Why the Tzemach Tzedek told his son to beware of dairy

THE TZEMACH TZEDEK acknowledged a letter that his son had sent him and warned his son "not to be stringent – Heaven forfend – at this time, by eating dairy products in the Nine Days."

Cows at a dairy farm (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Cows at a dairy farm
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866), commonly known by the title of his scholarly writings in Jewish law – Tzemach Tzedek – married his first cousin Chaya Mushka (d. 1861). Together they had nine children – seven boys and two girls. Many of their sons and grandsons became Chabad Hassidic masters in various towns in what were then the Russian Empire: Kopys, Rechytsa, Babruysk, Lyady, Nizhyn, and Lyubavichi.
In 1836, their fifth son – Yosef Yitzhak (1822-1877) – married Chana, the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Twersky (1794-1876), a scion of the Chernobyl dynasty and a hassidic master first in Hornostaipil and from 1860 in Cherkasy.
14-year-old Yosef Yitzhak moved to his in-law’s home in Hornostaipil. The couple lived there until 1859, when – at the urging of his father-in-law – Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak assumed the leadership of the Chernobyl Hassidim in Ovruch. Hassidic leadership is generally assumed with the passing of a predecessor. R. Yosef Yitzhak’s ascension –  while both his father and father-in-law were active leaders –  was unusual and did not meet with his father’s approval.
Given the fact that Yosef Yitzhak left home at an early age and lived a great distance from his parents – Hornostaipil is more than 500 kilometers south of Lyubavichi – the Tzemach Tzedek corresponded with his son, and a number of these letters have survived. One letter provides a window onto eating advice during pandemics, particularly in the lead-up to the Tisha Be’av fast day – the traditional national mourning period.
The letter is simply dated “Tuesday 17th Tammuz” with no year denoted. The letter must have been written after 1836, when young Yosef Yitzhak left home and before 1866 when the Tzemach Tzedek passed away. The 17th of Tammuz fell on Tuesday seven times in those 30 years: 1848, 1855, 1858, 1859, 1861, 1862 and 1865. Editors of the Tzemach Tzedek’s correspondence have suggested that the letter was written in 1848, since we have other letters with similar content that appear to be from that year. This dating makes sense, since it would place the letter during the third cholera pandemic (1846-1860), which hit Russia in 1847-1851.
THE TZEMACH TZEDEK acknowledged a letter that his son had sent him (which has not survived) and warned his son “not to be stringent – Heaven forfend – at this time, by eating dairy products in the Nine Days from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av.”
Common Jewish practice in the days preceding Tisha Be’av is to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine. The custom is mentioned in rabbinic sources, though the earliest mention only focuses on the final meal before the onset of the fast (Mishna, Taanit 4:7). Yemenite Jews retain this original custom, though others have expanded it: many (though not all) Sephardi Jews avoid meat and wine during the week of Tisha Be’av, while Ashkenazi Jews avoid meat and wine from the beginning of the month.
Concerned about his son’s health, the Tzemach Tzedek counseled his son not to observe this tradition, explaining “that at this time there is a great Torah prohibition to be stringent in this matter, because it is known that dairy products are dangerous – Heaven forfend – as far as the plague, may it not be upon us.” The Tzemach Tzedek was calling for a departure from time-honoured Jewish practice: “Therefore you should eat meat. And this is even if the plague has subsided in your region.”
From the continuation of the letter we learn that people were eating chicken and chicken soup with rice. The Tzemach Tzedek pointed out that chicken was preferable to eating meat. Indeed, there were opinions among Medieval rabbis that eating chicken should be allowed in the days before Tisha Be’av. The logic for the distinction between meat and chicken was that true culinary joy comes only from meat and not from chicken.
The Tzemach Tzedek was quick to add that Jewish practice does not adopt this distinction: under normal circumstances we do not eat meat or chicken in the lead-up to Tisha Be’av. Nonetheless, in a time when it is dangerous to eat dairy, chicken is to be preferred over meat. This is a fascinating example of how opinions that are not normative remain part of the Jewish legal system, to be called upon when the need arises.
For variety, the Tzemach Tzedek added that buckwheat could be substituted for rice. But no dairy broth should even be considered!
As far as beverages – here, too, the Tzemach Tzedek advised a departure from hallowed Jewish practice: “And it is also permitted to drink a little wine.” The Tzemach Tzedek reminded his son that it was better to drink quality wine, rather than raisin wine. Water should be avoided as much as possible, except for water that has been boiled for tea and then diluted with a comparable amount of wine.
IN ANOTHER letter apparently from 1848, the Tzemach Tzedek reiterated his position regarding dairy products before Tisha Be’av, once again advocating chicken. In this letter he added that people should not be stringent and avoid meat after the fast. This letter was sent to the Jewish community of Horki (today in Belarus), though it may have been a template that was copied and dispatched to other communities as well. Here the Tzemach Tzedek added:
“And we should fulfil [the verse] ‘We will render for bullocks the offering of our lips’ (Hosea 14:3), by saying Lamentations and elegies with a broken heart, in that our sins have given rise to a situation where it is even impossible to fast.”
We no longer recoil from fear of dairy products, nor do we wince at the thought of drinking water; but even as a pandemic disrupts our lives, the salient call for a broken heart during these days of national mourning continues to ring true.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Zur Hadassa.