It is interesting that the thing we probably associate most with the nine days (the period from Rosh Chodesh Av until the end of Tisha B’Av, and normally until noon of the 10th Av) is that we do not eat meat or drink wine (except for Shabbos). In fact, of all the restrictions of the nine days this requires the most information. Not wearing new clothing and refraining from bathing for pleasure are understandable; these are taken from the laws of mourning (as are the restrictions on haircuts, shaving, and music) and are plonked here in the nine days for this too is a period of morning (over the loss of the beis hamikdash and the ‘removal’ of the Shechinah therein). But what about not eating meat; what has this got to do with mourning such that it should be inserted into the halachos of the nine days? The answer is that it does not have anything to do with mourning. So why do we refrain from meat & wine?
As the Shulchan Aruch writes, this was a custom which we communally took on to observe, and the Taz takes this a step further in asserting that our commitment to this custom has the law of an oath (neder); it is as if we have made an oath not to eat meat during these nine days. But if it is an oath, asks the Taz, we find an important difference; someone who makes an oath not to drink wine may not drink wine vinegar either (it came from wine) whilst during the nine days we are allowed to drink wine vinegar. Why, if both are oaths? The Taz answers that our oath not to have wine and meat during the nine days does not pertain to the wine/meat itself (and would thus forbid its products too), rather it is an oath not to experience the pleasure and enjoyment that comes from the meat and wine. Indeed, the Gra adds that the fact that not having wine and meat during the nine days does not originate from the laws of mourning, but is rather something that we have communally taken on ourselves, is why the laws of not having meat and wine are more lenient than other laws during the nine days. Thus, one may have meat at a se’udas mitzvah (a bris, pidyon haben, bar mitzvah, and even a siyum – conditions apply). What we shall focus on is where this ‘custom’ originated from, and what is the idea behind committing not to have meat and wine during the nine days?
First, to a precedent for such a refraining measure. The gemarra reveals that when the (second) beis hamikdash was destroyed, multitudes of pious Jews decided not to eat meat and drink wine (throughout the year), for the animal sacrifices (meat) and wine libations were no more. Rabbi Yehoshua accosted this pious clan, and told them that what they were doing was unnecessary; it was too severe a mourning, and we have a rule that the Rabbis may not enact a decree if it is too difficult for the majority of the people to abide by this decree. Thus, we have meat and wine all year round, for refraining from doing so would be too much for us to handle (I think the gemarra was spot on!). Anyway, the Gra brings this gemarra as the source for our taking on not to have meat and wine during the nine days; true, we cannot handle such a restriction all year round, but we can (and do) handle it for nine days. Let’s try and explain the reason for this restriction relatively fully…
The Shulchan Aruch writes that the accepted custom is to have any knife on the table covered during birkas hamazon (apart from on Shabbos and Yom Tov). One explanation is that a person once got to the bracha of bonei yerushalayim and was so distressed at the destruction of the beis hamikdash that he instinctively took a knife that was on the table and plunged it into his stomach. So to avoid such things happening to us, we cover the knives so that by the time we lunge at them and uncover them to do ourselves damage at our distress of the churban, we will have calmed ourselves down and averted the danger. Rav Elyashiv asks the must-ask question here; is there really anyone nowadays who would have such feelings of loss and sadness about the churban that they would do such an act? Rav Elyashiv answers beautifully that in truth, this danger is not relevant for us anymore, but we still observe this accepted custom to cover the knife in order to remind us that there once were people who cared that much about the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.
The concept is that doing a little act can re-sensitise ourselves to a bigger and greater emotion; just like covering the knife connects us back to those who did feel such pain over the churban, and thus subtly and gradually builds a semblance of such feelings within us. We shall bring three examples of such a concept.
The gemarra rules that it is forbidden to have relations with one’s wife during years of famine, for (as Rashi there explains) ‘one is supposed to behave as if one were in pain too.’ And the Rema adds that the same goes for any tragedy/pain which is comparable to a famine. This is an amazing halacha; if some part of the world is in pain, HaShem wants us to create a small reflection of such pain in our daily lives in order to feel others’ sorrow – even if your feeling of pain will be nothing as great as those who are actually suffering from the famine. This is our concept of doing a small action to re-sensitise ourselves to a bigger picture of pain. Similarly, Rashi on the Chumash cites a gemarra which reveals that from the day the brothers sold Yosef until they were reunited with him, neither Yosef nor his brothers drank any wine. Again, this is a remarkable thing, and it is worth remembering that the central part of a meal was wine in those days. The brothers did not sell Yosef whimsically; they calculated that this was the correct thing to do. And yet (despite not knowing where Yosef was and what travails he was facing) the brothers still felt it necessary and important to sensitise themselves to whatever pain their brother was going through via their abstention from wine. Indeed, the same goes for Yosef; he too felt it worthy to abstain from wine in case the brothers were suffering for having sold him. Furthermore, it is known that Rav Hutner’s wife did not have any sugar in her tea during the years of the holocaust. She would comment ‘how can I possibly enjoy my tea when I know that there are Jews suffering terribly in Europe.’ Again, this is another example of doing a little action to sensitise oneself to the bigger pains and suffering faced by others.
Perhaps this is the reason behind our communal oath-like acceptance to refrain from meat and wine during the nine days. True, it has nothing to do with mourning, but it is that small action in our everyday lives (for these nine days) which re-sensitises and realigns ourselves with the pain that we should be feeling (and the pain that HaShem is feeling) at the loss and the absence of the Beis Hamikdash.
In the realm of bein adam lemakom, it is not easy to feel HaShem’s pain, so to speak, and the pain of the loss of the Mikdash – we do not know what it was like. What is more practical is feeling the pain of other people who are suffering. After all, it was baseless hatred which caused the destruction of the last Beis Hamikdash, and those sins need to be rectified before the arrival of the third Beis Hamikdash. In fact, the Ben Ish Chai notes that one of the purposes of fasting is that the pain and discomfort caused by fasting makes us more in-tune with the everyday life of a poor person. Thus, we are re-sensitised to their plight and are more likely to offer assistance to the poor as a result. This, he explains, is the meaning of the gemarra’s statement that ‘the reward for fasting is tzedakah’ – that the efforts in fasting will ultimately find expression in an increased drive to aid the poor and needy.
May HaShem help us feel the spiritual pain of the absence of a Mikdash, as well as the pain and suffering of others.
Good Mourning. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 551:9
 Taz on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 551:9. See the Magen Avraham there who seems to disagree and say that it’s not a neder, but rather a kabbalah that we have made not to have meat and wine.
 Gra on the Shulchan Aruch above
 Gemarra Bava Basra 60b
 Gra on the Shulchan Aruch above. Others bring a debatable girsa of the Yerushalmi as the source.
 Shluchan Aruch Orach Chaim 180:5
 Cited in Mishna Brura 180:11 in the name of Rabbeinu Simcha
 I heard this personally from a close student of his (Rav Halbertal)
 Gemarra Ta’anis 11a; it is learnt from Yosef, who had no children during the years of famine in Egypt for this reason. The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 240:12 paskens like this
 Rema Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 240:12
 Rashi Bereishis 43:34
 Gemarra Shabbos 139a
 Rashi Megillas Esther 5:4
 Gemarra Yoma 9b
 Gemarra Brachos 6b (Mar Zutra says it)