Monday, July 23, 2007

Devarim - Tisha b'Av (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parashah, and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006.

Where Did Moses Speak to the People?

This week’s parashah, with which the final book of the Torah, Devarim, begins, opens with an unusually puzzling verse, which Rashi interprets in a thorough-going midrashic manner, seeming unrelated to the literal meaning of verse:

Deut 1:1. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite [the sea of?] reed, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahav.”

The difficulties in this verse are glaring: if the purpose of the verse is to identify the place where Moses spoke, why does it list no less than nine separate place names or regions? Moreover, these locales, even excluding those which are difficult to identify because they are not known from other biblical passage, are scattered all over the map, and could not possibly by explained as multiple references to one specific place, or even (as some conjecture) a series of adjacent points where the large mass of Israelites encamped. Thus, Rashi explains it in a homiletical way:

Rashi: “These are the words.” Because they are words of admonition, he enumerated here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent; therefore he said the things obliquely, mentioning them in an allusive manner, out of respect for the dignity of Israel….

As noted, this verse, because of its inherent difficulties, practically invites midrashic interpretation; as this opening verse makes no sense as providing a geographical landmark for Moses’ speech; it must have had some other meaning. (It would be interesting to see what modern critical-historical approaches make of this verse. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the library this week to consult such works as the Anchor Bible, JPS Torah Commentary, Westminster, etc., to see how they read it.) Given that this verse is the opening one of the book, it seems natural that it serves an introductory function. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy serves a special function in the quintology that is the Torah: it hardly serves as narrative, bringing the “story” forward, nor is its purpose to introduce laws for the first time, even though there is some of that. Rather, it is a kind of “summing up”: Moses’ farewell address to the people, the great teacher’s rhetorical legacy to the people he had led for forty years—alternately admonition, hortatory, review of past events and of key laws, instruction, and key points preparing them for this new stage in their existence as a people dwelling in their own land.

As such, an important place is occupied by admonition: reminding them of their sins and rebellions and moments of little faith during the course of the desert period, and the moral lessons to be derived therefore. This theme is developed and elaborated later on in the book, both in this week’s parashah (1:24-45) and, particularly, in Parshat Ekev (9:7-10:11). Here, according to the ancient midrashic tradition upon which Rashi bases himself (for full details of his sources, which include Sifre and other classic midrashim, see Chavell’s notes in Torat Hayyim), it is introduced in a laconic, almost delphic way, “out of respect for the dignity of Israel”—that is, in order not to embarrass or shame them at the very beginning of his speech.

Following a side comment which we shall skip here, Rashi goes on to elaborate upon each of the place names one by one, beginning with “the wilderness” (the assumption beginning that the very first place mentioned, “across the Jordan” is in fact the place where Moses spoke):

"In the wilderness.” They were not in the wilderness, but at the steppes of Moab. What then is meant by “in the wilderness”? Rather, [that he rebuked them] because of how they angered Him in the wilderness, saying, “would that we were to die in the wilderness” (Exod 16:3).

“In the Plain.” Because of [what happened in] the Plain. That they sinned in the matter of Ba’al Peor [see Num 25:1-9], in Shittim in the Plains of Moab.

“Opposite [the sea of] reed.” Because they rebelled at the Sea of Reeds, when they came to the Sea of Reeds, saying, ”Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the wilderness?” (Exod 14:1) Also while they were traversing the Sea, as is said “and the rebelled about the sea in the Sea of Reeds” (Ps 106:7) as explained in Arakhin (16a).

The Talmudic aggadah referenced here, based upon the somewhat awkward language of the psalm, states that, even in the middle of the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, they feared that the Egyptians would continue pursuing them.

“Between Paran and Tofel and Lavan.” Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [or: Rabbi Yohanan] said: We have searched the entire Scripture, and have not found any place called Tofel or Lavan. Rather, he rebuked them for the words with which they denounced [taflu, pun on Tofel] the manna, which is white (lavan), saying “and we are sick of this spoiled bread” (Num 21:5). And for what they did in the wilderness of Paran in the matter of the Spies.

“And Hatzerot.” In the dispute of Korah. Something else: He told them, you should have learned from what I did to Miriam at Hatzerot because of speaking evil [Num 12:1-16], yet you spoke against the Omnipresent.

I don’t understand the supposed connection between Hatzerot and Korah. According to the text, their arrival in Hatzerot is described at Num 11:35 and their departure at 12:16—long before the Korah chapter that starts at Num 16.

“And Di-Zahav.” He rebuked them for the Calf that they made because they had much gold, as is said, “And I lavished upon them silver, and gold, which they used for Baal” (Hosea 2:10).

This line of interpretation is, as mentioned, based on an ancient tradition, found already in the tannaitic midrash, Sifre. It seems worth noting that very similar things are already found in Targum Onkelos to this verse:

“These are the words that Moses spoke with all Israel across the Jordan; he rebuked them for that which they sinned in the wilderness, and that they angered Him in the plain opposite the Sea of Reeds, in Paran they complained about the manna, and at Hatzerot they angered Him concerning [eating] flesh, and that they made a golden calf.”

Onkelos expresses the same general idea more briefly, albeit with certain small differences between the two in the specific allusions associated with certain phrases. Thus, Onkelos confutes the Plain and the Sea of Reeds together, and interprets Hatzerot as alluding to the craving to eat flesh in 11:4-35 (also problematic, as the people only go to Hatzerot after Kivrot ha-Ta’avah).

In conclusion, it is worth noting that, in light of the idea, explained by Rambam in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5.1, that commemorative fast days are intended to remind the people of their ancestor’s misdeeds, “which are like their own deeds,” and thereby stir them to teshuvah, it is no accident that this chapter is always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av. Indeed, one of the central themes of the Deuteronomic historical review is the incident of the meraglim, the Spies—second in importance only to the Golden Calf as a pivotal event in biblical history. Tisha b’Av itself, tradition tells us, is based on the date of the sin of the spies: “and the people wept on that night” (Num 14:1). In fact, at one time the chapter from Shelah lekha was used as the Torah reading for the fast day of Tisha b’Av; only later was it exchanged for the reading “when you shall bear children” (Deut 4:25ff.) in Vaethanan (see Megillah 31b), with its more upbeat theme of teshuvah—but more on that in the next section.

TISHA B’AV: The White Fast and the Black Fast

Rav Soloveitchik, in his public lectures on Tisha b’Av, often spoke of the tension between two aspects of the day: its status as a public fast day similar to any other, and thus as a day of prayer, repentance, confession of sin, and self–examination; and its unique aspect as a day of mourning and sadness. As he often noted, these two aspects are not merely different, but are in some sense contradictory, even opposed to one another, in ways having far-reaching theological and psychological implications.

Indeed, this difference in mood is reflected in the terms popularly used to describe the two major fasts of the Jewish calendar: the White Fast and the Black Fast (sobriquets that I think originated among English Jewry). Paradoxical as it may seem to some, Yom Kippur is thought of as a day of joy: a day of selihah u-mehilah, of the gift of Divine forgiveness, of teshuvah, of renewal, of a sense of catharsis, through the feeling of being purified from sin. We are even told that, at the end of his arduous service in the Holy Temple, the High Priest made a festive day for all his friends and family.

Tisha b’Av, by contrast, is dominated by sadness, by a feeling of loss and grief, of alienation and distance from God—and indeed, as the Rav was wont to point out, Tisha b’Av is lacking in the sense of an active prayer dialogue with God, as it were, that we have on Yom Kippur or other fast days, when we recite Selihot and read the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, Avinu Malkenu, and so on.

Public fast days, such as those called in times of trouble and imminent disaster for the community—classically, in times of drought and fear of famine—are not times of joy, certainly, but neither are they marked by grief or sadness either. The mood is one of worry, concern, anxiety over the crisis visiting the community or people, but one which finds outlet by turning to God in prayer and teshuvah. Not of depression and loss, of diminished vitality and of feeling on the periphery of life, but of awareness of the need to correct one’s individual and collective shortcomings through teshuvah, coupled with cautious optimism, hope and trust in the Almighty.

A certain difficulty in defining the “essence” of Tisha b’Av—is it essentially a fast day, or a day of mourning?—is an interesting halakhic overlap. Several central laws of the day—basically, all of the “afflictions” observed in that day, with the exception of eating and drinking itself: namely, washing, rubbing one’s body with oil or lotions, wearing shoes, and sexual relations—are part of the “package” of both Yom Kippur and the major fast days described in Masekhet Ta’anit, on the one hand, and of private mourning for the dead, on the other. The question is: which of the two is essential?

To answer this question, I would like to briefly analyze Rambam’s presentation of this subject in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, Chapter 5. I will not go into a close textual analysis, as I have discussed many of these texts in the past, and the material may be found in my old postings (HY V: Devarim) or on my blog archives (July 2006, under the headings, Tisha b’Av [Rambam] and Seventeenth of Tammuz [Rambam]). I will post the full text of Rambam on this subject in an Appendix, later today or before Tisha b’av.

Even before the first mention of those halakhot unique to Tisha b’Av, in §6, Rambam cites the well-known Rabbinic aphorism: “Once Av enters, one diminishes one’s joy” (making it a diametrically opposed to Adar, the month of Purim), listing various customs of moderate mourning from the onset of the month or during the week of Tisha b’Av.

In §7 he mentions the basic rule governing Tisha b’Av as a fast day—that it is observed for 24 hours, starting from dusk, like Yom Kippur. But note: he does not yet mention the laws of the other “affliction,” which one would expect to find here if it were part of the fast day “package.”

He then turns to the laws of seudah mafseket, to which he devotes two and a half sections, §§7b-9. This final meal before the fast is a unique halakhic institution, patterned after the mourner’s meal—albeit not after the “Meal of Solace” brought by neighbors and friends after the funeral, but rather after the manner in which “one whose dead lies before him” is to eat—i.e., the onan—a picture of abject desolation. He presents the basic rules: that one does not eat meat, drink wine, or have more than one cooked item; goes on to describe the exception to this rule when it falls on Shabbat; and concludes with the special strictures observed by Sages and “the pious ones of old,” ending on the personal note that he himself never ate so much as a dish of lentils on Erev Tisha b’Av, unless it was Shabbat.

Only after that, in §10, does he mention the ‘innuyim, the five “afflictions”—a clear indication, to my mind, that these are expressions of mourning, and not part of its definition as a fast day. (This is also implied by the statement in b. Ta’anit 30b that “All of the commandments incumbent upon the mourner apply to Tisha b’Av.”) I would suggest that the mention here and in §7 of Yom Kippur is intended merely to say that it is patterned after Yom Kippur, or like Yom Kippur—but only as a model, as a familiar point of reference to help people to understand the law. In terms of its essential nature, Tisha b’Av is totally different—sui generis.

These are followed in turn, in §§10b-11, by other laws of Tisha b’Av, again derived from the principle of mourning: not to engage in ordinary labor; not to study Torah, except for those things keeping with the sad and melancholy nature of the day; and what he describes as stringencies of talmidei hakhamim: not to greet others, and not to wear tefillin on one’s head.

I find it interesting that Rambam makes no mention, either here or elsewhere, of what are for us the central liturgical elements of the day: the reading of Eikhah (the Book of Lamentations) and Kinot (liturgical poems on the themes of the day), even though the former, at least, is mentioned by Masekhet Sofrim & Eikhah Rabbati. The only feature he does mention is the paragraph Nahem inserted in the Afternoon Prayer (Hilkhot Tefillah 1.14, which in his version begins with the word Rahem).

The chapter continues (§§12-15) with other, non-time-related laws commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem: leaving a bare spot unpainted on the wall of one’s home; omitting one dish at festive meals; a certain limitation in music, on clothing and ornaments worn by brides and bridegrooms, on jewelry worn by women, etc. This is based on a certain balance, elucidated by R. Yehoshua in Tosefta Sotah 15.11-12. When approached by certain zealots who sought to introduce numerous rules of mourning after the Destruction of the Temple, he said: “to mourn too much is impossible; not to mourn at all is also impossible.” Hence, a whole series of symbolic measures were introduced, reminders of what one has lost, as a kind of compromise. Similarly, in the laws of personal mourning for the dead, Rambam tries to set out a golden mean between the extremes of apathy or “cruelty,” and exaggerated grief (Hilkhot Evel 13.11-12).

The chapter is rounded off with the laws of one who sees the cities of Judaea or Jerusalem in their state of ruin (§§16-18), and ends (§19) with the prophetic promise that all these fast will be nullified in the messianic future and become days of joy.

It is interesting that the text in Zechariah 7:4, which is the earliest text alluding to the observance of Tisha b’Av, also alludes to weeping and mourning. A group of people sent a query to the prophet, shortly after the rebuilding of the Second Temple: “Should I weep in the fifth month, abstain, as I have done now for some years?” Note: not “should I fast,” but “should I weep,” with the single word hinazer, “abstain,” presumably alluding to fasting, added almost as an afterthought.


During the course of this past Shabbat I felt that something essential was missing in my essay about Tisha b’Av as a day of mourning, with its detailed analysis of Rambam’s halakhic presentation: namely, a kind of conceptual summing up of what is meant by mourning. Then, I had a sudden flash of insight: ordinary mourning for the dead is all about family. The intense, unique grief of mourning the death of a close person is that, with the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child, one’s own personal world is torn asunder; an individual who made up one’s private “micro-society” is gone, never to return.

By saying that Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning, whose experience most closely approximates personal mourning, we are saying that we stand in the same relation to Jerusalem, the Temple, the Jewish People as such in all its historical catastrophes, as we do to our own family. There is an expanded conception of one’s social and emotional world.

It is perhaps relatively easy to understand the idea of the Jews people as “family,” but in what sense can we say this about Jerusalem or the Temple? I think the answer relates to the idea that the Temple, in it heyday, symbolized or actually embodying the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in the world. The Destruction of the Temple is also the withdrawal, the absence of God from a certain kind of immanent, tangible presence in the world. God is somehow—and here I have to add about a hundred times kivyakhol, “so to speak”—also an absent “member of the family.” (Might one also connect this to the concept in Niddah 31a that God is the third partner, alongside the father and mother, in forming the fetus?)

All this runs counter to the modern concept of the autonomous, atomistic individual. This past week one of the local newspapers had a feature story about Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher of “Objectivism,” who preached a kind of enlightened selfishness or egotism. (Incidentally, she turns out to have been a super-assimilated Jew: born Anna Rosenbaum, the one religious holiday she observed was Christmas, which she saw as an “American holiday” celebrating the importance of the individual. Really!). Her focus on the self was in contradistinction to intrusive government, that imposes itself upon the individual with various demands, regulations, and obligations. Such an approach ignores a third option, that of Judaism: the existence of an organic community, with deep historical roots, from which the individual draws feelings of sustenance and belonging. (This is a key problem of modernity: what the German sociologist Tönnies called Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft—the emergence of alienated, impersonal associations of human beings as opposed to organic communities.)

Rambam on Tisha b’Av

1. There are certain days on which all Israel fast because of the troubles that took place therein, so as to arouse the hearts and open the paths of repentance, and so as to serve as a reminder of our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors, which were like our own deeds now, until it caused them and us those selfsame troubles, so that by the remembrance of these things we might return to the good, as is said, “and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” [Lev 26:40].

[I omit §§2-5, which enumerate the specific fast days.]

6. Once the month of Av begins, joy is diminished. During the week in which Tisha b’Av falls it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, to launder clothing, or to wear a pressed/laundered garment, even of linen, until after the fast has passed. And it is forbidden even to launder clothing to be left [for use] after the fast. And it is already Jewish custom not to eat meat during this week, nor to go to the bathhouse until after the fast. And there are places where it is customary to halt the slaughter of meat from Rosh Hodesh until the fast.

7.The night and day of Tisha b’Av are alike in every respect, and one may only eat [i.e., on the 8th] while is still daytime. And twilight thereof is forbidden like that of Yom Kippur. And a person may not eat meat nor drink wine during the meal at which he ceases [eating, i.e., before the fast]. But he may drink wine from the winepress that is three days old or less; and he may eat meat that has been salted for three days or more. And he may not eat two cooked dishes.

8. Of what are we speaking? If he eats on Tisha b’Av Eve after midday. But if he ate before noon, even if it was the last meal with which he ceases, he may eat whatever he wishes. And on the Eve of Tisha b’Av that falls on Shabbat he may eat and drink whatever he wishes, and place food on his table as at a feast of King Solomon. Likewise when Tisha b’Av itself falls on the Shabbat he does not spare anything.

9. Such is the measure of all the people, who are unable to stand too much. But the pious men of old, would behave thusly: on the Eve of Tisha b’Av they would bring to the person, [who was eating] by himself, dry bread and salt, and he would soak it in water, sitting between the oven and the stove [i.e., in a corner of the kitchen], and drink with it a beaker of water, in anxiety and desolation and weeping, like one whose dead lies before him. Thus is it fitting for Sages to do, or close to it. As for myself, I never in my life ate a cooked dish on the eve of Tisha b’Av, even one of lentils, unless it was Shabbat.

10. Pregnant women and nursing mothers fast the entire day of Tisha b’Av. And it is forbidden to wash oneself, with either warm or cold water, nor even to place one’s finger in water. And it is forbidden to rub oneself with ointments for pleasure, or to wear shoes, or to engage In sexual relations—just like Yom Kippur. And in those places where it is customary to do labor they do so. And in those places where it is customary not to do labor, one does not. And in all the places learned people do not engage in labor. And our Sages said that one who engages in labor on this day never sees a sign of blessing.

11. Sages do not greet one another on Tisha b’Av, but sit sorrowfully and sighing, like mourners. And if an ignorant person greets them, they answer him softly and with a weighty demeanor. And it is forbidden on Tisha b’Av to read in the Torah or the Prophets or the Writings, nor in Mishnah, halakhah, gemara and aggadot. And he only reads Job and dirges [i.e. , Lamentations] and the negative parts of Jeremiah. And school children are idle from their studies. And some of the Sages were accustomed not to don tefillin of the head on this day.


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