Monday, July 15, 2013

The Two "Tisha B'Av"'s of Maimonides

Generally speaking, Jewish law is formulated so as to apply to everyone equally. There are no double standards in halakha. Yet, when it comes to the laws of Tisha B'av as codified by Maimonides (Rambam), it would seem as if there were two completely different sets of rules at play simultaneously. Specifically, the Rambam expects Torah scholars to adhere to practices far more stringent in nature than what is required of laypersons. The Rambam legislates this in four contexts:

1) In discussing the pre-Tisha B'Av meal, or Seudah Hamafseqet, the Rambam codifies the basic principles that only one cooked dish may be served, no meat or wine may be included, that the rules apply only to the final meal and only when the meal is eaten after midday, etc. Then he describes the ideal to which scholars should aspire - sitting on the floor, devastated with nothing but bread and water like one who has just lost a dear relative - and mentions that he never in his life had any cooked dish, even of lentils, on the Eve of Tisha B'av.

2) The Rambam discourages work on Tisha B'av but states that it is a matter of communal custom and not strict halakha. Then he qualifies this assertion by saying that "in all places, the Torah scholars do not work on Tisha B'av."

3) When he discusses social interaction on Tisha B'av, he mentions that Torah scholars do not greet each other on Tisha B'av; they sit in agony like mourners (this is in contradistinction to our practice, which is that nobody greets anybody on Tisha B'av). He goes on to mention Torah subject matter that is either prohibited or permitted for study during the fast for the community - but not for the Torah scholars, who remain silent and do not study anything.

4) When it comes to wearing tefillin, the Rambam mentions that "some of the scholars didn't wear the head tefillin" on Tisha B'Av (the prevalent custom is for nobody to wear any tefillin in the morning on Tisha B'Av; we defer them till Minha).

We see, then, that the Rambam promotes a double standard with regard to Tisha B'Av. In the world of Maimonides, the Tisha B'Av observance of the scholar differs substantially from that of the average person. Why should this be so?

I believe the answer is as follows: Mourning always involves both the intellect and the emotions. When it comes to personal mourning, one is naturally overwhelmed with feelings of melancholy and it is the job of the mind to temper those feelings and place them into perspective so that adjustment, adaptation and transition forward can occur. The emotional response is automatic in any healthy individual; the intellectual response is conscious and deliberate, an attempt to contextualize and thereby rise above the powerful tide of feeling that has welled up in his broken heart. Slowly but surely the intensity of the feelings diminishes, slowly but surely life returns to normal as the currently tragic event recedes into the past.

Tisha B'Av embodies precisely the opposite concept. Here, we "build up to", rather than back away from, full fledged mourning in a gradual manner, by slowly adding to our repertoire of restrictions from the 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av. This is because in this kind of mourning, the engagement of the intellect necessarily precedes and guides that of the emotions.

It is only when we think deeply into the significance of the losses represented by Tisha B'Av that we can really feel something. The expressions of mourning on Tisha B'Av are not natural reactions to a personal and very tangible loss; rather, they are manifestations of an underlying intellectual awareness that must be cultivated and enriched in order to have an impact.

Thus, unlike the framework of familial mourning in which everyone is equal - we are all equally subject to our emotions and equally in need of some intellectual process to work through and contextualize them - in the framework of mourning for the Temple intellectual understanding must precede emotionality. The response one has to Tisha B'Av is not a visceral one like the loss of a loved one; it is the consequence of thought and reflection a long time in the making.

So it makes sense why Torah scholars will experience and observe the day differently from their lay brethren. Torah scholars have a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the significance of the tragedies of Tisha B'Av, and their actions must mirror that understanding.

While for others it may be OK to have a decent meal on the Eve of Tisha B'Av, to socialize a little, to go to work or wear tefillin, this is because they are not totally overwhelmed by the tragedy - the reality is that they retain some of their selfish interest in pleasure and comfort (food), social proclivity (socializing), desire for financial advancement (working) and their sense of dignity (tefillin, a sign of honor) even in the face of Tisha B'Av.

A Torah scholar, however, is expected to experience Tisha B'Av on a totally different level. His despair and agony are especially powerful and poignant because they emerge from a genuine internal appreciation of the tragedy. And as the Rambam states in Hilkhot Deot (the Laws of Character Development), a wise person is obligated to demonstrate the truth of his principles and convictions through his behavior, so as to educate and inspire others. The scholars serve as models for us of genuine Torah knowledge which we have the opportunity to study and emulate, and it is part of their responsibility to serve in that capacity.

Furthermore, the Prophets - for example, Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) in the Haftara for Tisha B'Av morning - the importance of the "wise man" reflecting upon and responding to the implications of the tragic withdrawal of Divine Providence from the Jewish Nation. Clearly, he assigns a special role to the scholars whose duty it is to study, conceptualize and explain the meaning of the dark chapters of Jewish history to the rest of us.

Thus, the Rambam bases himself on the Prophets when he insists that the Torah scholar is both expected and required to have a uniquely intense Tisha B'Av experience, an experience from which the community as a whole can derive insight and inspiration.