Zecher L’Churban: A New Way of Looking at Simcha

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The recitation of Eicha and the kinos inspire deep thinking and evoke powerful emotions; these thoughts and subsequent sentiments are particularly appropriate for the experience of Tisha B’Av. But, regardless of how powerful this experience is, once the day passes, we tend to be relieved and return to our daily routine, and of course meals, leaving all thoughts of that cataclysmic destruction behind. And yet, the importance of remembering the churban (the Temple's destruction) is actually supposed to be a constant part of our lives. Chazal recognized how important this concept was, and instituted a number of practices that would ensure that the reality of the churban was and is ever-present. The evolution of how this would be accomplished, as recorded in the Talmud, is quite fascinating.

The Talmud (Bava Basra 60b) offers an interesting debate based on a custom that emerged after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash:

Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, large numbers [of people in] Israel became ascetics [perushim], binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. R. Joshua got into a conversation with them and said to them: My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine? They replied: Shall we eat flesh which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that this altar is in abeyance? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but now no longer? He said to them: If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased. They said: [That is so, and] we can manage with fruit. We should not eat fruit either, [he said,] because there is no longer an offering of firstfruits. Then we can manage with other fruits [they said]. But, [he said,] we should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water. To this they could find no answer...”

With the logical breakdown complete, the Talmud continues:

“...so he said to them: My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.

The Talmud then introduces four halachos instituted by Chazal for one purpose: to remember the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. The first of these is to leave an area of one amah by one amah un-plastered/un-painted across from one’s front door. The second (using the Rambam’s explanation – Hilchos Taanis 5:13) is to set aside an empty place at a meal attended by guests. The third requires that a woman, when donning her jewelry, leave off one piece (per Rashi’s explanation). Finally, there is the halacha of placing ashes on the forehead of a groom at his wedding.

As is clear, the Talmud did not merely state these four halachos, but rather offered the prelude of the perushim to track how these halachos developed. This must lead one to ask, what was so wrong with the self-imposed stringency of the perushim? Today’s brand of Judaism is fully entrenched in the mentality of chumra, the concept of stringency being viewed by many in the Jewish world as the truest and finest representation of halacha and Torah. The stringencies they imposed on themselves seem to be a wonderful demonstration of the sadness felt by the generation of the churban. Furthermore, R’ Yehoshua offers two different attacks against their minhag. One is the ad infinitum approach, meaning that, following their logic, there could be no end to their stringency – complete starvation would be where they would draw the line. The other is that Bnai Yisrael could not tolerate such a severe minhag. Why both answers? Finally, how do the different edicts of Chazal resolve the issues raised by R’ Yehoshua?

The development of these halachos, as portrayed in the Talmud, is of utmost importance in understanding the concepts. When analyzing the establishment of a chumra, one must be acutely aware of the motivation behind it. At times, it serves an important function, safeguarding the halachic system. Other times, it can aid a person in achieving perfection. As long as it is attached to the greater ideal of improving our role as ovdei Hashem, it has inherent value. However, when one is guided by their emotions, whether fear or guilt, seeking to fill a void or to feel more religious for its own sake, the chumra becomes destructive. 

The time after the devastation of the second Bais Hamikdash must have been horrific. The overall sense of despair naturally hung over the nation as a whole, the reality of the galus settling upon them. What emerged in many was a sense of guilt in continuing to enjoy life after the catastrophe. How could anyone from Bnai Yisrael be happy at a time like this, or ever again? To even experience any sense of simcha would produce extreme feelings of guilt and regret. In order to assuage this, many decided to forego meat and wine, known in halacha as the ultimate vehicles for simcha. They justified it with the rationale brought by the Talmud --how could they eat meat, when meat was used in the Bais Hamikdash. When an emotion like guilt drives someone to be machmir, the logical errors naturally emerge. R’ Yehoshua neatly exposed the inherent defect in their thinking and demonstrated that their entire methodology in remembering the churban was flawed. This was his first approach. However, he, along with the rest of Chazal, recognized the importance of memorializing the churban. They realized the powerful effect this trauma must have had on Bnai Yisrael and while those feelings are important, Bnai Yisrael could not perpetually exist under that cloud of emotion. R’ Yehoshua explained to them that regardless of their emotional drive, the construct of their halacha could never work for the entire nation. Its sheer magnitude would doom it to failure. His second approach demonstrated to them that their chumra lacked the halachic wherewithal to become integrated into Jewish practice. 

With this in mind, Chazal introduced these four halachos. Rather than remove that which inherently brings someone to happiness, they decided to ensure that in common celebrations, one’s simcha would always be lacking just a bit. For example, they mandated that people set aside a place setting at a meal with guests, a social event. A large seuda, with friends, is naturally a happy event - yet seeing the one empty plate draws away from the experience. A person gains tremendous happiness from the sense of accomplishment in building one’s house - yet one area remained incomplete, visible to all. Women naturally take great care in their appearance, attaching a sense of happiness to it. We see this in the concept of simchas Yom Tov (see Rambam, Hilchos Yom Tov 6:18), acquiring and wearing jewelry being a vehicle of simcha. Therefore, leaving off one piece of jewelry is a recognition of the incomplete nature of our experience of simcha. And finally, at the paradigm event of simcha, a wedding, there is an action that demonstrates it cannot be complete. The chassan, the kalah, and all those attending must reflect at that moment on our current state. These actions all lead to one conclusion – there can never be complete simcha after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.  

As we know, our present state of galus is the product of the churban. While this event is recalled on Tisha B’Av, Chazal realized that reflecting on the loss of the Bais Hamikdash must remain a part of our consciousness. We must not become complacent, so entrenched in our day-to-day routines that we forget what we are ultimately striving for. And yet, forgoing simcha completely is not the answer, certainly not when motivated by a sense of guilt. The system of halacha allows for a rational and succinct means of ensuring that this remembrance becomes integrated in our lives. We can and should be b’simcha - but at the same time remember that our simcha cannot by definition be complete. May we merit seeing the building of the Bais Hamikdash.