Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.
Should a Jew ever be completely happy? The question is likely to provoke an indignant “of course.” Why shouldn’t a Jew have as much right to happiness as anyone else? Yet the more you know about the Jewish past, the harder it is to avoid the inheritance of sorrow that is an essential part of Jewishness. We are, after all, a people whose holidays revolve around the threat of annihilation. On Purim, we read about the near genocide of the Persian Jews by Haman; on Passover, we will celebrate the Israelites’ hairsbreadth escape from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.
And sometimes, of course, there was no escape. In the 21st century, the Holocaust appears as the greatest Jewish tragedy, casting its shadow over everything we do. For the rabbis of the Talmud, the unforgettable catastrophe was the destruction of the Temple. That event, too, was accompanied by enormous loss of Jewish lives—according to Josephus, a million people were killed in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. But for the rabbis, it is the spiritual significance of the event that is most important. Without a Temple, the traditional means of communication with God were broken, since Jews could no longer offer sacrifices or perform many crucial rituals. Wouldn’t it be impious to continue to enjoy life on Earth when Heaven itself was in mourning the loss of the Temple?
As Daf Yomi readers saw this week, the rabbis are of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, they insist that every Jewish undertaking should incorporate some reminder of the loss of the Temple. In Bava Batra 60b, in the course of a long discussion about the construction of buildings, the Gemara quotes a baraita: “One may not plaster, and one may not tile, and one may not paint” any new building. The reason is that it would be inappropriate for a Jew to create a perfectly beautiful structure in a world where the Temple lies in ruins. Instead, something must be done to deliberately make the building uglier: the plaster shouldn’t be pure white, but mixed with sand or straw.
On the other hand, the Sages warn against taking this kind of memorialization too far. As we go on to read, after the year 70, there was “an increase in the number of ascetics among the Jews”—people who swore not to eat meat or drink wine. When Rabbi Yehoshua asked them why, they replied: “Shall we eat meat, from which offerings are sacrificed upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist? Shall we drink wine, which is poured as a libation upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist?” These Jews believed that even the most basic of human functions, eating, should be turned into a constant reminder of what had been lost.
But Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed. After all, he argued, it wasn’t just meat and wine that were offered up to God in the Temple. There was also a meal-offering: doesn’t that mean that Jews should stop eating bread? The ascetics called his bluff: yes, they replied, we will stop eating bread and survive only on fruit and vegetables. But there was also a water-libation in the Temple, Yehoshua continued. In that case, Jews should also stop drinking water. This brought the ascetics up short, the Gemara says; “they were silent,” because they knew that it would be impossible to survive without water.
What Yehoshua shows is that the logic of asceticism makes life itself impossible. The Temple was so closely connected with every area of Jewish life that its loss is felt everywhere; if we were to stop doing everything that reminds us of the Temple, we would simply have to lay down and die. In a sense, the rabbis agree that such total mourning is justified. In a startling saying, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha suggests that, after the fall of the Temple, it would have been best for the Jews simply to commit national suicide: “By right we should decree upon ourselves not to marry a woman and produce offspring, and it will turn out that the descendants of Abraham our forefather will cease to exist.” Better this should happen “on our own,” he says, than that the Jews be extinguished by Roman persecution.
But the rabbis recognize that the urge to mourn, even to the point of self-destruction, has a powerful antagonist in the urge to thrive. We have often encountered the Talmudic principle that it is wrong for the rabbis to enact a law that they know most Jews will be unable to follow. Such extreme legislation brings the authority of the rabbis themselves into disrepute, and it turns ordinary Jews into sinners. Ordering people not to have children is one such unreasonable demand, which is why Yishmael ben Elisha invokes the Talmudic dictum, “Leave the Jews alone.” Let them eat meat and drink wine, let them build homes and have children.
The rabbis know that the human need to live and be happy is stronger than the Jewish responsibility to mourn for the past. This is a comforting fact, because it suggests that even the worst ordeals cannot destroy the Jewish will to live. The Talmudic discussion put me in mind of the way that, in Jewish DP camps after World War II, the birthrate was sky-high: After encountering death, we turn instinctively to the creation of life.
But the rabbis insist that we honor the responsibility to mourn, even if we don’t turn it into the central fact of our existence. Don’t make every Jewish building unsightly, Rabbi Yehoshua says, but “leave a small amount in it” unpainted and unplastered, as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. (How much is a small amount? the rabbis inevitably ask: according to Rav Yosef, it means one square cubit.) Don’t stop enjoying meals, but “leave out a small item” to diminish the pleasure of feasting—according to Rav Pappa, this should be a side dish such as “small fried fish.” Women should continue to make themselves beautiful, but they should leave one small patch of hair that they would ordinarily remove. For 2,000 years, Jews have been struggling to figure out a way to remember their sorrows while continuing to lead full lives. As always in the Talmud, the rabbis offer a solution that is pragmatic but still charged with spiritual meaning.
Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on Tablet’s complete archive of more than four years of columns, click here.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.