Shiur #14: Fasting and Charity

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

TALMUDIC AGGADA

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

 

Shiur #14: Fasting and Charity

 

 

R. Zera said: “The reward for the shiur (class) is in running [to it].”  Abbaye said: “The reward for the sermon [before the festival] is in the crush.”   Rava said: “The reward for study is in the analysis.” R. Papa said: “The reward for the mourner’s house is in the silence.”  Mar Zutra said: “The reward for a fast day is in the charity.”  R. Sheshet said: “The reward for a eulogy is in the wailing.”  R. Ashi said: “The reward for a wedding is in the words [uttered to the bride and groom].“ (Berakhot 6b)

 

The juxtaposition of these statements implies that they share a common theme, yet they do not all seem to be cut from the same cloth.  In many of the examples, the Gemara surprises us by seeming to claim that the true reward lies in a less central element of a given endeavor.   The main part of a lecture should be the content, not running to get there; the essential component of a eulogy should be the description of the deceased, rather than the crying.  On the other hand, “The reward for a fast day is in the charity” arguably is not as surprising.  Given the inconsistency among the statements, should we interpret each statement individually or look for a common theme?

 

Let us begin with the first case and see how the analysis proceeds.  None of the commentators are willing to grant running to a shiur pride of place over listening to the content.  Some say that R. Zera refers to someone who does not benefit from the substance of the lecture, either because they know too little or too much.  Rashi explains that the masses fail to comprehend the shiur, yet they still deserve a reward for their enthusiasm in attending.   Maharsha suggests that R. Zera speaks of scholars who already know the material.   They too merit reward for coming to the lecture.  Knowledgeable people who may not get anything out of a shiur should remain in the sanctuary or lecture hall and listen, so as not to embarrass the speaker or in order to honor the speaker.

 

Each of the above approaches explains the first case, but does not provide a method for interpreting all the subsequent cases, unless we posit that, “The reward for a eulogy is in the wailing” refers to a specific scenario in which the substance of the eulogy itself somehow loses meaning.  Could we apply such an approach to the house of mourning or the essence of study?

 

R. Yaakov Ibn Habib explains that the Amoraim (rabbis of the Gemara) in this passage never meant to negate the reward found in the essential part of these endeavors; they simply added another layer of reward.  R. Zera agrees that the main part of a shiur consists of the learning, and he notes the additional value of excitedly running to the shiur.  R. Sheshet concurs that the content of the eulogy matters most; he points out the value of emotionally crying out as well.  Someone might think that a fast day is all about fasting, so Mar Zutra reminds him of the value of charitable giving.  According to this approach, we can more easily find a common pattern among all the teachings.    

 

A related approach appears in Netziv’s Meromei Sadeh.  Using the principle of sekhar mitzva mitzva, he says that performing one commandment enables one to perform another.  Good deeds lead to more good deeds.  Learning Torah in a shiur provides the opportunity to honor the Torah or the speaker by running to that shiur.  Keeping a fast day encourages helping the poor.  As with Ibn Habib’s reading, the list in this gemara does not identify essential components, but additional ones.

 

Of what does the admirable silence in the mourner‘s house consist?  Tosafot Rosh explains that the majority of comforters should remain silent and let the great individuals present speak, since this will provide greater honor and comfort to the mourners.   Maharsha posits that the gemara refers to the Jewish law that the comforters should not speak until the mourner does.   The wisdom of this law is evident.  Only the mourner knows what he needs at a given point in time of the mourning period.  Does he want to talk about the deceased or about something else? Does he prefer a more somber mood or not?   The comforters sit quietly while the mourner sets the tone for the conversation.   

 

Applying Ibn Habib’s methodology, we would interpret Mar Zutra as saying that charity on a fast day provides an additional source of reward.  On the other hand, it appears quite reasonable in that scenario to suggest that the Gemara highlights the most important component.  Meiri takes Mar Zutra as articulating the most important part of the fast day.  Charity ranks higher than not eating, since eschewing food is not a goal in and of itself, but merely a spur to repentance. 

 

Some beautifully evocative verses in Yeshayahu support Meiri’s position:

 

‘Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we afflicted our soul and You take no notice?'--Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your business, and exact all your labors.  Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness; you do not fast on this day so as to make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I have chosen?  Is it a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chose –to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, so that you break every yoke?   Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out into your house?  When you see the naked and cover him, do you not hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall guard your back.  Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If you take away from your midst the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedness. And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul. Then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday (Yeshayahu 58: 3-10).

 

The people of Yeshayahu’s time could not understand why God did not respond to their fasts.  After all, they went the entire day without eating, wore sackcloth and ashes, and bent their heads in contrition.  God informs them that they totally misunderstood the main point of this day of affliction.  Do they feed the hungry or clothe the destitute?   Do they release the powerless from social and economic bondage?  Absent elements of compassion and benevolence, merely not eating will not bring Divine mercy.

 

Radak adds a remarkable interpretation based on the verse: “In the day of your fast, you pursue your business.”   He envisions a large public gathering on the fast day in which creditors notice the presence of their debtors.  They take advantage of the opportunity to pressure the latter.  Imagine a fellow devoutly praying mincha (the afternoon service) on a fast day and then threatening a pauper immediately after the service.  Is it a wonder that God ignores such prayers?

 

Of course, external actions can play a positive role in inspiring hearts and engendering change, since creatures of flesh and blood often respond to external stimuli.  Fasting and wearing mourning clothing can move us in the direction of authentic repentance.   However, we dare not confuse the external husk with the inner kernel. In Malbim’s formulation, just the external elements without the authentic substance are like dead carcasses lacking life and spirit.

 

This point obviously carries weight beyond the question of fast days.   It is difficult to argue for the irrelevance of externalities since we are certainly affected by them.  For example, those around us respond to how we dress and present ourselves, as do we ourselves.  At the same time, woe to the individual who cares more about looking devout than about acting with decency and sanctity, and woe to the rabbi who pays more attention to the nature of his coat than to the depth of his teaching or the sincerity of his pastoral care.  Externalities may encourage inwardness but they can never take its place.