My friend Roni saw me on my way to the pool last week and was surprised to see where I was going. “You? Swimming during the nine days? I’m shocked! Even I don’t swim during the nine days.” She was referring to the well-known custom of refraining during the week before Tisha b’Av from pleasurable activities, including buying new clothes, eating meat, and bathing for pleasure (an activity that is commonly thought to include swimming). Rather than try to defend myself, I asked her, “Why don’t you?” She thought for a moment and then responded, “Because how else would I get in the right mindset for Tisha b’Av? I don’t eat meat, and I rarely buy new clothes – so it’s only the prohibition on swimming that actually reminds me of the time of year.” I was glad that I had asked her, because in hearing her explanation as to why she does not swim, I realized why I do.
Unlike Roni, it would be impossible for me to forget what is going on in the Jewish calendar now. I feel like I have spent much of the last month getting ready for Tisha b’Av. I have been teaching classes for the last few weeks about the symbolism of the Temple for the rabbis, and I wrote an essay about this same subject. I have also been to several lectures about Tisha b’Av, most notably a class last week at Beit Avichai about forms of mourning in Jewish tradition, and a shiur last night about tragedy from ancient Greece to Shakespeare to the Talmud. I have leyned several of the haftarot from Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the sinfulness of the people and the destruction that awaits them. When not leyning these haftarot, I have been practicing the perek of Eicha that I will chant at the Kotel tomorrow night. In addition, my chevruta and I have been learning the fifth perek of Gittin, which includes all the stories about the eve of the destruction of the Temple. (Unfortunately, although Daf Yomi is also on Gittin, we hit the fifth perek two weeks after Tisha b’Av, which is appropriately tragic.) And for the past two weeks, I have been reading the final chapter of the first volume of Rabbi Benjamin Lau’s Chachamim, which deals with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (most famous for his cry, later paraphrased by Patrick Henry, “Give me Yavneh and its sages!”), the zealots, and the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple. I even inadvertently invited Bar Kamtza for dinner this Shabbat!
Through it all, though, I have been swimming nearly every day in the Olympic-sized Jerusalem swimming pool on the ground floor of the office
building where I work. To my delight, the pool has been considerably less crowded this past week, since so many of the religious people don’t swim.
(On Monday night, when there is “all women’s swimming” for the sake of religious women who will not swim with men, the pool was nearly empty; for
the first time ever I had an entire lane to myself!) While I swim, the melody of Eicha often runs through my head, and sometimes when I swim
backstroke, I find myself practicing out loud. At other times I keep the copious notes I am taking on Rabbi Lau’s book in a plastic sleeve at the
edge of the pool, and review the material between laps. Swimming is one of the few activities I do that does not involve feeding new ideas into my
brain. When I swim, I reflect and process and digest. If not for swimming, I don’t think I would remember half of what I have been studying all summer about the history surrounding Tisha b’Av. Perhaps, then, I could have answered Roni by saying, “Why do I swim? Because it helps me remember all about Tisha b’Av!” The reasoning might be hafuch-al-hafuch (that is, topsy-turvy), but it’s true.