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Judaism: Tisha B'Av and the Options Market

We all know the type who has all the “answers” in every situation, but never THE answer, never the solution to the main problem because he doesn't even know that there is one.
Published: Monday, August 08, 2011 9:42 AM


“Beit Hillel says:  On the Sabbath, one may remove bones and peels from the table, and not worry about  the prohibition of muktzah(moving prohibited items). Beit Shammai says one has to remove the tabletop (in those days, one ate on a table formed by putting a flat board on top of supporting legs) , but may not handle the bones/peels as they are muktzah .  Zechariah ben Avkulas would act neither like B. Hillel nor like B. Shammai, but would eat, and then take the bones and immediately throw them  away, behind the couch on which he ate. 

Said Rabbi  Yossi: the exaggerated humility of Zechariah ben Avkulas burnt our Sanctuary. “(Tosefta Shabbos 17:4).

What does this law ( Halacha) of muktzah bones have to do with Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple?

I’ve already written an answer to this question, that of the Talner Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Weinberg, in this column ( Shlach: Calev, Rabbi Zechariah and Hamlet, 6/15/06). Rav Zechariah is also mentioned in the Talmud’s treatment of the Churban of the Temple (Gittin 55b-56a).

The Talner explains that we see the same character flaw in Rav Zechariah in both Gemaras: he won’t take a stand. In Shabbos, he won’t decide between B. Hillel and B. Shamai, and “wimps out” by taking a third way (he won’t “pasken”, make a Halachic decision; possibly this is why he is not given the title “Rabi” in that Gemara: although he may have not yet been ordained as a Rabbi when that dispute occurred). He again shows the same indecision in Gittin, when he has so many arguments against the other Rabbis that he freezes them into inaction, becoming an ancient predecessor to Hamlet. This shows a lack in the trait “vayigba libo b’darkei Hashem- and his heart soared upwards in the ways of the Lord” ( Chronicles II,17,6).

This time, I’d like to examine a different aspect of this Tosefta, focusing specifically on this law of muktzah, and R. Zechariah’s behavior. What he was doing was bypassing the muktzah laws; he would eat the food, and not put to food back on the table, but simply remove the food from his mouth and toss it behind where he sat. The bone never became “psolet “, garbage, but was always considered food, and as such was not muktzah.

Certainly, on one level, this fits the super-consumer image of the “dor ha’Churban”, the generation of the Roman Destruction and Exile. They are depicted in Gittin, in its story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, as constantly partying,rich, extravagant and spoiled( see there ,the story of Martha the daughter of Boethus).  One can almost picture a Henry the VIII figure, gorging on a chicken leg and then tossing it over his shoulder, behind the couch. No muktzah conundrum for our Zechariah.

But as Rav Matis Weinberg point out, there is way more to this story.  His treatment of all this begins with the Gemara’s preamble to the story of the Churban: Rav Yochanan said: “ Ashrei adam mefached tamid, umakshe libo yipol b’ra’ah- fortunate is the man who is always afraid(of the consequences of his actions, which might cause his fortune to worsen), and the one who hardens his heart will come to harm”( Proverbs 28,14).

This forms the introduction to the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza.  Most people say that the point of this story is the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, of that generation. However, Rav Weinberg point out that sinat chinam is not mentioned even once in this lengthy Gemara (although it is certainly in the background, as the man who made the party certainly hated bar Kamtza; and the Gemara continues with the fatal Jewish infighting, with  Aba Sikra and his other Zealots burning down the very storehouses of food that would have allowed the city to survive years beyond any war that Rome could afford to wage). 

Rav Weinberg points out that it may have not even been baseless hatred that motivated people to hate bar Kamtza: this slanderous Quisling eventually brought down the wrath of Caesar on the Jews, so he was probably known for his malevolence even prior to our story. It would be halachically permitted to hate such a dastardly fellow.

“Fortunate is the man who is mefached tamid”: Tosefot explains that this does not refer to some timid person who is afraid of his own shadow. Rav Weinberg explains that it refers to a Zechariah ben Avkulos-type who has all the “answers” in every situation, but never THE answer,the solution to the main problem. Rav Zechariah raised objections to each plan that the Rabbis thought of to defuse the situation with Rome.

The Rabbis wanted to sacrifice Caesar’s animal on the altar in the Temple, despite it being blemished by bar Kamtza,; failure to bring the sacrifice was certain to bring the wrath of Rome upon the country( as indeed happened).But Zechariah countered  with a very “frum” line, that this would give people the wrong idea, that one could sacrifice blemished animals in the Temple; never mind that if the sacrifice were not brought, it was nearly certain that Caesar would see to it that there would BE no Temple to sacrifice in.

So the Rabbis wanted to kill bar Kamtza, and Zechariah blocked them again, saying that people would learn for the future, that the penalty for sacrificing a blemished animal, was death.

But it never occurred to Zechariah that there might not BE any future. That there might be a Churban, did not enter his mind. He had all the correct, kosher, frum answers; but none that addressed the real problem, or lead to anything but a dead end. As in our story from Shabbos, he never saw “psolet” and muktzah, i.e. Churban and destruction; and so he never sought a solution to forestall disaster. All he saw was a never-ending supply of sacrifices and chicken bones, an over-consumption that would go on forever.

In this, Zechariah was like the physicists in the beginning of the 20th century, who declared that all was already known in the field, with nothing left to be discovered- until of course, Einstein and nuclear fission and spring theories. Having all the answers, they were comfortable and stifled all progress.

Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell in his best-seller What The Dog Saw( pages 51-75 ) writes the story of Lebanese options trader Nassim Taleb. Having seen the destruction of his country, Lebanon, by the PLO, and also having been a cancer survivor at a young age, he learned a style of trading that always keeping in mind the possibility of being wiped out- of Churban. He was thus able to survive, and even profit from, the Wall Street massacres of the last few years. This was because “he never thought he was invincible… and had the courage to take the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable “. By being open to fearful (“mefached”) possibilities that the Zechariah’s of this world, in their desire for comfortable solutions, refuse to entertain, Taleb escaped Churban.

But Rav Weiberg shows that there is more to this story, and to this pasuk in Proverbs:”..and one who hardens his heart will come to harm”. He points out that Tisha B’Av is the culmination of the Three Weeks of Mourning, which begin with the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the day that Moses broke the Ten Commandments. He says what angered Moshe Rabbeinu was not so much the idolatry, but the dancing around the totem; for a dance is a closed ring of adherents, who’ve “hardened their hearts” to other solutions- and there is no hope for people who’ve closed off their eyes, their heats, and their minds. Once one fixes his totem in unchanging stone, NO future human development is possible.

This , of course , brings us to Tisha B’Av , 2011. Across the ocean, the one friend that  Israel has in the world, is locked into such a cycle of over-consumption, that the US refuses to balance its budget, even as it sees its status of “leader of the free world” crashing down. Here in Israel, we’ve got our Zechariah’s, who’ve got all the answers:

Yair Lapid, who once boasted that it was merely to “teach those uppity settlers a lesson “that the Left evicted and impoverished the 9,000 Jews of Gush Katif, now  wants political power. He cynically calls to join him, all who oppose having knit-kippa-wearing settlers on every hilltop in Judea and Samaria; Is his “totem” is having a Katyusha-bearing terrorist “on every hilltop and under leafy tree”, to use the Biblical description of the location of Canaanite idols?

And our consumer –minded Left wants to have its cake and eat it too: a “fun”,Kamtza-party of a country, as ex-PM Olmert put it. With full security,of course. But, Heaven forbid, without touching “Palestinian (sic)” lands (to” Zechariah Lapid”, that’s an unkosher solution, like sacrificing a blemished animal); and with giving the terrorists a country.

But: not building on cheap Judean/Samarian land; and when this causes skyrocketing real-estate prices all over the country, sending armies of Zechariah’s to protest and demand “social justice,cheap housing, cheap cottage cheese, etc.”.Never see the overall picture, never consider that pacifying terrorists could lead to Churban, never admit to anything but having all the answers.

Back to Taleb for our summary:  “To sell or buy an option (i.e., to invest in a future, and not ensure a Churban) requires EACH PARTY to confront the question of what it is he truly knows. Taleb buys options because he is certain that, at root, he knows nothing….this is the WAY OF STAYING HUMBLE”. True humility, “anavah”, and not the phoney,over-exagerrated “anv’tanut” of a Zechariah ben Avkulos.