Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tisha b'Av (Rambam)

Fasting and Mourning

From Hilkot Ta'anit 5.6 Rambam turns to the laws of Tisha b’Av and the period of mourning that immediately precedes it. Tisha b’Av is more rigorous fast than the others: it lasts a full twenty-four hours (unlike the others that are from dawn to nightfall); it includes restrictions other than eating, like Yom Kippur—the so-called five “afflictions”: no washing, no wearing shoes, no sexual relations, etc.; and there are special rules governing the pre-fast meal (no meat or wine, only one cooked dish), unless it falls on Shabbat. Rambam then continues:

9. Such is the measure of all the people, who are unable to stand too much. But the pious men of old, such was their way: on the Eve of Tisha b’Av they would bring to the person, [who is 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 he drinks with it a beaker of water, with anxiety and desolation and weeping, like one whose dead lies before him. Thus is it fitting for Sages to do, or close to it. And I, in my life never ate any cooked dish on the eve of Tisha b’Av, even one of lentils, unless it was on Shabbat.

11. Sages do not give one another words of greeting on Tisha b’Av, but they sit sorrowfully and sighing, like mourners. And if an ignorant person greets them, they answer him quietly and with a weighty demeanor…. And some of the Sages were accustomed not to don tefillin on the head on this day.

Rav Soloveitchik often commented that the essence of Tisha b’Av is one of mourning—a quality diametrically opposed to teshuvah. Whereas the latter is concerned with drawing closer to God, repairing the sense of rupture with God caused by our own misdeeds, the former represents, so to speak, a psychologically earlier stage, in which all that is felt is the pain of loss, and the sense of rift and separation from the Almighty (see HY I: Tisha b’Av). Certainly, these passages give us a vivid, dramatic picture of the mournful quality of the day, with people eating their meal in a corner of the house in an undignified manner, perhaps sitting on the floor, weeping, sighing, moaning, and barely speaking to one another.

However, there are at least two surprising features here that deserve comment. First, that the spiritual mood of the day, the intensely emotional character of the mourning, the sense of anxiety and desolation, is focused not on the fast itself, but on the final meal preceding it. Second, the two-tiered system in these halakhot. In §§6-8 we are told the normative requirements of the halakhah, what ordinary people are supposed to do: i.e., fasting, the five inuyim, not to eat meat or drink wine, only one cooked dish, etc. But from §§9-11 we are given another, different, stronger and more intense set of norms, one giving fuller expression to the emotive experience of mourning, intended specifically for the Sages. This is unusual, and begs for interpretation.

First, regarding the seudat mafseket, the final meal eaten on Erev Tisha b’Av: perhaps this is the focus for the emotional aspect because how one eats, specifically, is most expressive of mourning. There is a certain parallel to the seudat havra’ah of those mourning the dead—that is, the first meal eaten upon returning from the cemetery. Since Tisha b’Av itself is a fast day, there is so to speak no option remaining but to make the meal eaten before it starts into one of mourning.

In addition, I find an interesting parallel between the meal of Erev Tisha b’Av and the Confession recited before Yom Kippur starts, which is even referred to in the sources as Vidui Erev Yom Kippur (see Yoma 87b, quoting Tosefta Yoma 4.13; albeit Rambam in Teshuvah 2.7 does not use this term, a question deserving of discussion). In both cases, one might say that the central motif of the day already begins on its eve, and is carried over to the entire day; hence, we are meant to understand from Rambam’s description of the pre-fast meal how one ought to act and feel throughout the day itself.

As for the other question: Why does Rambam focus here specifically upon the Sages, as those charged with living and acting out Tisha b’Av to the fullest? Perhaps because the type of mourning mentioned here is a purely inner experience, what the Rav used to call kiyyum shebelav, a mitzvah “fulfilled within ones’ heart.” Unlike ordinary mourning for the dead, Tisha b’Av is aveilut yeshanah, an “old mourning”—one based entirely upon a process of remembering, of imagination, of identification with the Jewish historical past. Since there is no direct, personal experience to call upon, it requires great inner reflective powers; hence, the Sages, who live on a more spiritual plane and are in the habit of cultivating greater in-depth insight, may experience it more fully. Or perhaps hakham is used here in the sense in which it is used in Hilkhot Deot—namely, as the ideal type, as the one who behaves as a Jew should. Or, as I suggested in a mini-talk I gave unexpectedly in New York: perhaps, in order to experience Tisha b’Av properly, one needs to invoke one’s own “inner hakham,” one’s “inner Sage,” to expand one’s own horizons of space and time.


Post a Comment

<< Home