The Meat Snowball

In this article I wish to present the history of the practice of abstaining from eating meat and drinking wine for nine days, from the first to the ninth of Av. I do not seek to rule on the matter (especially since I spent several years of my life as a vegetarian), but rather to show the snowball effect, in which a tiny grain accumulates greater volume over time.

The first hint to the practice of not eating meat on the nine days is found in Yerushalmi Taanit 1:6:

R. Zeira said, the practice of women not למישתייה from the first of Av is valid, since on that day the Stone of שתיה has ceased. 

The word למישתייה could be translated as “to drink”, but there is no specification of which drink, and no explanation of why it would pertain to women only. Indeed, the Sheyare Korban (commentary on Yerushalmi) writes:

The commentary that the practice is abstinence from wine does not settle with the text. Why do women refrain from drinking wine from the first of Av? Why weren’t men strict as well? The text we have is more accurate…

He refers to the text as quoted here and rejects a later tradition which expanded the text to include the word wine.

The correct explanation is mentioned by another commentator, Korban Ha’Edah:

למשתייה – setting and weaving the horizontal threads of the fabric, as in weft and warp… the stone of שתיה is the stone from which the world was created and it was in the Holy of Holies.

This also explains the connection between the loss of the stone of שתיה and the practice of not weaving. That is because the process of the creation of the world in analogized by the rabbis to weaving:

The Creator took two spools, one of fire and one of snow. He wove them together and created the world.

Pirkay DeRabbi Eliezer compares this process to birth, and the stone to the umbilical cord of the world: 

It is called אֶבֶן הַשְּׁתִיָּה because it is the umbilical cord of the world, and the whole world stretched out from there.

The analogy of creation to weaving and to birth is completed by a Midrashic text in the Talmud:

The fetus is embroidered… its legs are like two crimson threads of the warp… and its hands are like two crimson threads of the weft…

It is now understood why women decided to refrain from weaving during the nine days. Weaving is analogized to the creation and to giving birth, and both those actions are associated with the Holy of Holies. Women did not feel comfortable engaging in those activities while mourning for the destruction of the temple.

The practice, however, took a life of its own and turned into a prohibition on eating meat for both men and women. And yet, it was not clear which type of meat, on what days exactly, and whether it is a custom or a law. R. Meir ben Menahem, aka Ha’Meiri, writes:  

One diminishes joy from the first of Av… this should not serve as a reason for not eating beef. It is true they said [in the Talmud] that there is no joy without meat, but that means that joy is incomplete without eating meat. It is still possible to have meat and not be joyous. Even one who accepted this custom is allowed to eat a beef dish [without eating the beef itself] … the eighth Mishnah speaks of the eve of Tisha Be’Av, and it explains the meals of that day. The Mishnah says that one should not eat two dishes in one meal, even [if they are two elements cooked together such as] fish and cheese or eggs and fish. 

One should not eat meat even if he has only one dish, but R. Shimon ben Gamliel says that one can eat normally, including eating two dishes and beef, and just make the meal a little less fancy… two dishes, beef, and wine are only forbidden in the last meal before the fast, and only when that meal is after midday, but in other meals, and even in the last meal if it’s before midday, it is all permitted… however, the truly pious do not eat meat all day on the eve of Tisha Be’Av, and in many communities there is no Shehita for nine days. Salt beef, which is beef that was soaked in salt for two days and the night between, can be eaten in the last meal. Some say, however, that since today eating salt beef is common it should be forbidden. Their opinion might serve to support a custom, but it is not binding law.

Rabbenu Yaakov ben Asher, in his Tur Orah Haim, acknowledges that the origin of the practice is related to handling fabrics, but nevertheless continues to elaborate on the practice of not eating meat: 

Rabbenu Shemuel ben Natronai wrote that one cannot make new garments on the week of Tisha Be’Av, as it is written in the Yerushalmi… women who have a practice not to משתי wool from the beginning of Av, and Rabbenu Nissim explained that משתי is derived from שתי, as in weft and warp… some texts read: not to eat meat and drink wine. And because of this some communities have a practice not to eat meat and drink wine on the week of Tisha Be’Av, and some start earlier, on Rosh Hodesh… 

Once the practice took root, it kept expanding:

Avi HaEzri wrote that some afflict themselves by not having meat and wine… the practice in Germany is that the elite avoids meat and wine from the seventeenth of Tammuz, and everyone stops having meat and wine from Rosh Hodesh Av, except for Shabbat in which they eat and drink regularly as any other Shabbat… On the eve of Tisha Be’Av one should not eat meat… 

Rabbenu Yaakov still makes a distinction between poultry and beef, but immediately remarks that even poultry is forbidden, and even salt meat, which was not considered an important food in the past:

This does not apply to poultry because there is no added joy when one eats poultry, and that would mean that one could eat poultry even in the last meal before the fast, and so ruled Rabbenu Shemuel ben Natronai… but it seems that even though there is no joy in eating poultry it is forbidden, because the prohibition is not only to avoid joy but to augment mourning… therefore poultry should be forbidden just like meat. Sefer Mitzvoth Katan wrote that now that most of our beef is salt beef, older than two days, it would also be forbidden.

So, whereas the original practice applied only to freshly slaughtered animals, it has now been extended to salt beef and poultry. Rabbenu Yaakov, whose work is more an anthology than a legal codex with final decisions, presents an opposite opinion to the one he mentioned earlier, according to which mourning practices do not apply on Shabbat:

Rav Sar Shalom wrote that if Tisha Be’Av falls on Sunday, or if it falls on Shabbat and is postponed to Sunday, it is fine to eat beef and drink wine [on Shabbat], but it is not our custom, and even on Shabbat we do not have beef and wine in the last meal before the fast, because [we mourn] the destruction of the Temple.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the Shulhan Arukh, summarizes the words of Rabbenu Yaakov and adds that:

One who eats beef where it is customary not to eat it falls under the category of one who breaches the fence who will be bitten by a snake.

The allegory of the fence and the snake is based on a verse in Ecclesiastes (10:8). The original meaning was that a criminal will be punished by natural forces, for example, one who breaches a fence to go into his neighbor’s property, will be bitten by snakes hiding in the grass. In the Tossefta, R. Ishmael uses the verse as a metaphor for one who disobeys the rabbis:

תוספתא חולין, ב:כג: כל הפורץ גדירן של חכמים לסוף פורענות בא עליו שנ’ ופורץ גדר ישכנו נחש

He who breaches a fence established by the rabbis will be severely punished, as it is written…

This idea has been later developed into terrifying stories about people who lost their lives for breaching fences. One such story is found in tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (109:1-2). It starts with a description of a remedy for snake bite, a remedy made from the fetus of white donkey. The Talmud adds that the remedy is efficient only if the donkey had no blemishes or diseases which would have rendered a kosher animal terefah. Then comes a story about a man who was bitten by a snake, but because he neglected to obey a rabbi once, all the 13 white donkeys available in his city were found to be terefah, and he eventually died. I will not discuss the veracity or symbolism of the story here. But it is obvious that the rabbis used the verse as a powerful tool to guarantee obedience. In later generations, the word נחש, snake, was interpreted as an abbreviation of נדוי, חרם, שמתא, three categories of excommunication. 

The fact that R. Yosef Karo needs to use such strong words regarding those who eat beef where it is customary not to eat it, show that many people did not follow the practice. His statement is also an evidence that only some communities observed the practice.

The anthology Yalkut Yosef presents some of R. Ovadia Yosef’s “lenient” rulings, which were challenged by other Poskim: 

Regarding beef leftovers from the Shabbat before Tisha Be’Av or from Rosh Hodesh meals, there is a dispute. Some say it can be eaten after Shabbat or Rosh Hodesh, and some say it is forbidden. Those whose custom is to eat [leftovers on the week of Tosha Be’Av] should not be rebuked because they have what to rely on. They just have to be honest and not cook large quantities for Shabbat with the explicit intention to have leftovers.

This ruling of R. Yosef was challenged by those who understand the prohibition on eating meat on the nine days as a total one without exceptions. They argue that the fact that the meat was cooked for a permissible meal, Shabbat or Rosh Hodesh, does not change its forbidden status on the Nine days. Others admitted that in the past it was customary because there were no means of refrigeration and the leftovers would have been wasted, but now people can refrigerate or freeze these leftovers. 

Indirectly, we also learn form this passage that one can eat meat on Rosh Hodesh Av. That makes the Nine Days into the Six Days, after deducting Rosh Hodesh, Shabbat, and Tisha Be’Av itself.

Yalkut Yosef continues to say that even those who would not eat these leftovers during the week should not have any problem eating it on Motzae Shabbat. The author then speaks of poultry and explains why he takes a more lenient approach to the matter:

One who must eat meat because of health concerns can have [if possible] poultry, which was not brought upon the altar [and therefore is not associated with the destruction]… this is because [not eating beef] is merely a custom, since according to the Talmud eating beef is only forbidden on the last meal before the fast – סעודה המפסקת. The text of the Yerushalmi regarding women who do not eat beef and drink wine from Rosh Hodesh Av, a text which was also quoted by the Tur, has already been challenged by the commentators who explained that the correct text is למשתי עמרא – to weave wool, and not למשתי חמרא – to drink wine. Rabbenu Nissim explained similarly that the custom was to refrain from weaving, a craft unique to women… and so also wrote the author of Torat Haim that the practice of not eating beef from Rosh Hodesh Av has no root in the Babylonian or the Yerushalmi Talmud.

Before we analyze the reasons for the evolution of the practice, I would like to address the concept of joy associated with eating beef, since it also bears on the way we celebrate Shabbat and holidays. Many orthodox vegetarians are harassed by their concerned relatives and friends who tell them that if they do not eat beef they do not fulfil the obligation of respecting the holidays. It happened to me as well. I was invited to a Purim meal, and when I was prompted to serve myself I confessed to the shocked host, who was also a Shohet, that I am a vegetarian. Without missing a beat, he replied “repent now and eat”, suggesting that not eating meat is a sin.

The source for that approach is a famously quoted statement: אין שמחה אלא בבשר וביין – one can only have joy with meat and wine. But, as often happens with famous quotes, it is taken out of context. It was made in reference to the biblical commandment to rejoice during the holidays, and the Talmud explains that the Torah’s concept of joy is a meal with meat and wine. Immediately following that statement, R. Yehudah ben Betera modifies it:

פסחים, קט:א: בזמן שבית המקדש קיים אין שמחה אלא בבשר, שנאמר וזבחת שלמים ואכלת שם ושמחת לפני ה’ אלהיך. ועכשיו שאין בית המקדש קיים אין שמחה אלא ביין

When the Temple was built, joy was expressed with eating beef, as it is written, you shall bring sacrifices, eat there, and rejoice before God, but now that the Temple is destroyed, joy is expressed by drinking wine. 

That statement of R. Yehudah ben Betera not only relieves vegetarians on Shabbat and Holidays, but also undermines the foundation of the prohibition of eating meat on the nine days. However, we have seen that even the Poskim who acknowledge the erroneous origin of the practice were reluctant to denounce it, and I believe it is for two main reasons. The first is that the destruction of the Temple was a catastrophic event, and people were reluctant to undo anything associated with mourning for it. An added problem was the existence of a fanatic Karaite group called אבלי ציון – the Mourners of Zion, who mourned the destruction all year long. The rabbis had to keep up with them, at least for three weeks or nine days. 

The second reason is one which unfortunately is generously used in both ruling Halakha and defending practices: “It is only _________ what is the big deal?” This argument is used, explicitly or subconsciously, to defend the practice of not eating legumes on Pesah, refraining from many activities on the nine days, and making most of activities known to man forbidden on Shabbat, because “it is only one day/eight days/nine days – you can live without beef/legumes/swimming for such short time…”

The problem with this argument is that it misses the bigger picture and that what started as a justifiable custom of refraining from eating meat on the last meal before the fast, has become an obstacle to the Jewish world. Yes, a loophole was invented of having a Siyum and a meat meal, and I know of rabbis who study the same Talmudic tractate, Tamid, which is only eight pages long, everyday of the nine days so they can serve meat to their campers, but wouldn’t it be better if we faced the problems head-on instead of playing hide-and-seek?

I leave it to the readers as food for thought [no worries, it is Pareve]. 


  1. אמר רבי זעירה, נשייא דנהגן דלא למישתייה מן דאב עליל, מנהג. שבו פסקה אבן שתיה
  2.  שיירי קרבן, מסכת פסחים פרק ד:א: אין הפירוש מכוון דמאי שנא נשי ם דנוהגין שלא לשתות יין מדעייל אב? ולמה לא החמירו גם האנשים? והגירסה שלפנינו ופירושה מכוונת יותר וכן היא גירסת ר”ן גאון
  3. קרבן העדה: דלא למשתייה. שלא לסדר ולערוך החוטין שהולכין לאורכו של בגד מלשון או בשתי או בערב… אבן שתייה והיא האבן שממנו הושתת העולם והיה מונח בבית קדשי הקדשים
  4. בראשית רבה פרשת בראשית: נטל הקדוש ברוך הוא שתי פקעיות, אחת של אש ואחת של שלג, ופתכן זה בזה ומהן נברא העולם
  5. פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק לה: לְפִיכָךְ נִקְרֵאת אֶבֶן הַשְּׁתִיָּה, שֶׁמִּשָּׁם הוּא טַבּוּר הָאָרֶץ, וּמִשָּׁם נִמְתְּחָה כָּל הָאָרֶץ
  6. תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף כה עמוד א: שפיר מרוקם… ב’ ירכותיו כב’ חוטין של זהורית… כשל ערב. ושני זרועותיו כב’ חוטין של זהורית… כשל שתי
  7. בית הבחירה, מסכת תענית דף כז-ל: משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה… ואין לאסור מכאן אכילת בשר וממה שאמרו אין שמחה אלא בבשר, שמכל מקום שמחת אכילה בלא בשר ליכא, אבל אכילת בשר בלא שמחה איכא. ואף מי שקבל עליו כך מותר בתבשיל… המשנה השמינית ערב ט’ באב וכו’ כונת המשנה לבאר עניני סעודות שבערב ט’ באב. ואמר שלא יאכל אדם בו שני תבשילים, כלומר אפילו של גבינה ודגים או של ביצים ודגים. ולא יאכל בשר אפילו בתבשיל אחד לבד, ולא ישתה יין. רשב”ג אומר ישנה, כלומר שאינו צריך להמנע משני תבשילים ומאכילת בשר אלא ישנה בסעודתו שנוי של גריעות… לא נאסרו שני תבשילים ואכילת בשר ושתיית יין ערב ט’ באב אלא בסעודה המפסיק בה, ומו’ שעות ולמעלה. אבל בסעודה שאין מפסיק בה אפילו מו’ שעות ולמעלה, או מו’ שעות ולמטה אפילו בסעודה המפסיק בה, מותר בכלן… אף על פי כן המהודרים במדת החסידות אין דרכן לאכל בשר כל אותו היום. ובמקומות הרבה נהגו לבטל בית השחיטה מר”ח עד התענית. בשר מליח והוא שעומד במלחו ב’ ימים ולילה אחד מותר לאכלה אף בסעודה המפסיק בה, ויש אומרים בזמן הזה הואיל ואדם רגיל בה אסור, ואין הדברים נראים לענין הלכה אלא שהם נראין לענין מנהג
  8. טור אורח חיים, תקנא-ב: כתב רבנו שמואל בן נטרונאי, נמי כלים חדשים אסור לתקן בשבת שחל ט”ב להיות בתוכה דגרסינן בירושלמי… נשי דנהיגי דלא למשתי עמרא מגו דעייל אב מנהגא ופירש רבינו ניסים מלשון או בשתי או בערב… ואית נוסחות דגרסי דלא למיכל בשרא ולמשתי חמרא ומזה נהגו במקומות שלא לאכול בשר ולא לשתות יין בשבת זו ויש מוסיפין מר”ח עד התענית… כתב אבי העזרי… ויש מתענין מבשר ויין… ומנהג אשכנז היחידים נמנעים מבשר ויין מי”ז בתמוז ואילך, ומראש חודש ואילך נמנעים כולם מבשר ויין, זולת שבת שאוכלין ושותין כדרך כל השנה… ערב ט”ב לא יאכל בשר… יצאו עופות שאין בהן שמחה. מכל הני משמע דהוא הדין נמי בסעודה המפסקת שרי וכן פסק רבינו שב”ט… ונראה אף על פי שאין בו שמחה אסור, שלא משום שמחה לבד אסרו בשר אלא כדי להרבות אבל… הלכך מטעם זה יש לאסור אפי’ עופות כמו בשר. ובסמ”ק כתב עתה שרוב מאכל שלנו בשר לאחר שעברו עליו שתי ימים נראה שאסור… כתב רב שר שלום ט”ב שחל ביום א’ או בשבת ונדחה ליום א’ שפיר דמי למיכל בשרא ולמשתי יין [בשבת] אבל אנו אין אנו רגילין כך ואפי’ בשבת אין אנו אוכלין בשר ושותין יין בסעודה המפסקת משום חורבן הבית
  9. שולחן ערוך, אורח חיים, תקנא סעיף ח-יב: נשי דנהיגי דלא למשתי עמרא מדעייל אב, מנהגא. יש נוהגים שלא לאכול בשר ושלא לשתות יין בשבת זו… ויש שמוסיפין מראש חודש עד התענית, ויש שמוסיפין מי”ז בתמוז… יש מי שאומר שהנוהגים שלא לאכול בשר בימים הנזכרים מותרים בתבשיל שנתבשל בו בשר, ואסורים בבשר עוף ובשר מלוח… מי שאוכל בשר במקום שנוהגים בו איסור, פורץ גדר הוא וינשכנו נחש
  10.  ילקוט יוסף מועדים מדיני ימי תשעה באב: כז. בשר שנשאר מסעודות שבת חזון, או סעודות ראש חודש אב, יש אומרים שמותר לאכלו לאחר מכן, ויש אוסרים, ואין למחות במקילים שיש להם על מה שיסמוכו, ובלבד שלא יערים לבשל יותר מדי לשבת בכוונה להותיר לצורך החול. ואפילו למי שמחמיר שלא לאכול בשר שנשתייר מסעודות שבת, מותר לו לאכול בשר זה במוצאי שבת… בשר עוף הרי הוא כבשר בהמה, ואין לאכול ממנו מיום ראש חודש אב עד תשעה באב. ומי שאי אפשר לו בלי בשר מטעמי בריאות, על כל פנים יאכל בשר עוף שלא היו מקריבים ממנו בבית המקדש… כיון שאינו אלא מנהג בעלמא, כי מדין הש”ס אין איסור באכילת בשר אלא בסעודה המפסקת בערב תשעה באב, ומה שיש גורסים בירושלמי הני נשי דנהיגי דלא למיכל בשרא ודלא למישתי חמרא מדעייל אב מנהגא, והובא בטור סימן תקנא, כבר כתבו האחרונים שעיקר הנוסחא הנכונה דלא למשתי עמרא, וכפירוש רבנו נסים דהיינו טווית חוטי השתי, והיא מלאכה מיוחדת לנשים… וכן כתב הגאון תורת חיים בסנהדרין ע. שמנהג זה שלא לאכול בשר מראש חודש אב, אין לו עיקר לא בש”ס ולא בירושלמי, עיין שם
  11. אבלי ציון הקראים ומגילות קומראן: לתולדות חלופה ליהדות הרבנית, מאת פרופ’ יורם ארדר

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