DID YOU KNOW TODAY IS THE HAPPIEST DAY OF THE YEAR?
Rabbi Yossi Lew
As Jewish people we all try to live with the weekly Torah portion -- focusing, studying, learning, and “living” with it. The same applies to Jewish festivals and holidays: Prior to each festival (or noteworthy time on the calendar) we try our best to be ready through studying, attending classes and preparing food in order to appreciate the festival to its utmost.
As Jewish people we all try to live with the weekly Torah portion -- focusing, studying, learning, and “living” with it. The same applies to Jewish festivals and holidays: Prior to each festival (or noteworthy time on the calendar) we try our best to be ready through studying, attending classes and preparing food in order to appreciate the festival to its utmost. We also expect our children to be fully prepared by the various learning institutions they attend. Consequently, we seem to be pretty knowledgeable about the Torah, and especially about our festivals and celebrations.
There seems to be an exception, however, regarding the special festival of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, which occurs on this Shabbat. The Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 30b) enumerates six significant incidences happening on this day which were the cause for celebrating this joyous festival — more joyous than any other festival in the year. One would imagine, therefore, the intense preparations befitting such a day. Yet, being that the 15th of Av is in such close proximity to Tishah B’av, (the 9th day of Av), the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, it’s hard to envision any significant time or wherewithal, let alone focus, for any considerable celebration. It must be that the 15th of Av is given its catalyst and impetus for joy from Tishah B’av itself.
The explanation is as follows: Of the six happy events attributed to the 15th of Av, three Talmudic sages support the sixth event, rendering it a main cause for celebration. The 15th of Av, say the sages, was the day “they stopped cutting wood for the fires of the altar.” In Temple times, several generous families donated all the wood used for the fires on the altar, mainly to complete the animal-sacrifice service, which was a main function of the Temple. Because the wood was used to build the fire on the altar, it was therefore an integral part of every sacrifice, whether offered by the individual or from the collective body of the Jewish people. The Talmud explains that the heat of the sun begins to weaken following the 15th of Av – as the days are becoming increasingly shorter – and the wood would not be completely dried. The cutting of the wood was henceforth halted, from the 15th of Av till the spring.
Two concepts emerge and are underscored from the chopping of wood for the fires of the altar: 1) The wood was essential in continuing the main function and service in the Temple offering in the best and most complete manner. 2) The donation of the wood was actually the fulfillment of the mitzvah of charity in its highest form, for those benefiting from the wood couldn’t identify the benefactors, just as the benefactors couldn’t identify the beneficiaries. The giver and taker having no knowledge of each other is the highest form of charity, according to Jewish law.
Examining the sad day of Tishah B’av, we find it to be the exact opposite of the above-mentioned concepts emphasized by the chopping of the wood. The most serious and enduring tragedy occurring to the Jewish people on Tishah B’av – among many – is the destruction of both holy Temples in Jerusalem. Our sages call attention to the main reason for the destruction of the Temple and the exile that ensued: hatred among fellow Jews. In other words, the destruction of the Temples on Tishah B’av brought an end to the physical edifice of the temple and its central importance to the Jewish people, while also accentuating the glaring necessity for our people to unite and share love and acts of kindness with one another.
Each year on the 15th of Av, the wood supply for the Temple was as replenished and as full as could be, providing enormous assurance that the main service in the Temple would continue through the winter, and a phenomenal gesture of kindness to every Jewish person. It is no wonder why this day was marked with such a great celebration. The only way the Jewish people of the second Temple era could react and respond to a tragic day like Tishah B’av was to promote and celebrate the complete opposite and transformation of the tragedy and grief of Tishah B’av — perpetuating the service in the Temple and sharing love with fellow Jews. In present times, more than 19 centuries after the destruction of the second Temple, we continue to commemorate the 15th of Av, as a reminder to the power of transformation, and to the necessary perspective following a tragedy, as well as the importance of loving our fellow Jew.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Menasiyah adds that the 15th of Av was called, “the day they broke the saws,” as they actually broke and destroyed the metal instruments used to chop the wood. The Mishnah (Tractate Midot 3:4) teaches the reason metal is forbidden in the construction of the altar. Metal can be used to shorten the life of man, while the altar is created to lengthen the life of man. By relating how the 15th of Av was called the day the metal saws were destroyed, Rabbi Menasiyah clarifies the function of the day, namely, to rid ourselves of anything contradicting the purpose of the altar, while continuing to promote life, goodness and kindness.
As this issue of Torah from Dixie is sponsored in commemoration of the second yahrtzeit of my friend, Allen Tenenbaum (on the 16th of Av), may his family, his friends, and all of us in his community, among all Jews, hastily experience the prophetic promise that swords — and all objects of destruction — will be transformed into plowshares (see Isaiah 2:4). This prophecy will be fully realized with the coming of Messiah, who will bring an end to all tragedy and suffering, when, as the prophet Isaiah declares (Isaiah 25:8): Death will be eliminated forever, and the tears of sorrow will be wiped away by the Almighty Himself.
This article is dedicated in loving memory of my friend Allen Tenenbaum, and for the merit of his immediate family, my dear friends: Debra, Brittany, Megan and Scott Tenenbaum.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is the associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah-Chabad, program coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy Middle School.
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