Does anger work? | IJN
I finds it exciting not to know what’s going on around the corner. The Talmud is full of surprises. I never know what to expect. For example, suddenly, in the midst of the most technical discussion of a point of law, an ethical principle or debate naturally arises.
Take the discussion in Shabbat 105a. By way of a brief introduction:
The question that arises is the definition of creativity. Destruction is not creative, so if one performs a prohibited act on Shabbat, but by doing so destroys something, has one violated Shabbat? It seems not. Acts prohibited on Shabbat must give a constructive result to fall into the category of prohibited acts.
Definitions of “constructive outcome” vary, but don’t let that hold us back. Suffice to say that Shabbat is the time to recognize the Ultimate Creator by stopping our own creative acts.
One of the cases of Shabbat 105a is this: One tears something up with anger or mourning (like a relative has passed away). The Mishnah says: Tearing up something is destructive. Nothing creative happened. Therefore, Shabbat is not violated. One is exempt.
Before continuing: Note the introduction of anger (“something is taken away from anger”). A seed for ethical discussion is planted.
As the Gemara begins his commentary on this Mishnah, the Gemara notes a contradictory source: “He who tears in his anger or in his state of mourning for his dead [on Shabbat] is responsible. “
What is it – exempt or responsible for wrathful wrath on Shabbat? The Gemara first addresses the case of mourning, which I skip, to arrive at the case of anger.
The Gemara resolves the contradiction between the Mishnah and the other source by attributing each source to a different sage.
The Mishnah (which dispenses with wringing out anger is destruction) follows R ‘Shimon; the other source follows R ‘Yehudah.
If they come to opposite conclusions, they are clearly discussing an underlying principle. What is that?
It is this: what matters – what is legally decisive – the intention or the results? If I do something wrong, but don’t intend to, am I responsible? R ‘Shimon says no. For R ‘Shimon, intention counts. So if someone performs a forbidden act on Shabbat without intention of violating it, he is exempt.
Here is the example cited: dragging a table across a dirt floor on Shabbat. Making a furrow in the earth – plowing – is constructive agricultural work prohibited on Shabbat. But the person who moves the table has no intention of plowing; all he wants is the table to be in a different place. R ‘Shimon says: Intention matters. This person had no intention of plowing. He is exempt; he did not violate Shabbat.
Likewise, he tore a garment of anger or of mourning; he had no intention of doing anything constructive. He is exempt.
R ‘Yehudah says: Results matter. It doesn’t matter what the intention of the person is; he dug a furrow in the ground on Shabbat. He plowed. He is responsible ; he violated Shabbat. Likewise, he tore the garment. He violated the Shabbat restriction against tearing. He is responsible.
The Gemara then said: Not so fast. Even R ‘Yehudah, who holds someone responsible for any constructive act regardless of their intention, certainly cannot mean that a purely destructive act – like tearing a garment – is prohibited under Shabbat law. Reconsider the case of the table. Someone dragging him across the room might not have the intention of digging a furrow – a constructive act of plowing – but he certainly did. This is not the case when tearing a garment – a person has done absolutely nothing constructive. It should be exempt even according to R ‘Yehudah.
The Gemara replies: Oh, he certainly did something constructive. He let his anger escape! He tore! He took the anger out of his system!
Boom. The more technical discussion of a point of law generates an ethical principle about anger.
The battle is joined – not, it seems, the battle of the Shabbat law. Not the battle over intention versus results. Not the battle for tables and furrows, but the battle for anger.
Is anger allayed when you let it tear? Is it constructive?
Gemara’s Counters: Who ever allowed an outburst of anger? Who can tear things up to appease their anger? Quite the contrary. The Gemara quotes R. Yochanan ben Nuri:
“Whoever tears his clothes in anger, breaks his utensils in his anger, wastes money in his anger, is like one who worships idols. This is the power of rationalization (of the yetzer hara): first he tells you to commit this minor transgression, the next day he tells you to commit a greater one and before you know it he tells you: worship idols. And you do.
So much for giving a constructive twist to the tearing of clothes, according to R ‘Yehudah! Anger is never constructive. The legal question therefore arises again: according to R ‘Yehudah, why should a person be held responsible for tearing, that is, destroying, a garment on Shabbat? There is no constructive result here.
Now the Gemara takes a surprising turn. After denouncing the expression of anger as leading to idolatry, the Gemara poses a qualifier. Being angry is never constructive, but showing anger can be constructive. Being angry does not calm your anger and is not justifiable, but the use of dispassionate anger, that is, pretending to be angry while maintaining self-control, is sometimes necessary. .
The Gemara goes so far as to cite cases: Rav Yehudah tore off the border of a garment; Rav Acha bar Yaakov broke some utensils; Rav Sheishet threw in brine; R ‘Abba broke the lid of a jug – in any case, to impose necessary discipline.
These would be constructive acts, positive results, for which, if done on Shabbat, R ‘Yehudah would hold someone accountable.
So there you have it: the legal and the ethical are intertwined. The details of one intertwine with the details of the other. As for the question in the title of this column, “Does anger work?” If it’s out of anger, never. If it’s a spectacle, a calculated act necessary to make a point that a calm discussion can’t reach, it may work – but not on Shabbat, not if it involves tearing or breaking something. Shabbat is for unreserved peace.
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