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Tuesday, April 2, 2013


All Talmudic references come from the Vilna edition of the Yerushalmi, Ta'anit 25b-26a

I recall when, as a young rabbi, I first encountered a college student who did not remember the assassination of President Kennedy. For that student November 22, 1963 was just another day. For me it was a pivotal event in American history. How could anyone be oblivious to it? I remember expressing my incredulity to a friend, a slightly older woman who worked as an administrator on campus. She said she often feels the same shock when she realizes the person she is speaking with cannot recall the end of the Korean War, a day which shaped her in her youth. I had received my comeuppance and my answer. Time moves on. One generation remembers and reacts differently that the one before.

It is true even of cataclysmic events. Consider Pearl Harbor or even 9/11. As events move from our experience into memory, perhaps into ritual and finally into history, their significance changes.

Our passage in Yerushalmi Ta'anit reflects this inevitable movement. How does one continue to observe the 9th of Av, 70 CE, the date on which the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? Then, as now, the 9th of Av was an important fast day and none of the Sages question that status. Their questions seem to be on more inconsequential matters, but we shall see that their responses in the text reflect different ways in which the memory finds expression in ritual.

The first instance concerns a young man asking a woman to marry him.
Rabbi Ba bar Kohen said before Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Jacob bar Idi: It is forbidden to betroth a woman of Friday.
The concern is that the celebration of the engagement will spill over into Shabbat, though if you knew it could be contained there was no prohibition of asking such a question on Friday.
Samuel said: Even on the 9th of Av one should betroth a woman, so that someone else will not marry her first.
Yes, there is a solemn fast going on to mark the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. But for Samuel, who lived in 4th century Babylonia, it takes second place in the unlikely event that you have a sudden and urgent need to ask a woman for her hand in marriage. You would not want someone else to swoop in and ask her first. He assumes that the couple's happiness would not soil the communal sorrow.

The gemara moves on to discuss the Mishnah's prohibition on washing clothes or getting a haircut during the week that includes the 9th of Av. The exception is Thursday when you may wash clothes and get a haircut in preparation for Shabbat. (M. Ta'anit 4:6) These signs of personal mourning migrated into the communal mourning for the Temple. The implicit question concerns how many days are impacted by the observance of the fast for the 9th of Av.

Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish, who both lived in the Land of Israel during the 2nd and 3rd century CE, debate whether the week following the 9th of Av is subject to these same restrictions. Yohanan says yes; ben Laquish, no. They do not question the position taken by the Mishnah that the terrible events of the 9th of Av are such that one prepares in advance for the fast, but they want to know if the restrictions extend into a second week after the event. Just how large does this loom in our lives?

Unsure how to resolve this stand-off the gemara asks what Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish did.
R. Isaac b. Eleazar, “When the ninth of Ab had ended, he made an announcement. and they opened the barber shops, and whoever wanted went and got a haircut.”
Apparently it all happened smoothly. People just got on with their life.

Or not.

The gemara records a division of the house, as it were.
The Southerners (I presume those in Jerusalem) applied the prohibitions from the new moon of Ab onward.
The Sepphoreans applied them for the entire month of Ab.
The Tiberians applied them for the week [in which the ninth of Ab occurred].
The rabbis of Tiberias reverted and applied them as did the rabbis of Sepphoris.
Different communities behaved differently. We are offered no insight into the process that resulted in these differences. Was one community more intimately impacted by the events than the other? But surely the Southerners, even if I am wrong about identifying them with Jerusalem, were closest to the destruction. Were their social or political implications? Were they just trying to be more pious than one another? There is no way to know. What is clear is that more than a century after the destruction, communities were still trying to figure out how deep an impact the destruction of the Temple should have on their observance.

The divisions went even deeper. Individual sages differed on how long the fast should last. The division grew from the traditions about the destruction of the Temple.
On the seventh of Ab they entered it. On the eighth they battered it down, on the ninth they set fire to it, and on the tenth it burned down.
Rabbi Jeremiah taught that the fast should actually be on the 10th, the day the destruction was complete. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Abun observed both the 9th and the 10th. Rabbi Levi observed the 9th and the evening of the 10th. Here we gain a slight insight into the reasons behind the divisions – do we mark the beginning of the conflagration that destroyed the Temple, the day when the destruction was final or some combination of both. But we might wish for more.

The Talmud preserves the differences, but it does not dictate which point of view wins. We learn that between communities and between sages there was a difference of opinion about how to move forward and preserve this memory for the generations to come.

Why should we care? After all, we know the outcome. The rituals of Tisha B'Av are well established on our day. I believe the lesson is more subtle. It is not about the outcome, nor even about the process. If we knew all of the reasoning behind each opinion it might not illuminate the final result.

I believe it is about mourning. Grand public losses stir us in different ways. The death of President Kennedy (and, yes, the end of the Korean War) made deep impressions on the people who experienced those moments. We still feel those effects decades later. Similarly we feel the destruction of the Holy Temple still, despite the centuries that have passed. The remaining wall of the Temple retains its holiness. But mourning takes its place alongside other events in our lives. The intensity of the moment finds its expression not as a singular event, but as one of many in the life of a person, or the life of a people.

The full effect of a trauma – personal or national – takes time to settle in, to find its level. In the meantime there will be differences in the ways people register their sadness, their grief. One can only hope for patience as the process works its way out.

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