There’s nothing better than a good question (ah gutte kasha). Last Shabbos afternoon in our shul, after we had bentched Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, we began learning before Mincha the halachos of the Nine Days. When we got to the restrictions on laundry, one of our astute participants gave me his sharpest look. “Rebbi,” he inquired respectfully but firmly, “do you really think that I get a great deal of simcha out of doing laundry? Honestly, if I was making up the halacha, I would probably say that we should do laundry every day. For me, that would be a zeicher l’churban.”
My response was that on the logical level, he was right, but since this was a halacha shiur, our job is to listen, follow and keep the halacha. I did promise, though, that in another venue – hashkafah, chassidus or machshavah, we would explore the subject.
The following is the result of that promise, but first a maaseh (see Sefer Hazikaron, Pachad Yitzchok) with my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner. The family had noticed that the rosh yeshiva, for a short time, was engrossing himself in many consecutive hours of learning Mishnah Berurah, certainly an unusual deviation from his typical sedorim of learning. When he was asked about this, he responded that he felt that at that time he had tilted too strongly toward the taanug (pleasure) aspect of Torah study and not sufficiently toward the ohl haTorah (burden and yoke) requirement of limud haTorah. Thus, he engaged for a limited period in the pursuit of pure bottom-line practical halacha.
Following my rebbi’s cue, I attempted to separate our adherence and acceptance of the halacha from the pursuit of an explanation and understanding of “why” we were doing what we were doing. This connects to some extant to the issue of taamei hamitzvos. Do we take the “purpose” of the mitzvah into account when we are engaged in its performance? The halacha is that we do not, although there is certainly an opinion that we should do so. However, once we establish that our role is generally to obey the Torah and follow its rules, we may later search and explore why we are doing so.
So why forbid laundry? Some of the poskim (see, for instance, Sefer Mekadesh Yisroel, No. 89, page 232) cite the reason as “not taking our mind off the churban.” When I mentioned this on Shabbos, my somewhat diffident listener burst out, “Rebbi, honestly, do you really think of nothing but the churban every minute of the Nine Days? Are the few minutes at the washer or drier that different than the rest of the day or week?”
Here I was prepared. My answer, although it sometimes seems lame and insufficient, is that we are all suffering constantly from yeridas hadoros, the precipitous fall we all experience compared with our ancestors. For reasons too multifaceted to enumerate here, we are inundated with distractions and overloads which take our minds far from where we should be at any given moment. Part of Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s greatness was his ability to disengage from the world around him so that he could immerse himself in the ancient most-important universe of the Torah.
“Okay,” my friend demands, “but, again, why laundry?”
Let’s learn from the Chasam Sofer (Parshas Masei). The posuk in this week’s sedra (Bamidbar 35:3) describes the cities that will be given to the Levi’im for their dwelling. It tells us that these places “shall be theirs for their animals, for their wealth and ‘ulechol chayosum’ – for all their needs.” The Gemara (Nedorim 81a) explains this phrase to mean “for laundry.”
The Chasam Sofer relates this to the posuk (Yechezkel 20:25), “So I, too, gave them decrees that were not good and laws by which lo yichyu bahem – they could not live.” The Radak explains that this latter phrase means that “in punishment, I let them be subjugated by the bitter, impossible decrees of their enemies.” The Chasam Sofer is troubled by the juxtaposition of mishpot which means justice and “laws by which they could not live,” which is the antithesis of justice. He therefore suggests that “this is a reference to the week of Tishah B’Av when our sages forbid doing laundry (Taanis 26b), which they (Nedorim 81a) themselves had called chaim. The Chasam Sofer admits that we can only consider this a chok, a rule not rooted in human logic and therefore incomprehensible, yet nevertheless a zechus for us when we refrain. However, he does evoke the words of another novi (Hosheia 6:2), who promises that “yechayeinu miyomayim – He will heal us after two days,” meaning that in the merit of refraining from the most minimal of life-related pursuits, we will be granted true life itself.
But let us look even deeper. Why can’t we engage in work during the Nine Days?
Here, too, some, perhaps many, would say that “for me, my work reminds me of churban. When I refrain from working, I’m happy.”
The Sefer Tur Barekes answers that we should take our cue from a close reading of the Aishes Chayil portion of Mishlei. The posuk (31:24) states, “She makes a cloak and sells it, and delivers a belt to the peddler.” This verse seems to clearly praise the woman who engages in business. Yet, the Gemara (Pesachim 50b) contrarily asserts that “one who eagerly awaits profits from his wife’s earnings will never see a blessing from these profits.” So which is it? Is the Woman of Valor a proud businesswoman or should her earnings be rejected? The Gemara answers that it all depends. If she must shlep her wares around, hoping for a tiny profit, this is unbecoming to the Aishes Chayil. However, if she can produce things in a dignified manner, gaining much with little effort, she is truly to be praised.
This being Mishlei (Proverbs), we must learn this as a moshol. The parable is to the soul, which can make a profit in one of two ways. Every one of us has real estate prepared in one of two places, Gan Eden or, G-d forbid, Gehinnom. If someone has done well in this world, he or she gets to occupy his own space and that of his friend who has lost his property in Gan Eden (Chagigah 15a). Upon this situation, Chazal (Medrash, Vayikra Rabbah 21:5) urge that “if you have, G-d forbid, transgressed a bundle of sins, counteract them with the performance of a bundle of mitzvos. In addition, repent out of love of Hashem and even your sins will become zechusim (merits).”
Therefore, concludes the Tur Barekes, do only Torah business during these days when the mazel is not good (Taanis 29b), so that you will come out winning at the end of the “bad days.” Just as the Woman of Valor is praised when her work results in more merits for her husband and family, so should we all minimize our preoccupation during these days with mere worldly pursuits such as money and livelihood. This is a time for us all to rack up heavenly points and merits not just more dollars and temporary acquisitions. The Nine Days are meant for a diminution in the usual type of parnassah and a focus on the eternal needs of our holy soul.
We can now understand a bit better the avoidance of laundry during these days. Throughout Chazal, there are many mentions of “launderers.” When we track down these references, we note that many, if not all, of them are people engaged in the teshuvah process. The cleansing, as Rabbeinu Yonah points out often (Shaarei Teshuvah), is an allusion to the “laundering” of the soul we attempt to achieve beginning in these days in this period of preparation for the holy days of teshuvah ahead. Thus, we understand that while we should indeed be purifying, it is our neshamos that should be emerging shining and pristine, not necessary our ephemeral clothing.
Finally, we know from the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on many places in Mishlei that clothing are often a metaphor for our middos. For this reason, too, we are asked to set aside our usual preoccupation with obtaining new clothing and keeping them crisp and clean. This is a time to focus clearly and exclusively upon cleansing our soul and adding new middos even as we shed, if necessary, bad traits which we have acquired and have become a burden and albatross to our eternal neshomah. Indeed, the posuk (Yeshayahu 22:12) and Medrash (Pesikta to Eicha Rabbah 24) urge us to “downsize” our clothing during these days of mourning and teshuvah to the point of sackcloth and ashes. The chosson who is doing teshuvah just before his chupah puts ashes upon his head and a shroud-like garment to remember our transient status in this world. The more deeply we enter into this teeming busy world, the more we must remind ourselves that our outer garments must remain as simple as possible so that our internal engine, the holy neshomah, can shine through. Therefore, we avoid physical laundry, new clothing, haircuts and even marriage during these crucial days so that we can put our priorities in order in time for Elul and Tishrei.
May we indeed succeed in that cosmic cleansing process, which will iy”H bring us a good year at the end of a productive and purifying summer.