday, the Nine Days will include two Fridays. In such a case, one may wash without restriction on Rosh Chodesh out of deference to the combined holiness of Rosh Chodesh and Erev Shabbat. The fact that it is not the Friday directly preceding Tisha B’Av is also a mitigating factor (Bach, Orach Chayim 551:12).
- It should be noted that the minhag is completely inoperative when washing is necessary for a mitzvah such as tevilah or health reasons.