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Things Broken and Repaired

In this week’s page of Talmud, the rabbis show their skill at making distinctions between obligation and acting out

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(Original illustration via Nikol Lohr/Flickr)
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So far, the discussion has taken for granted that tearing your clothes is a destructive act. But now Rabbi Avin introduces a new dimension to the problem, a psychological one. Couldn’t it be said that, by tearing his clothes in his grief, a man is actually “satisfying his evil inclination”—as we might say, letting off steam, cooling his temper? In this sense, even a gratuitous rending has some emotional purpose, and so it could be considered “constructive.” This is a moment of striking empathy and even feels modern somehow, in its recognition of the perverse economy of emotion.

But the Talmud cannot finally sanction this kind of emotional venting. The rabbis’ views on what we might call “acting out” are made clear in a baraita: “If one tears his garments in his anger, breaks his utensils in his anger, or scatters his money in his anger, he should be in your eyes as one who is performing idolatry.” Thus far, the rabbis seem to be recommending a kind of Stoicism, and their emphasis on dignity and self-control has a strongly Roman flavor.

However, they go on to give a distinctively Jewish account of the need for dignity: “For thus is the craft of the evil inclination: Today it tells him, ‘do this’; and the next day it tells him, ‘do this’; until it tells him, ‘perform idolatry,’ and he goes and performs it.” Now the language is no longer that of self-control, but of resistance to temptation. I am reminded of the idea, expressed early in Tractate Berachot, that everyone is constantly surrounded by thousands of invisible demons, who are just waiting for us to slip up. Here, too, the rabbis see any act of self-indulgence as a kind of gateway drug, which will lead ultimately to the worst vice of all, idolatry. It is fascinating to see how the rabbis associate worshiping idols with losing one’s temper—it is as though idol-worship, too, is a kind of natural tendency that must be resisted at all costs. For Jews living in Roman Palestine or Parthian Babylonia, it must often have felt like worshiping false gods was indeed the normal thing for humans to do and that Jewish monotheism was a prolonged fight against fallen human nature.

In this way, the rabbis conclude that tearing your garments out of grief is not, in fact, a constructive act, but a purely negative one. For this reason, you are not liable for a sin offering if you do it on Shabbat, though presumably you have transgressed by doing it in the first place. There is, however, one further wrinkle, another way that losing your temper could be considered a positive act. This is when a man “does it to strike fear upon the members of his house”—that is, his wife, children, and servants. To lose your temper in this demonstrative way is figuratively to repair something—in this case, the behavior of your inferiors—and therefore it is forbidden on Shabbat, just as all repairs are.

This little detail speaks volumes about the class and family structure of the rabbis’ world and about the patriarchal authority they exercised. Indeed, the Talmud shows that the rabbis at home were sometimes violent and tyrannical figures: “Rav Acha bar Yaakov broke utensils; Rav Sheishet threw brine at the head of his maidservant; Abba broke a lid of a pitcher.” Perhaps they did not get the kind of deference from their families that they regularly demand in the Talmud.

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Samuel Goldring says:

I was taught that to be so caught up with one’s own anger, as indicated by the wanton destruction of property, is to put aside what G-d wants- decency, and instead turn one’s wild impulse into a god (idol ) I worship and whose bidding I act out.

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Things Broken and Repaired

In this week’s page of Talmud, the rabbis show their skill at making distinctions between obligation and acting out

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