Tishah b'Av, our national day of anger management

Traditionally the Temple was said to have been destroyed because of senseless hatred. But is there sensible hatred?


Brexit, the World Cup, a United States presidential visit, Wimbledon… it’s been quite a July. Along the way we have been treated to a cavalcade of nationalities all stereotyped into predictable moulds by even the most august of our media commentators. 

We have seen the demise of the “efficient” German football team (aaah!), a “cowboy-style” visit by Mr Trump and “feckless” foreigners failing to accept the wisdom of the proposals made by our Brexit negotiating team of thoroughly decent political chaps.

If facile stereotypes are not your thing but you are nonetheless interested in the nature of national characteristics, my recommendation is look at language. In particular, look at those unique words which are almost untranslatable from their own language to any other. 

If you want to understand the Irish look no further than their greatest gift to humanity: craic. Amiable joy, uplifting and inspiring and without a hint of menace. For our soon-to-be erstwhile Gallic partners contemplate the word elan. You can hear the hooves of ceaseless heroic yet doomed cavalry charges full of sound and fury, but signifying rien.

The Jewish contribution to the Lexicon of Untranslatable Unique Words are surely those grizzly twins broiges and machloikes. Do not think for a moment of the Sephardification of these words. The long Ashkenazi vowels linger broodingly, evoking the enduring menace and hostility of families torn asunder and communities divided. 

Try to translate into English. Disagreement? Argument? They are pallid imposters compared to a real broiges. Our attachment to broiges and machloikes is so deep that we have leaders like Moses who get angry. Even our God, while slow to anger, can get pretty heated up if the occasion calls. 

The right of each and every Jew to a good machloikes is enshrined in our canonical literature. This forthcoming Sunday is the Ninth of Av. We fast to commemorate the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE — some people write “AD” dating the destruction of our holy Temple from the birth of the founder of that other religion. Such people should only know tsores!

Why was the Temple destroyed. The Talmud explains the reason (Yoma 9b). It was sinat chinam. Senseless hatred. This invites the following derivation:
What does this piece of Talmud tell us about a good broiges?
Clearly senseless hatred is wron.g
What about sensible hatred though?
As the Talmud only blames “senseless” hatred then, obviously “sensible” hatred is good.
What is sensible hatred if not a good broiges?

It seems that sometimes the approved anger and hatred in the Tanach falls into the  category of sensible anger. How then do we differentiate “good” anger from “bad”? When is a good time to hate?

The first systematic Jewish presentation of how to understand different character traits  is to be found in the Book of Wisdom, part of  Rambam’s classic halachic compilation, Mishneh Torah. In the first chapters he argues that it is excess of anger that is problematic. Some occasions, however, do require a display of anger but never in excess. Leaning on Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean, Rambam states that there is a correct level for any personal characteristic. As that eminent thinker Goldilocks ultimately realised, some things are “too much” and other things might be “too little” but there is always a “just right” … even for anger

In this way we can understand the phrase which is often at the centre of our Yomtov prayers. God has Thirteen Attributes, of which one is erech apayim, “ slow to anger”. God is absolutely not free of anger but is deliberate and careful in its deployment. 

Unsurprisingly, these ideas became of great interest to the group of 19th- and 20th-century Jewish thinkers who form the Mussar movement. This analytic approach to character development grew alongside the emergence of the yeshivot primarily in Lithuania in the 19th century. 
The founding figure of the movement, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1809 –1883), was concerned that the intellectual genius of the yeshivah students should be matched by ethical pre-eminence through the development and control of their personalities. He spoke of the need to harness all human spiritual strengths and seeming weaknesses in pursuit of human perfection.

This pre-Freud psychological system was further developed by his pupils such as Rabbi Simcha Zissel, Ziv of Kelm (1824 -1898). In his hands these ideas first formulated by Rambam found practical application. Rabbi Simcha Zissel devised a way of controlling anger without obliterating it from his psyche. He set aside a special set of clothes which he designated his “anger outfit”. When angry, he changed into this outfit forcing him to slow his emotions and reflect on this particular bout of temper. 

Tishah b’Av is our day of national anger and hatred management. It acts like Rabbi Ziv’s anger outfit. There is indeed “a time for every purpose under Heaven”. When angry and in the grip of hatred, it seems that now is that time. However that impulse lost us our Temple. 
Take time to reflect.  Save your broiges till it’s really needed.

Rabbi Pollak is secondary schools project co-ordinator of Partnerships for Jewish Schools

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