Oneg Shabbat in a Time of Crisis and Despair

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These are crazy times. Earlier this week, I was speaking to my grandparents on the phone — survivors of the Holocaust and Second World War — and they said to me that they’d never known anything quite like this. And the way it’s looking, things are not going to get better for the time being. I, and I know many others, are feeling fearful, helpless, disoriented, and a plethora of other emotions.

And amidst all of this, returning to us with unfaltering reliability, we have Shabbat. A time that is meant to be dedicated to rest, recuperation, and, poignantly, oneg (joy/delight). What does it mean to experience oneg in a time of crisis? Are we really expected to feel joy on Shabbat even in a time like this? How, if at all, should our obligation to delight in Shabbat be tempered by our feelings of despair?

In this piece, I’m going to explore some of the insights that our tradition offers us in trying to balance the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat with the recognition that sometimes joy is inappropriate, unendurable or even unattainable.

Oneg Shabbat

Tanakh

Before we think about the ways in which a crisis or a feeling of despair might limit the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat, it will be helpful to think about the mitzvah on its own terms and to think about the role it plays in the broader picture of Shabbat. Let’s start by looking at some sources from the Torah.

שמות כ: ח-יא
זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ: וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְקֹוָק אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְקֹוָק אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ:

Exodus 20:8-11 [1]
Remember the day of Shabbat to make it special: Six days you shall labour and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat for Hashem your God. You shall not do any work, neither you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maidservant, your animal, nor the foreigner who is within your settlements. Because for six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Thus God blessed the day of Shabbat and made it special.

This passage is taken from the Ten Commandments as it appears in the book of Exodus. There are a couple of pieces of this passage that are important for our purposes:

  1. The commandment is not just a negative one in which we are commanded to refrain from working. There is a positive imperative לְקַדְּשׁוֹ: to make Shabbat special in some way. Refraining from work is of critical importance, but true recuperation requires a level of intentionality and mindfulness.
  2. This passage appears to be directed to the head of a household, and it seems to indicate that his responsibility for keeping Shabbat extends beyond himself, to other people who are dependent upon him.

Let’s have a look at the same commandment as it appears in the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy.

דברים ה: יב-טו
שָׁמוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ: וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וְכָל בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ כָּמוֹךָ: וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה עַל כֵּן צִוְּךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת:

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Observe the day of Shabbat to make it special, as Hashem your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat for Hashem your God. You shall not do any work, neither you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, or any of your cattle, nor the foreigner who is within your settlements, in order that your servant and your maidservant will rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and Hashem your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Thus Hashem your God commanded you to make the day of Shabbat.

This passage is similar in many ways to the passage in Exodus. Significantly, it doubles down on the sense in which Shabbat is not primarily about the head of the household. Shabbat is for vulnerable people who need a weekend. Working for seven days is a totally unreasonable expectation that is reminiscent of the oppressive slavery of Egypt. People need time to rest, to recuperate, and to breathe.

And these vulnerable people require everyone to refrain from work in order that they can truly rest peacefully, without fear of reprimand or competition. Put another way, Shabbat is not just an individual obligation, but a collective effort.

It is against that backdrop that passages such as the following become easier to understand:

שמות לא: יד-יז
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא לָכֶם מְחַלְלֶיהָ מוֹת יוּמָת כִּי כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ לַיקֹוָק כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת מוֹת יוּמָת: וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹלָם: בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְקֹוָק אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ:

Exodus 31:14-17
And you will observe Shabbat because it is designated for you. One who profanes it will be put to death, because anyone who does work on it cuts themselves off from their people. Six days a week work will be done, and on the seventh day there will be a Shabbat of complete rest, designated for God. Anyone who does work on the day of Shabbat will be put to death. And the children of Israel will observe Shabbat, making Shabbat an eternal covenant between me and the children of Israel – an everlasting sign. Because for six days God made the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day, he rested and breathed.

Understood as an obligation that falls on individuals, this passage about Shabbat is hard to understand. But understood as a collective effort, it makes much more sense. Why is profaning Shabbat such a severe transgression? Because as soon as any individual doesn’t keep Shabbat, that risks undermining the entire social structure which is there to protect the most vulnerable members of the collective. In what sense has someone who breaks Shabbat cut themselves off from their people? They are transgressing a norm in which all members of the society are implicated. In what sense is Shabbat an eternal covenant between God and the children of Israel? It requires a multi-generational commitment from all members of the collective to imitate the rest and recuperation of the God of creation.

So far we’ve seen two key aspects of Shabbat. One is that Shabbat is a collective effort: it may well be that there are individuals in the collective that feel that on any given Shabbat, they don’t need to rest, but the Torah is aware that in order to ensure that anyone who needs to rest is given the opportunity, work must be proscribed for the whole society. The mitzvah of Shabbat supersedes individual preferences. Secondly, a deep rest in the way that the Torah imagines it requires not only refraining from working, but also a more positive distinguishing of Shabbat as a special day.

The particular language of oneg as the manifestation of this positive aspect of Shabbat observances is drawn from Isaiah.

ישעיהו נח: יג-יד
 אִם תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג לִקְדוֹשׁ יְקֹוָק מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר: אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל יְקֹוָק וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל במותי בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ כִּי פִּי יְקֹוָק דִּבֵּר:

Isaiah 58:13-14
If you refrain from journey on Shabbat, from pursuing your affairs on my special day; if you call shabbat “oneg,” God’s holy day “honored”; and if you honor it and go not your ways, nor look to your affairs, nor speak about [inappropriate] things; then you can delight with God. And I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob— for the mouth of God has spoken.

This passage is somewhat enigmatic. Nonetheless, a couple of things are worth noting. First, Isaiah sharpens the emotional nature of the positive aspect of Shabbat: Shabbat is honourable and delightful. Secondly, Isaiah thinks that these emotional qualities require certain practical manifestations. On Shabbat we must be careful to talk about appropriate matters, and refrain from talking about inappropriate matters. He leaves unclear precisely what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate matters, but presumably topics and tones that are conducive to a delightful and honourable atmosphere are what he has in mind.

Chazal
In many midrashim from the early Rabbinic period, Tannaim drew on these passages from Tanakh and כדרכם בקודש concretised some of the abstract notions into straightforward directives. Here’s an example:

מכילתא דרבי שמעון בר יוחאי פרק כ
לקדשו – במה אתה מקדשו? במאכל ובמשקה ובכסות נקייה, שלא תהא סעודתך שלשבת כסעודת החול ולא עטיפתך שלשבת כעטיפתך בחול. ומנין שאפלו עני לא יהא מאכלו שלשבת כמאכלו שלחול ועשיר לא יהא מאכלו שלשבת כמאכל החול? ת”ל זכור את יום השבת לקדשו. 

To make it special – With what should you make it special? With food and drinks and clean clothes, such that your Shabbat meal should not be like your weekday meal, nor your Shabbat clothes like your weekday clothes. And how do we know that a poor person’s Shabbat food should not be like their weekday food, and that a rich person’s Shabbat food should not be like their weekday food? The Torah teaches “Remember the day of Shabbat to make it special.”

This midrash on the passage from Exodus 20 picks up on both of the main aspects that we identified from the Torah passages, and gives them concrete directives. What positive intentional steps can you take to make Shabbat distinct and special? Prepare nice food and drinks, and wear nice clothes. And that goes for everyone: rich people should make sure to refrain from excessive eating during the rest of the week in order to make sure that Shabbat feels special, and the community needs to ensure that poor people have sufficient resources such that they too can have an uplifting Shabbat.

For our purposes, the aspects of oneg Shabbat which concern us have more to do with the sort of atmosphere that we create through the things that we talk about and the emotions that we display. Here are three short passages from Chazal that set out some parameters of what is and isn’t appropriate speech (both in terms of content and tone) on Shabbat.

ספרא בחוקותי פרשה א
זכור את יום השבת לקדשו יכול בלבך, כשהוא אומר שמור, הרי שמירת לב אמורה, הא מה אני מקיים זכור, שתהי’ שונה בפיך

Sifra Behukotai
“Remember the day of Shabbat to make it special.” Could the verse mean [just] in your heart? When it says [in Deuteronomy] “observe”, that’s talking about observing of the heart. So how should I understand “remember”? That it should be constantly in your mouth [i.e. you should be talking about Shabbat appropriate matters on Shabbat].

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיג עמוד א-ב
ודבר דבר – שלא יהא דבורך של שבת כדבורך של חול.

Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat 113a-b
“And speaking about [inappropriate] things” – such that your speech on Shabbat should not be like your speech on weekdays.

[2] טור אורח חיים הלכות שבת סימן שז
ואיתא בירושלמי דאפי’ בשיחת דברים בטלים צריך שלא להרבות:

Tur Orach Chaim: Hilkhot Shabbat 307
And it says in the Yerushalmi that even mundane conversations should be avoided in general.

None of these three sources is particularly specific in terms of the sorts of things that are or are not appropriate to talk about on Shabbat. But one thing seems reasonable to deduce: we should be conscientious to ensure that the sorts of conversations we have on Shabbat and the tone in which we conduct them are conducive to the restful and joyful atmosphere that Shabbat is all about.

That said, these sources leave a lot open for subjective interpretation. This responsum by Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin is a great example of a halakhic ruling that preserves the subjectivity of these prescriptions.

תרומת הדשן סימן סא
שאלה: מה שנוהגים רוב בני אדם אף המדקדקים במעשיהם, להתאסף ביום השבת לאחר יציאת בהכ”נ, ולספר שמועות מעניני מלכים ושרים וערך המלחמות וכה”ג, יש חשש איסור בדבר או לאו?
תשובה: יראה דצריך לדקדק בדבר, דהתוס’ וכן האשירי כתבו בפ’ אלו קשרים, דאסור להרבות בשיחה בטילה בשבת כדמוכח בעובדא דאימא דרשב”י. כדאיתא בויק”ר דהוי לר”ש אימא סיבתא, דהוי משתעי סגי, א”ל אימא שבתא הוא ושתקה, משמע דאין כ”כ לדבר בשבת כמו בחול, ובירושלמי אמרינן דבדוחק וטורח התירו בשאלות שלום בשבת עכ”ל…
אמנם אם אותם בני אדם מתענגים בכך, כשמדברים ומספרים שמועות מהמלכים ושרים ומלחמותיהם וכה”ג, כדרך הרבה בני אדם שמתאוים לכך, נראה דודאי שרי. דכה”ג כ’ בסמ”ק דבחורים המתענגים במרוצתם ובקפיצותם, מותר… הא חזינן דאע”ג דדרשו חכמים וכבדתו מעשות דרכיך, שלא יהא הלוכך של שבת כהלוכך של חול, פי’ שלא ירוץ ויקפוץ, ואעפ”כ אם עושה להתענג ולאות נפשו שרי.
ה”ה לענין שיחה יתירה, דנפקא לן נמי מההיא קרא ממצא חפצך ודבר דבר, כמו שפירשו התוספות והאשירי דלעיל. אמנם ראיתי הרבה פעמים, שמקצת מאותם בני אדם המתאספים לספר שמועות הללו, אינם מתענגים בריבוי שמועות הללו, אלא שעושים כן לרצון חבריהם הנאספים עמהן. כה”ג נראה דיש חשש איסור לאותן שאין מתענגים. 

Terumat Hadeshen 61
Question: Regarding the practice of most people, even those who are meticulous in their actions, to gather on Shabbat after coming out of the synagogue, and to talk about stories regarding the matters of kings and ministers and the utility of wars and other similar things – should we be concerned that this is prohibited behaviour or not?
Answer: It seems that we need to check this matter carefully, since the Tosafot and the Rosh wrote… “that it is forbidden to speak excessively about mundane matters on Shabbat, as is illustrated by the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s mother. As it appears in Vayikra Rabbah, Rabbi Shimon had an elderly mother who talked a lot, and he said to her “mother, it’s Shabbat today”, and she fell silent.” This implies that one should not talk as much in general on Shabbat as one does on a weekday. And in the Yerushalmi we say that it was only at a stretch that they permitted greetings on Shabbat”…
That said, if these people in question people delight in it, when they talk and tell stories from the kings and officers and their wars and the like, as is the way of many people who desire this, it seems that it is certainly permissible. Since, just like this, it is written in the Sefer Mitzvot haKatan that “young lads who derive joy from their running and jumping about, it is permissible [on Shabbat]”… Thus we see that even though the sages expounded [the verse from Isaiah] “honor it and go not your ways – such that your gait on Shabbat should not be like your gait on weekdays” which means that one should not run and jump. Nonetheless, if one did so for the sake of enjoyment and one’s heart’s content, it is permissible.
And the same goes for the matter of excessive conversation, which is derived from that very same verse “nor look to your affairs, nor speaking about [inappropriate] things” as the Tosafot and Rosh quoted above explained. That said, I have seen many times that a fraction of those people who gather to tell these stories don’t really enjoy this excessive story telling, but rather do so to fulfill the will of their friends who are gathered with them. In a situation like this it seems that there is a concern of prohibited activity for those people who do not enjoy [this activity].

There is much that is fascinating about this responsum.[3] For our purposes, it is noteworthy that Rabbi Isserlin is balancing a lot of the concerns that we have seen so far. On the one hand, Shabbat is meant to be elevated and honourable. It is not unreasonable to suggest that there might be some objective standard of what that would look like. The suggestion offered in the initial sources brought by Rabbi Isserlin is that speech should be kept to a minimum and should have a kind of solemnity.

But Rabbi Isserlin recognises that there is subjectivity in the question of what people find conducive to a deeply rejuvenating day of rest. Different people enjoy different things. And, so long as there is no outright Shabbat transgression involved, there should be significant scope for people to embody oneg Shabbat in a way that they find most productive.[4]

However Rabbi Isserlin also recognises that Shabbat is a collective effort, and that people can feel social pressure to participate in activities that don’t actually bring them joy. While on an initial reading it seems like he is prohibiting these kinds of conversations specifically for the people who derive no joy from them, he doesn’t actually say that explicitly. And one could imagine that he might say that, due to the social pressure created by these sorts of conversations, people should refrain from them in general.

In contrast to this responsum, there are sources that articulate much more objective standards of the sort of conversation that is prohibited on Shabbat. Take for example this agonising story about Rabbi Meir and Beruriyah (his wife) from Midrash Mishlei.

מדרש משלי (בובר) פרשה לא
מעשה היה בר’ מאיר שהיה יושב ודורש בבית המדרש בשבת במנחה, ומתו שני בניו, מה עשתה אמו /אמן/, הניחה שניהם על המטה ופרשה סדין עליהם, במוצאי שבת בא ר’ מאיר מבית המדרש לביתו, אמר לה היכן שני בני, אמרה לבית המדרש הלכו, אמר לה צפיתי לבית המדרש ולא ראיתי אותם, נתנו לו כוס של הבדלה והבדיל, חזר ואמר היכן שני בני, אמרה לו הלכו למקום אחר ועכשיו הם באים, הקריבה לפניו המאכל ואכל ובירך, לאחר שבירך אמרה לו רבי [שאלה אחת יש לי לשאול לך, אמר לה אמרי שאלתך, אמרה לו רבי] קודם היום בא אדם אחד ונתן לי פקדון, ועכשיו בא ליטול אותו, נחזיר לו או לא, אמר לה בתי מי שיש פקדון אצלו הוא צריך להחזירו לרבו, אמרה לו רבי חוץ מדעתך לא הייתי נותנת אצלו, מה עשתה תפשתו בידה, והעלה אותו לאותו חדר, והקריבה אותו למטה, ונטלה סדין מעליהם, וראה שניהם מתים ומונחים על המטה, התחיל בוכה ואומר בני בני רבי רבי, בני בדרך ארץ, ורבי שהיו מאירין פני בתורתן, באותה שעה אמרה לו לר’ מאיר רבי לא כך אמרת לי אני צריך להחזיר הפקדון לרבו, אמר, ה’ נתן וה’ לקח יהי שם ה’ מבורך (איוב א כא).

Midrash Mishlei (Buber) 31 [5]
A tale is told of Rabbi Meir that while he was sitting and teaching in the Beit Midrash on a Shabbat afternoon his two sons died. What did their mother do? She placed them both on the couch and spread a sheet over them. At the close of Shabbat, Rabbi Meir came home from the Beit Midrash, and he asked her “Where are my two sons?” She replied: “They went to the Beit Midrash.” He said, “I looked for them at the Beit Midrash but did not see them.” She handed him the cup [of wine] for the Havdalah, and he made Havdalah. Then he asked her again, “Where are my two sons?” She replied, “they went to another place but they will be back presently.” She served him some food and he ate and he blessed [Grace after meals]. After he blessed, she said to him, “Rabbi, I have a question to ask you.” He replied to her, “Ask your question.” She said, “Rabbi, some time ago a certain man came by and left something on deposit with me. Now he has come to reclaim this deposit. Shall I return it to him or not?” He replied, “My dear, is not one who holds a deposit obligated to return it to its owner?” She said, “Without your opinion [on the matter] I would not give it back to him.” What did she do [then]? She took him by the hand, led him to the children’s room, brought him to the bed, and removed the sheet, so that Rabbi Meir saw them both lying on the bed dead. He burst into tears, saying “My sons, my sons! My teachers, my teachers! My natural born sons, and my teachers who enlightened me with their [insights in] Torah.” At this point Rabbi Meir’s wife said to him, “Rabbi, did you not just now tell me that we must return a pledge to its owner?” To which he replied, The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).

This is a rich and devastating story. And as far as our discussion is concerned, it packs a punch. Beruriyah is so committed to ensuring that R Meir’s oneg Shabbat is preserved that she hides from him the raw and tragic news of his own sons’ deaths. 

There is nothing about this text that necessarily entails any particular halakhic conclusions. One could imagine this being read purely as a story of a particularly compassionate woman who wants to tell her husband this agonising news in the most sensitive way possible.

There are, however, halakhic works that, drawing from the insights of this story, derive halakhic prescriptions. The Sefer Chassidim, for example, writes:

ספר חסידים (מרגליות) סימן קי
בשבת אל ידבר אדם מאוהביו שמתו או שהן בצער כדי שלא יצטער

Sefer Chassidim 110
On Shabbat, do not tell a person that their loved ones have died or are in pain, in order that the person not suffer.

And, following suit, the Magen Avraham says:

מגן אברהם סימן שז
אסור לספר בשבת איזו דבר שמצער בו.

Magen Avraham
On Shabbat, it is forbidden to tell [someone] something that will cause him distress.

Both of these halakhists have a strong sense that we should not be talking about things that cause people distress on Shabbat. And, drawing from the story in Midrash Mishlei, the Sefer Chassidim takes the particularly strong (possibly extreme) position that we should refrain from telling people potentially urgent news about their loved ones on Shabbat.

Let’s take stock of what we’ve seen so far:

  1. In the context of the commandment to keep Shabbat, the Torah uses the word לְקַדְּשׁוֹ. Its insight is that a deeply rejuvenating day of rest requires conscientious action and mindfulness that distinguishes it from other weekdays.
  2. Shabbat is a collective effort that requires a group of people to commit to resting and rejuvenating together.
  3. Chazal recognise the subjective and individual nature of rejuvenation. What one person finds joyous, another may find stressful. This insight both broadens and narrows the scope of the sort of behaviour that is appropriate on Shabbat. It broadens it in the sense that, to a significant degree, people can determine for themselves what they find rejuvenating. But it narrows it in the sense that people need to be sensitive to the social effects of their actions, in the knowledge that what they find joyful may cause others stress.
  4. If there is a clear objective standard to be drawn from any of the halakhic sources about the sort of speech that is inappropriate on Shabbat, it is that we should refrain from talking about matters that will cause distress.

But life is complicated. And sometimes it’s not appropriate, or even possible, to feel joy or delight, even when it is Shabbat. 

Crises and Despair on Shabbat

Despairing as a Community

One place that it will be helpful to look when thinking about how we respond to crises in general is Masechet Ta’anit. Rambam’s short introduction to the halakhot of Ta’aniyot (fasts) is instructive:

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות הקדמה
מצות עשה אחת והיא לזעוק לפני ה’ בכל עת צרה גדולה שלא תבא על הצבור.

Rambam Hilkhot Ta’anit, Introduction
There is a positive mitzvah to cry out to God in all times of great crisis that it shouldn’t fall on the community.

Our tradition understands the deep human need that we have to cry out when we are in distress.[6] And in Masechet Ta’anit, Chazal identify activities and rituals (many of which are cross-cultural) that channel this energy. In the third chapter of Mishnah Ta’anit, there are a number of mishnayot that discuss different kinds of crises in which we cry out as a community. It is clear from the chapter, however, that not all crises are deemed to warrant crying out on Shabbat.[7] Shabbat is sacred, and it often takes priority over other human needs and concerns. Nonetheless, the Mishnah lists examples of the sort of crises for which it is judged to be appropriate (or even necessary) to cry out, even on Shabbat.

משנה מסכת תענית פרק ג משנה ז
על אלו מתריעין בשבת על עיר שהקיפוה גוים או נהר ועל הספינה המטרפת בים רבי יוסי אומר לעזרה ולא לצעקה שמעון התימני אומר אף על הדבר ולא הודו לו חכמים:

Mishnah Ta’anit 3:7 [8]
For these matters, they cry out[9] on Shabbat: if a city that is besieged by enemy[10] [troops], or a [flooding] river, and if a ship is foundering on the sea. Rabbi Yose says: [they cry out] for help, but not as an outcry [to God]. Shimon haTeimani says: even for pestilence, but the sages did not agree with him.

Several things in this Mishnah are interesting for our purposes:

    1. The list of examples given seems to be cases where there is a collective fear that many people are at imminent risk of dying.
    2. Shimon haTeimani suggests that even crises of a more long-term nature, where the risk is less imminent, although certainly very concerning, warrant a crying out response.
    3. Perhaps most interesting is the disagreement between the Tanna Kama (the anonymous voice of the Mishnah) and Rabbi Yose. Rashi’s explanation of Rabbi Yose’s position is helpful in clarifying the disagreement.

רש”י מסכת תענית דף יד עמוד א
לעזרה – צועקין לבני אדם שיבואו לעזר
ולא לצעקה – תפלה; שאין אנו בטוחין כל כך שתועיל תפלתנו לצעוק עליהן בשבת

Rashi on Taa’anit 14a
For help – calling to people so that they come to help them.
But not as an outcry – prayer; since we aren’t so sure that our prayer will help to the extent that we are willing to cry out about these things on Shabbat.[11]

According to this explanation, Rabbi Yose thinks that it is only worth crying out if we think that we might achieve something tangible. If not, then we might as well do our best to try to preserve the Shabbat atmosphere for as long as possible. The Tanna Kama, on the other hand, recognises that there are certain situations in which preserving a sense of rest and oneg is simply unendurable. Sometimes, we simply need to cry out in despair, regardless of any tangible good that may come of it.

There is some disagreement in the Rishonim about how to codify this halakha. Rambam writes the following:

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות פרק א
אין גוזרין תענית על הצבור לא בשבתות ולא בימים טובים, וכן אין תוקעין בהן לא בשופר ולא בחצוצרות ולא זועקים ומתחננים בהם בתפלה, אלא אם כן היתה עיר שהקיפוה גוים או נהר או ספינה המטרפת בים… [זועקין] ומתחננים עליהם בתפלה…

Rambam Hilkhot Ta’anit, Chapter 1
We do not decree a communal fast on Shabbat or on Yom Tov, and we don’t sound Shofars or Trumpets on them, nor do we cry out and supplicate in prayer on them except in the case of a city that is besieged by enemy [troops], or a [flooding] river, or if a ship is foundering on the sea… where we cry out and supplicate about them in prayer

Whereas the Tur writes as follows:

טור אורח חיים הלכות שבת סימן רפח
אין מתענים ולא מתריעין בו אפילו על הצרות שמתריעין עליהם חוץ מעל עיר שהקיפוה אויבים או נהר וכן על ספינה המטורפת בים… ואפי’ על אלו אין מתריעין בתפלה ותחינה אלא מתריעין להשמיע קול שיבואו להם לעזרה

Tur, Orach Chaim, Hilkhot Shabbat 288
We do not fast or cry out on [Shabbat] even on the crises upon which we [typically] cry out, except for a case of a city that is besieged by enemy [troops], or a [flooding] river, or if a ship is foundering on the sea, and even in these cases we don’t cry out in prayer and supplication, rather [we only] cry out in order to call out so that people will come to help.

The Rambam codifies the halakha in line with the Tanna Kama, and the Tur codifies the halakha in accordance with Rabbi Yose. Curiously, elsewhere in his codification[12] the Tur codifies a position that appears to be more in line with the Tanna Kama. In an attempt to reconcile these two positions, the Taz writes as follows:

ט”ז אורח חיים סימן רפח:ד
…נלע”ד לישב דברי הטור דס”ל דלרש”י בשום אופן לא יזעוק בפה בשבת אפי’ אם הצרה גדולה ח”ו שכן משמע לשון רש”י שכתב הטעם שאין אנו בטוחים כ”כ שתועיל תפלתינו.
ובזה הסכים הטור להרמב”ם דאחר שרואין שאפס עצור ועזוב ואין מושיע ודאי יש לצעוק לחנן לפני הקב”ה
אבל כאן מיירי מהתחלת הצרה שתכף ממהרין בצעקה לעזרה ולא בתפלה ותחנה אבל כי רואים בצרתם צרה ח”ו ודאי צועקים בתפלה ותחנה אולי ירחם הוא יתברך
כנ”ל חילוק נכון ואף את”ל דאינו מרומז כל כך בלשון הטור מ”מ החילוק מצד עצמו נכון וראוי הוא לעשות כן על כל צרה שלא תבא:

Taz, Orach Chaim 288:4
It seems to me that it’s possible to reconcile the contradiction in the Tur [in the following way]. He thinks that for Rashi, there is no case in which one should vocally cry out [to God] on Shabbat, even if the crisis is great, God forbid. And that is what it sounds like Rashi is articulating when he writes that the reason [that we don’t cry out is] “because we aren’t so sure that our prayers will help”.[13]
But in the following sense, the Tur agrees with the Rambam: that after we see that nothing is stopping or going away, and there is no salvation [in sight], of course we should cry out in supplication before God.
But here [in the Tur quoted above where he says that we should not cry out to God] he is dealing with the beginning of the crisis, where we should be rushing to call for [tangible] help, and not in prayer and supplication. But when we see in these crises impending disaster, God forbid, of course we cry out in prayer and supplication [so that] perhaps God will show compassion.
That seems to me to be the correct reconciliation. And even if you say to me that this [distinction] is not really even hinted at in the language of the Tur, in any case, the distinction is correct on its own terms[14] and it is sensible to act in that way in any crisis, let it not befall us.

The Taz draws on the different insights from the Mishnah, and tries to balance them into a coherent picture. He argues that in a crisis of this nature, our first step is to take any practical steps that may avert the disaster. At that stage, calling out to God is not appropriate (perhaps because it is Shabbat, but perhaps just because it wastes precious time in trying to avert the disaster). However, at the point where we realise that there is no tangible source of salvation, of course it is completely natural and appropriate to cry out at that point.

Perhaps the Taz would say that even Rabbi Yose would agree to his position. It makes sense to try to preserve the Shabbat atmosphere, he might say, when it is possible to seek help to prevent a crisis. But when a crisis is impending and seems unavoidable, asking people to hold back from crying and despairing is asking them to bear the unbearable.

I don’t personally feel equipped to determine precisely how all of this applies to the particular situation that we find ourselves in. Is our contemporary crisis akin to those listed in the Mishnah? Is it more like the example given by Shimon the haTeimani? If we accept the Taz’s recommendation, are we closer to the first stage, where we should just be pressing on with practical steps, or is at least some kind of calamity unavoidable? 

Nonetheless, I hope that this section of this piece offers some language and validation to the very real nature of the struggles that many of us are trying to balance in this time: between a desire to preserve the sacredness of Shabbat, with a desire to take practical steps to help relieve our situation, alongside a need to simply cry out in supplication and despair.

Despairing as an Individual

I want to finish by looking at some sources connected to an individual’s need or desire to despair on Shabbat. Whatever we think about the appropriateness of seeing our current situation as the sort of crisis talked about in the Mishnah in Ta’anit, there are certainly many individuals who, on a personal level, are feeling a lot of distress and fear in this time of uncertainty. What room does our tradition offer for individuals to feel and give expression to these feelings on Shabbat?

Let’s start by looking at this sorrowful story about Rabbi Akiva that is brought by R. Tzedakiyah ben Avraham in his halakhic compilation, the Shibbolei haLeket.

ספר שבלי הלקט ענין שבת סימן צג
ר’ עקיבה היה יושב ובוכה בשבת אמרו לו תלמידיו לימדתנו רבינו וקראת לשבת עונג אמר להם זה עונג שלי.

Shibbolei haLeket, Shabbat 93
Rabbi Akiva was sitting and crying on Shabbat. His students said to him “didn’t you teach us, our teacher, you call shabbat ‘oneg’ (Isaiah 58)?” He replied to them “this is my oneg”.

In this succinct, somewhat enigmatic, yet heart-wrenching story, Rabbi Akiva’s students are confused to see their teacher acting in a way that seems not to line up with what he has taught them. Rabbi Akiva understands the importance of making Shabbat special in the way that we described earlier, and has taught that insight to his students. And yet, for some reason, he is unable to embody the kind of oneg that his students understood him to have endorsed.  He responds to them by explaining to them the subjective nature of oneg: different people have different needs, and this is what I need to do for myself on Shabbat. 

It is left unclear exactly why Rabbi Akiva is crying. And the answer to that question has implications for how different people understand the place of individual despair on Shabbat.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles understands Rabbi Akiva to be crying out of despair.

הגה בשולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן רפח:ב
מי שיש לו עונג אם יבכה, כדי שילך הצער מלבו, מותר לבכות בשבת (אגור בשם שבולי לקט).

Rema, Orach Chaim 288:2
Someone who experiences oneg if they cry, so that the pain will be relieved from their heart, is permitted to cry on Shabbat.

Here, R. Isserles cannot mean oneg in the sense of joy. He must mean that, for this person, it would be more painful not to cry than to cry. A Shabbat where someone represses their distress to give the appearance of joy is not special and rejuvenating. It is isolating and soul-destroying.

The Taz finds this reading of the story hard to swallow.

ט”ז אורח חיים סימן רפח:ב
וכן מי שיש לו עונג כו’. דאיתא באגדה שמצאו תלמידיו של רע”ק שהיה בוכה בשבת ואמר עונג יש לי ונ”ל דהיינו שמרוב דבקותו בהקב”ה זולגי’ עיניו דמעו’ שכן מצינו ברע”ק בזוהר חדש שהיה בוכה מאוד באמרו שיר השירים באשר ידע היכן הדברים מגיעים וכ”ה מצוי במתפללים בכוונה אבל כדי שיצא הצער ממנו שזכר רמ”א הוא תמוה דא”כ כל מי שמצטער ח”ו יבכה בשבת:

Taz, Orach Chaim 288:2
[The Rema derives this halakha from] a story where Rabbi Akiva’s students found him crying on Shabbat, and he said to them “this is my oneg”. But it seems to me that it was as a result of the intensity of his [mystical spiritual practice of] cleaving to God that his eyes were flooded with tears. And this fits with what we find in the Zohar heChadash, that [Rabbi Akiva] would cry intensely when he recited Shir haShirim in the knowledge of where his words were headed. And that’s just like what happens when people pray with intention. But [the idea] that the Rema mentions [that one could cry on Shabbat] in order to relieve himself of pain is astonishing, because if that were the case, then anyone who was distressed, God forbid, would cry on Shabbat.

It seems to me that the Taz is concerned about a couple of things. First of all, he understands that many people have many things to be distressed about. But he thinks that Shabbat should be a time where we do our best to put aside our distress, and try to spend some time making the most of what we have, and appreciating the blessings that we have. Just as we need rest from our labours, as hard as that may be sometimes, we also need to try to engineer respite from our despair.

Secondly, the Taz is concerned about the overall effect that R. Isserles’ ruling will have on the broader communal atmosphere. What would a Shabbat look like if everyone who had reason to cry were to cry? Even if crying would be cathartic for some people, Shabbat is a collective effort, and the collective need will sometimes restrict individual needs.

Eliyah Spira pulls back in the direction of R. Isserles, but tries to alleviate some of the Taz’s concerns.

אליה רבה סימן רפח
…פירש רמ”א מה שנמצא שר’ עקיבא היה בוכה ואמר תענוג יש לי, והשיג הט”ז [סק”ב] ותמה דא”כ כל מי שמצער יבכה ח”ו בשבת, אלא פירש דמעשה דר’ עקיבא מיירי שמרוב דבקותו בהקב”ה זולגים עיניו דמעה, שכן מצינו בר’ עקיבא בזוהר חדש [זוהר פ’ וירא צח ע”ב במדרש הנעלם] שהיה בוכה מאוד באומרו שיר השירים כאשר ידע היכן הדברים מגיעים, וכן הוא מצוי במתפללים בכוונה ע”כ.
ואני מצאתי בתשובות בנימן זאב סימן ר”י דמעשה דאגדה הנ”ל היה שהיה בוכה ר’ עקיבא על מיתת ר’ אליעזר, וא”כ נכון הוא פירוש רמ”א, ועוד הא פירש רש”י בתענית דף י”ב [ע”ב ד”ה ואפילו] טעם דתענית חלום כדי שיתבטל צער גופו כמ”ש בס”ג.
ומה שהקשה א”כ כל מי שמצער יבכה, לא קשה מידי, דאין זה טבע כל אדם שילך צער מלבו בבכייתו, וגם לפי ענין הצער והלב יודע מרת נפשו ואם לעקל וכו’

Eliyah Rabbah 228
The Rema [R. Isserles] backed up his ruling[15] with the story of R. Akiva who was crying and said “this is my oneg”. And the Taz criticised him [saying that] he was astonished, because if [the Rema] were correct, then anyone who was distressed would cry, God forbid, on Shabbat. Rather, he explained, Rabbi Akiva’s eyes were flooded due to the intensity of his cleaving to God…
But I found in the responsum of Binyamin Zev (siman 210) that what happened in the aforementioned story [of Rabbi Akiva] was that he was crying about the death of Rabbi Eliezer. And if that is correct, then the explanation of the Rema is correct…
And with regard to the difficulty raised [by the Taz that] if [we were to rule like the Rema], “then anyone who was distressed would cry” is not at all challenging. Because it is not the nature of every person to relieve their distress through crying, and the value of crying is contingent on personality as well as circumstance. People know themselves well enough to know whether crying will really be helpful or not, and whether they are acting to mend the situation or simply to wallow.

Spira is troubled by the Taz’s ruling. It’s true that people can make a concerted effort to bring joy into Shabbat. But sometimes that just isn’t feasible. And it’s true that if everyone were to cry on Shabbat, that would bring down the mood. But that is not a realistic concern. Different people have deeply different and legitimate needs, says R. Spira, and we need to respect that, and allow space for people to do what feels right for them.

Conclusion

We are living through a tumultuous period, and different people are responding in widely different ways. I pray that Shabbat can give some respite to those who need it, but I also pray that we can find the strength to act sensitively in balancing the legitimate needs of different people in these trying circumstances. Some people will need Shabbat to sing joyfully. And some people will need to cry out in despair. Finally, I pray that God in God’s mercy helps us to bring this crisis to a peaceful end.

Endnotes

[1] The translations of Tanakh are loosely based on the JPS, (1985) translation.
[2] This is a summary of a longer passage in the Yerushalmi תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת שבת פרק טו
[3] It is particularly fascinating to me to see that the very familiar post-shul chatter is already alive and well in the fifteenth century.
[4] This insight that oneg is, at least in part, a matter of subjectivity is also codified in the Shulchan Arukh in the context of eating and drinking on Shabbat. In Orach Chaim 288, R. Karo writes י”א שאדם שמזיק לו האכילה, דאז עונג הוא שלא לאכול, לא יאכל.
[5] Based on the translation of Burton L. Visotsky, The Midrash on Proverbs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 121.
[6] My teacher Rabbi Elisha Anscelovits has suggested that much social media activity is a modern manifestation of this basic human instinct.
[7] Contrast Mishnah 5 with Mishnah 7.
[8] Translation based on Josh Kulp’s translation on Sefaria.
[9] There is a question raised in the Gemara (Ta’anit 14a) as to whether the word מתריעין means ‘sound a shofar’ or ‘cry out in supplication’. The gemara concludes that in this case it must mean ‘crying out’, because it is not permissible to blow a shofar on Shabbat (which is why we don’t blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah when it falls on Shabbat).
[10] I have translated גוים here as ‘enemies’ in light of the Tur’s interpretation (quoted below).
[11]
Interestingly, later in the same note, Rashi offers a different explanation of the disagreement where he constructs the two positions as holding the opposite positions to those in his first contruction: לשון אחר: לעזרה דקאמר תנא קמא מתריעין, דמשמע בקול רם, ואמר ליה רבי יוסי: לעזרה – שיהו מתפללין כל אחד בביתו לעזרה בעלמא. Perhaps Rashi feels that both of these two positions hold deep insight, and he doesn’t want one to be prioritised over the other by dint of it being the Tanna Kama.
[12] Tur, OC 576.
[13] It could just be that Rashi is explaining Rabbi Yose’s position without picking a side in the debate. Nonetheless, the Taz attributes this more stringent position to Rashi in order to make it more straightforward to construct the contradiction in the Tur: in one place he codifies the halakha in accordance with Rashi, and in the other with Rambam.
[14] This is a particularly striking line from the Taz. He seems to be saying that he is not really committed to saying that this is what the Tur meant when he codified two contradictory pieces of Halalkha. After all, the Tur codified a huge quantity of halakha, and it is plausible that he codified the law in one place in one fashion, and in another in a different fashion. Nonetheless, he uses the contradiction in the Tur to construct a nuanced position that feels intuitive to him, in a way that tries to balance the various insights that he has learnt from the sources.
[15] In his more extensive commentary, the Darkei Moshe haArokh 288: 2, 3

About the Author
Matthew is currently a student at Yeshivat Hadar in New York. He has spent time studying at Yeshivat Ma'ale Gilboa and Bet Midrash Hukkim Hakhamim.
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