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Does anger work?

I find it exciting not to know what’s around the corner. The Talmud is full of surprises. I never know what to expect. For example, suddenly, amidst the most technical discussion of a point of law, an ethical principle or debate emerges naturally.

Take the discussion in tractate Shabbat 105a. By way of brief introduction:

The issue at hand is the definition of creativity. Destruction is not creative, so if one performs an act prohibited on Shabbat, but in doing so destroys something, has one violated Shabbat? It seems not. The acts prohibited on Shabbat must yield some constructive result to fall under the category of prohibited acts.

Definitions of “constructive result” vary, but let that not detain us. Suffice to say that Shabbat is the time to acknowledge the ultimate Creator by stopping our own creative acts.

One of the cases in Shabbat 105a is this: One tears up something out of anger or in mourning (as a relative has died). The Mishnah says: Tearing something up is destructive. Nothing creative happened. Therefore, Shabbat is not violated. One is exempt.

Before we continue: note the introduction of anger (“one tears something up out of anger”). A seed for an ethical discussion is planted.

As the Gemara begins its commentary on this Mishnah, the Gemara notes a contradictory source: “One who tears in his anger or in his state of mourning for his dead [on Shabbat] is liable.”
Which is it — exempt or liable for tearing in anger on Shabbat? The Gemara first discusses the mourning case, which I skip, in order to get to the anger case.

The Gemara resolves the contradiction between the Mishnah and the other source by attributing each source to a different sage.

The Mishnah (which exempts one for tearing out of anger, it being destruction) follows R’ Shimon; the other source follows R’ Yehudah.

If they reach opposite conclusions, clearly they are arguing about some underlying principle. What is it?
It is this: What counts —what is legally determinative — intent or results? If I do something wrong, but I do not intend to, am I liable? R’ Shimon says no. For R’ Shimon, intent counts. So if one performs an act that is prohibited on Shabbat with no intent to violate it, one is exempt.

This is the example cited: dragging a table across a soft dirt floor on Shabbat. To make a furrow in dirt — to plow — is a constructive agricultural labor forbidden on Shabbat. But the person moving the table has no intent to plow; all he wants is for the table to be in a different place. R’ Shimon says: Intent counts. This person had no intent to plow. He is exempt; he did not violate Shabbat.

Likewise, he tore a garment out of anger or mourning; he had no intent to do anything constructive. He is exempt.

R’ Yehudah says: Results count. It doesn’t matter what the person’s intent was; he made a furrow in the ground on Shabbat. He plowed. He’s liable; he violated Shabbat. Likewise, he tore the garment. He violated the Shabbat stricture against tearing. He is liable.

The Gemara then says: Not so fast. Even R’ Yehudah, who holds one liable for any constructive act regardless of intent, certainly can’t mean that a purely destructive act — such as tearing a garment — is forbidden under Shabbat law. Reexamine the table case. A person dragging it across the room may not intend to make a furrow — a constructive act of plowing — but he certainly made it. Not so in tearing a garment — a person did absolutely nothing constructive. He should be exempt even according to R’ Yehudah.

The Gemara answers: Oh he certainly did do something constructive. He let out his anger! He tore! He got the anger out of his system!

Boom. The most technical discussion of a point of law generates an ethical principle about anger.
The battle is joined — not, it seems, the Shabbat-law battle. Not the battle over intent vs. results. Not the battle over tables and furrows, but the battle over anger.

Is anger abated when one lets it rip? Is this constructive?

The Gemara counters: Who ever permitted an outburst of anger? Who permits tearing things up to assuage one’s anger? Quite the contrary. The Gemara cites R. Yochanan ben Nuri:

“Whoever tears his garments out of anger, breaks his utensils in his anger, wastes money in his anger, is like one who worships idols. Such 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 bigger one and before you know he tells you: worship idols. And you do it.”

So much for putting a constructive spin on tearing garments, according to R’ Yehudah! Anger is never constructive. So the legal question returns: According to R’ Yehudah, why should a person ever be liable for tearing, i.e., destroying, a garment on Shabbat? There is no constructive result here at all.

Now the Gemara takes a surprising turn. Having denounced the expression of anger as leading to idolatry, the Gemara sets down a qualifier. Being angry is never constructive, but showing anger can be constructive. Being angry does not abate one’s anger and is not justifiable, but using anger dispassionately — that is, pretending anger while retaining self-control —is sometimes necessary.

The Gemara goes so far as to cite cases: Rav Yehudah pulled off the border of a garment; Rav Acha bar Yaakov broke utensils; Rav Sheishet tossed brine; R’ Abba broke a lid of a pitcher — in every case, to enforce a needed discipline.

Those would be constructive acts, positive results, which, if done on Shabbat, R’ Yehudah would hold one liable for.

So there you have it: the legal and the ethical intertwine. The details of the one interweave with the details of the other. As to the question in the title of this column, “Does anger work?” If it’s done out of anger, never. If it’s a show, a calculated act necessary to make a point that calm discussion cannot achieve, it can work — but not on Shabbat, not if it entails tearing or breaking something. Shabbat is reserved for unqualified peace.

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