Days after the disaster in Meron, Israel continues to grieve. The fear and confusion in the hours following the catastrophe have morphed into sadness, grief, and despair. We do our best to comfort each other, to show love for one another, but we all experience the heaviness of loss of those 45 beautiful souls. We try to share in the pain of the hundreds of mourners who have lost their loved ones; the scores of injured who are still recovering from their wounds; and the thousands who, though physically unharmed, witnessed this terrible event with their own eyes.
And as media reports emerge explaining how such a terrible calamity unfolded, perhaps now is also a time to begin to think about preventing this type of catastrophe from occurring in the future. This disaster has painfully brought to our attention that this type of event is not uncommon, and has even happened recently in the Jewish community, when, at the funeral for Rav Shmuel Wosner, a 27 year-old man named Mordechai Gerber was trampled to death, and many more were seriously injured. For myself, as someone who takes comfort in the wisdom of the Talmudic sages, lessons from our tradition may be a place to start.
Carrying weapons on Sabbath
The mishnah in Masechet Eruvin (44b) rules that all who go out to battle on Shabbat to save lives, may return to their original location. The gemara there raises a question that this ruling implies that the returning warriors may travel any distance, which conflicts with the ruling just above it in the Mishna, which states that a person may only travel 2000 cubits – the typical allowance of travel outside of the city on Shabbat – once the task at hand has been completed. In the course of this discussion, the gemara cites a tosefta that described another tragic event in our history:
At first, those returning from a rescue mission would place their weapons in the first house that they encountered upon their return, i.e., the house nearest the wall, to avoid carrying on Shabbat any more than necessary. Once, their enemies noticed that they were no longer carrying their weapons, and they chased after them; and the defenders entered the house to take up their weapons and fight, and their enemies entered after them, causing great confusion. In the chaos, the defenders began to push one another, and they killed more of each other than their enemies killed of them. At that time the Sages instituted that they should return to their locations, i.e., their destinations, with their weapons.
Rashi there explains that the soldiers rushed back into the narrow house where they left their weapons, and in their haste, crushed each other against the walls. As a result, the Sages ruled that the returning soldiers may carry their weapons on Shabbat further into the city in order to prevent such an event in the future.
In some ways, the example from Eruvin is a fulfillment of the Biblical tochacha, or curses that the Torah tells us can befall the Jewish people, as the verse states (Leviticus 26:17):
“I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.”
Answering the obvious question of why one would flee if no one is in pursuit, Rashi explains: “You shall flee…out of fear.” Put in contemporary terms, the fear of being pursued by one’s enemies activates the “fight or flight” response, at which point a person may flee, even if there is no actual pursuer. One of the lessons we learn from this verse is that the presence of enemies is one manifestation of the curse; but an additional, perhaps worse level of the tochacha is the psychological fear of the enemies which generates a panic response, even if none are present. In the case of the gemara in Eruvin, the effects of this panic response resulted in the death of many Jewish warriors.
As noted above, the Sages’ reaction was quite drastic. In response to this event, they provided an expansive extension of the leniency allowing for violation of Shabbat, even in violation of Biblical law. It is worth considering, then, why this was different from the following similar episode recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 60a).
The case of the spiked sandal
The mishnah there rules that one may not go out on Shabbat with a spiked sandal. The gemara explains the Mishna:
Shmuel said: They were those who eluded the decrees of religious persecution, and after one of the wars they were hiding in a cave. And those hiding said: One who seeks to enter the cave may enter, but one who seeks to leave the cave may not leave. (Rashi: One leaving has no way to determine whether or not the enemy is lying in wait outside the cave. Therefore, leaving could reveal the presence of those hiding in the cave.)
It happened that the sandal of one of them was reversed, the front of the sandal was in the back, and his footprints appeared like the steps of one leaving the cave. They thought that one of them left and feared that their enemies saw him and were now coming upon them to attack. In their panic, they pushed one another and killed one another in greater numbers than their enemies had killed among them. [To commemorate this disaster that resulted from a spiked sandal, they prohibited going out into the public domain with it.]
The gemara cites two other versions of the story, and then wonders why the decree against spiked sandals was limited to Shabbat – if the spiked sandals caused the disaster, why not prohibit them during the week as well? The Talmud answers that as a general rule, a decree issued as a result of specific circumstances is typically limited to those specific circumstances. So one may reasonably ask, if this is the case, why would the ruling in Eruvin be so expansive, beyond the limited circumstances of that case? The answer to this question seems to involve two parts. The first is that to address the challenge of the case in Eruvin, a leniency was required, i.e. to carry their weapons further on Shabbat; this is as opposed to the cases cited in Masechet Shabbat which required a prohibition, to which the general principle limiting the rabbinic decree would apply. Additionally, in the case in Eruvin, once the reaction was one of leniency rather than restriction, the Rabbis applied the most lenient ruling possible due to principles of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. They recognized that although the conditions that created the disaster may be unlikely, when in doubt, preventing situations that could lead to loss of life is the paramount concern.
The race to remove the Temple ashes
In addition to the tragic events recorded in Eruvin and Shabbat, another episode recorded in the Talmud (Yoma 22a) is worth considering, particularly as it reflects a different aspect of this type of phenomenon. In the times of the Beit HaMikdash, the priests were responsible for all aspects of the daily sacrificial services, which began with removing ashes from the altar. The mishnah teaches as follows:
Initially, the practice among the priests was that whoever wishes to remove the ashes from the altar removes them…However, an incident occurred where both of them were equal as they were running and ascending on the ramp, and one of them shoved another and he fell and his leg was broken. And once the court saw that people were coming to potential danger, they instituted that priests would remove ashes from the altar only by means of a lottery.
What led to one priest shoving the other off the altar’s ramp? It is possible that this fellow pushed on purpose with intent to harm, so that he would reach the top of the ramp first. Alternatively, it is also possible that in their race up the ramp, they were not attentive to danger posed by racing side-by-side; in their religious fervor and excitement, their situational awareness was limited, leading to one priest being shoved inadvertently off the ramp.
The mishnah tells us how the Rabbis responded to this event: they changed the system from a free-for-all to an orderly system with a daily lottery determining who would have the right to remove the ashes. It is worth noting that the Talmud wonders why the Rabbis did not institute this system to begin with to avoid such an outcome. The gemara offers suggestions, but at the very least, once there was an incident, the rules were permanently changed to prevent this type of event from happening ever again.
What makes this event in Yoma different from the other two is that in this case, excitement, not fear, was the driving force behind the pushing behaviors. Notably, contemporary researchers of emotion have demonstrated that these two emotional experiences are actually quite similar, both in terms of the physiological effects (e.g. increased heart rate), as well as the cognitive effects (e.g. tunnel-vision, cognitive flooding). According to some rishonim, this similarity was observed by the prophet Isaiah (60:4-5). In describing the Jewish people’s triumphant return to Israel and Jerusalem, Isaiah tells us:
“Lift up your eyes all around and see, they are all assembling and coming to you [Jerusalem]; your sons will arrive from afar and your daughters will be raised at their side. Then you will see and be radiant, your heart will be startled (pachad) and broadened, for the affluence of the West will be turned over to you, and the wealth of the nations will come to you.”
Many commentators ask why the prophet would use the word pachad, which typically is understood to mean “fear” – what is fearful about this joyous prophecy? Radak (Rav Dovid Kimchi, 1160-1235 CE) explains that the term pachad does not necessarily mean fear; it refers to the feeling of being suddenly overwhelmed. Although in many cases this occurs with fear, the prophet is describing the overwhelming excitement of seeing such a profound switch in the fortunes of Jerusalem.
Radak’s understanding, which is consistent with many modern researchers of emotion, can help explain the incident on the altar’s ramp. The priests, filled with excitement to perform the daily practice of clearing ashes, experienced the same adrenaline rush and the same type of cognitive flooding and tunnel vision that would be present in the cases of fear recorded in Eruvin and Shabbat. Seen in this way, the intensity of the religious fervor can be similar to the intensity of the fight or flight response, with similar results.
Moses’ many warnings at Sinai
This understanding reveals an additional perspective on verses relating the story of the revelation at Mt. Sinai that many have likely read many times. One can only imagine the level of excitement felt by the Jewish people of that time, just six short weeks after leaving Egypt and now preparing for Divine revelation. In preparation for this extraordinary, historic event, God instructed Moses to relate the following to the Jewish people (Exodus 19:12):
“You shall set a perimeter for the people around [the mountain] saying ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches that mountain shall surely die.’”
Moses did exactly as God had commanded, warned the people, and set the perimeter. But a few verses later, God reminds Moses of the instruction again in a somewhat perplexing passage. God descended, so to speak, onto Mt. Sinai, and summoned Moses up the mountain, at which point He commanded Moses again (19:21):
“Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to God to see, and a multitude of them will fall (Hebrew nafal).”
Moses responded: “The people cannot ascend Mt. Sinai, for you have warned us, saying ‘Set a perimeter around the mountain and sanctify it.” God then repeated that Moses should again issue this warning to the people, which Moses did. According to one opinion in the Talmud, Moses issued this warning for six straight days, descending from Mt. Sinai each day to repeat these warnings against ascending the mountain during revelation.
An obvious question emerging from these verses is why did God reissue the same warning? And why did Moses have to repeat it so many times?
A common explanation is that due to the excitement of Divine revelation, there was a risk that people would forget about the boundaries set by Moses and trespass onto holy ground. Just as there were certain areas in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple that were off-limits for most people due to the holiness inherent in those areas, so too Mt. Sinai contained a level of holiness for the duration of the revelation event that led to the prohibition of trespassing on the mountain. Knowing that many Jews would be inspired to get close to the action, thus violating the holiness of the space, Moses gave them repeated instructions.
Based on the insights of the Talmudic passages above, we can suggest an additional layer of meaning, which may be hinted at by the term nafal, or fall, which is found in the second instruction in verst 21. Those who have hiked the mountains in this region of the world are likely familiar with the jagged edges and rough terrain. Imagine for a moment what would have happened had thousands of Israelites started up the side of Mt. Sinai? In an attempt to “break through to God to see,” perhaps jostling with others to get up the mountain, some would have lost their footing, and quite literally “a multitude of them will fall.”
God is warning of two separate issues. The first is the metaphysical danger related to possible contact with holiness that is beyond the Jews’ capacity to handle; the second is a physical danger associated with the combination of human excitement and treacherous or otherwise dangerous physical terrain. In anticipation of such a catastrophic outcome, God insists that Moses repeat, again and again, the severe warning against coming near the mountain; as a result, the Israelites remained in place, and emerged from the event spiritually inspired and physically unscathed.
In my view, all of this discussion leads to a single point:
What lessons can we learn in terms of preventing this type of disaster, or other disasters, from occurring in the future?
Perhaps most prominently, a lesson that we continue to learn is that the experts, whose job it is to understand issues of risk and safety, should be listened to rather than fought with. More and more reports are emerging that many people, from public safety experts, to police, to journalists recognized that many features of the Meron infrastructure and event posed great risk. Indeed, in the hours leading up to the event, there were TV interviews with organizers saying outright that they hold their breath each year because of the risk they know is present. Of course, changes to infrastructure cost substantial money, and there are many changes to buildings and events around the country that can be necessary – for crowds, fire safety, earthquake preparedness, anti-terrorism, etc. – that are simply not possible. And yet, Meron was a location and event that had received considerable attention and warnings over the years. And due to political pressure, the experts were ignored. How many times will we learn this lesson with the blood of our brothers and sisters? How many times will political angling at upper levels of government and community leadership be at the expense of our fellow citizens?
It is also helpful to think about what other types of activities, particularly those inspired by religious commitment and fervor, might benefit from reconsideration. As the case in Yoma shows, the Rabbis did not do away with Temple sacrifices because of these incidents; instead, they came up with ways to balance fulfillment of the commandments with ensuring the safety of all involved. I am sure that others may be able to come up with a different list, but a few come to mind for me. Alcohol consumption on Purim and Simchat Torah consistently land many people in hospitals for alcohol poisoning or other severe injuries, and fatal incidents are not uncommon on Purim. Local bonfires on Lag B’Omer lead to burns and other permanent injuries, as well as severe property damage, particularly for youth who build their own flames without supervision. Each year there are people who lose their homes, and sometimes lives as a result of fires that come from Channukah candles or Shabbat candles that are lit in unsafe ways. And of course, during the age of Covid, insistence on packing synagogues and study halls demonstrably led to increased spread of the virus, increased death and severe illness, and economic harm.
Balancing the very real safety issues with religious practice is not simple. For believers, religious excitement and fervor is a core value in life, and severe restrictions on the practices that add such flavor to religious observance is akin to denying their ability to serve God. But what we have seen in recent years is that instead of working together to find solutions to balance these two pressing needs, leaders in government and religious communities have viewed each other as adversaries. They refuse to do the hard and politically precarious work of finding common goals to serve their constituents. This inability to communicate and find a way to work together will continue to cost our country in blood and treasure, and we must demand better.
As a final thought, I would like to offer another novel explanation of a commonly read passage in the Talmud. The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:5) records ten miracles that were present in the Holy Temple. One of the miracles was that when people stood, they were crammed together, but when they bowed, there was sufficient space. The simple reading is that the miracle was that space expanded allowing for those praying to bow comfortably. But based on the writing above, I think an additional layer of meaning can be seen. Rashi (Yoma 21a) comments that they were so crammed that each man “did not have space to turn either way, and even their feet were lifted from the ground.” Perhaps the mshnah is teaching that when the crowd started to bow down, which would have pressed everyone against each other and the walls of the courtyard, it was a unique miracle of the Holy Temple that the events of Eruvin, Shabbat, or Yoma did not happen. It required specific and regular Divine intervention to keep safe those who were praying in the Temple.
However, in our times, the Talmud tells us in many places that we may not rely on miracles. It is up to our leadership, political and religious, to be self-reflective, courageous, and wise.
May we continue to comfort the mourners, support the injured, and heal together as a nation.