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Simcha; what is it and what does it mean to decrease it?

Written by d fine

Tisha B’Av and Simcha In General

The gemarra (Ta’anis 29a) says that ‘just like in Adar we increase the simcha, so too in Av do we decrease the simcha.’ This decreased simcha culminates with – and indeed originates from – Tisha B’Av. The question is ‘what exactly is simcha?’ And so what does it mean to decrease or increase the presence of simcha? Let’s start by mentioning some of the contexts in which the concept of simcha is written, and then deduce an answer…

Chazal (and the Torah) tell us that the festival of sukkos has ‘simcha yeseira’ ie extra simcha (e.g. Rambam hil. lulav 8;12) as shown in the simchas beis ha’shoeva in the mikdash, about which the gemarra says (sukkah 51b) ‘anyone who did not see the simchas beis hasho’eva has never seen simcha.’ Another famous phrase regarding simcha comes from Rav Nachman of Breslov, who famously said ‘mitzvah gedola lihiyos besimcha tamid’ (it is mitzvah to be in constant simcha). What can this tell us about the nature of what simcha is?

The idea (as found in orchos tzaddikim) is that simcha does not mean happiness as we would define it today. We tend to lump together short-term happiness and long-term happiness under one banner of ‘happiness’ – a child eating an ice cream would be called ‘happy,’ as would someone who has completed a 20-year project be called ‘happy,’ despite their clear chasm-like differences. Simcha means the feeling of completion of a long-term process of working on something (preferably oneself) to produce a desired result. (I think I saw this idea quoted in a Rabbi Tatz book too). In short, simcha is long-term happiness from long-term work. This is why sukkos is called ‘extra simcha’ for it is at the end of a very intensive 45 days of work from the month of elul – now it is the chance to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour in being in a chupah with HaShem – the sukkah (R’ Pinkus). This is what Rav Nachman means as well; he does not mean that everyone should go around smiling the whole time and ignoring any pain we might have (smiling is a mitzvah by the way), but he means that one should always be b’simcha ie always be working on oneself to reach long-term goals and thus end up with long-term feelings of achievement.

Now that is all very nice, and simcha is thus a very positive thing. But if so why should we be told in Av to reduce the simcha – should we stop working on ourselves? The answer is a definite ‘no;’ the point of a fast day is teshuva (gemara taanis as brought by the mishna berura 549;1). So what does ‘reducing the simcha’ mean? It means moving slightly away from the long-term and focusing on short-term boosts. A reduction in simcha means a reduction in long-term working on oneself, (not no working whatsoever) and thus means that the focus should be on short-term spiritual boosts. Let’s explain…

There are two types of religious boosts in Judaism. One is a short-term burst of emotion, for example a sudden realisation of gratitude to HaShem or an overwhelming emotional burst at one point in Tefillah. We all have these bursts now and again, but they are very short. The other is a longer-term boost that comes with long periods of working on a particular aspect of the self. [As an aside, Rav Kook suggests that this is why women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvos, since those mitzvos are aimed to kick-start a short-term connection, and women are created with that aspect of connection anyway.] The point is that Av sees a move towards a focus on the short-term spark. In fact, one can notice that the halachos of Av centre around this theme – one cannot build certain buildings nor plant certain gardens because they produce ‘simcha’ (shulchan arch, orach chaim 551;2). None of these things are going to be enjoyed immediately – it does not take a garden one week to grow, nor a building project one week to complete, so why are they termed simcha? Because, as we explained above, these produce simcha for they mark the beginning of a long-term project which thus produces simcha even upon their commencement.

This distinction between short-term boosts and long-term projects can ultimately be described in the distinction between ‘lev’ and ‘sechel’ – heart/emotion and brain/intellect. The heart is the focus of emotion, which is by nature a short-term fuse (e.g. the emotion of anger is never a long thought-out process), which can, however, be worked on to create longer lasting effects. The intellect, in contrast, has a long-term process of steps of understanding. And we put one box of tefillin by our heart and the other by our brain to signify that both are integral to religious growth. [Perhaps chazal’s statement to remember amalek in your mouth and heart reflects these two attributes.] I heard Rabbi Roberts once ask what the mitzvah of the day of Tisha B’av is; sukkos has lulav, Pesach has matzos, but what is the mitzvah item on Tisha B’av? The answer, he said, is the proper use of human emotion. For that was the sin of Tisha B’Av – it started officially when the Jews cried upon hearing the reports of the ten spies. And HaShem told them ‘since you cried for no reason on this day, I’ll give you real reasons in the future to cry on this day.’ [The Spanish inquisition and ‘final solution’ in World War Two were both hatched on 9th Av.] This was a misuse of the human emotion. Consequently, the mitzvah of Tisha B’Av (aside from teshuva like the other fasts) is the proper use of human emotion and tears for the correct reason. [As one chassidic Rebbe once put it quite harshly; ‘if one cannot cry over the destruction of the beis hamikdash, then one should cry over their personal spiritual destruction.’] The point is that this complements the above – the focusing upon the short-term human emotion couples the definition of ‘reducing simchah’ above; a focus on the short-term bursts.

Lastly, if decreasing simcha means focusing on short-term boosts and increasing simcha means focusing on long-term work, then Adar should encapsulate long-term work and intellect as opposed to emotion, for ‘when Adar comes along, we (pump) up the simcha.’ So let’s spend the final part examining this…

Rashi (taanis 29a) says that the ‘increase of simcha’ regards both Adar and Nissan due to the miracles that occurred to us during those months at Purim and Pesach. Now it is quite easy to see the focus on sechel in Pesach; we are encouraged to ask questions at the seder night to delve deeper into the story – the personal connection to the exodus forged here seems to be more of a ‘sichli’ one than a ‘lev’ one. In fact, the entire maggid part of the haggadic has been described as ‘exploring the Exodus via Talmud Torah, which is why we make the mini-blessing on the Torah in ‘Baruch Hamakom Baruch Hu…’ (That does not mean that one cannot have an emotional connection to Pesach.) But how is Purim anything to do with intellect – we are supposed to get drunk so we cannot tell the difference between Hamman and Mordechai; that is hardly intellectual prowess? But it is exactly herein that lies the point. Dovid HaMelech says (Tehillim 111;10) ‘Reishis chochmah yiras HaShem’ – chochmah/ wisdom starts with fear of HaShem. A prerequisite to chochmah is realising Where it came from (HaShem) and thus directing it to good use. As the pasuk in Iyov says ‘HaShem can remove the wisdom from the wise.’ The way for us to demonstrate openly that our wisdom comes from HaShem is to have a moment whereby one gives up this intellect to HaShem upon his command. And that is exactly what we do in getting drunk on Purim – we give our intellect back to HaShem and thus show that He is the Source of chochmah. And this comes at the start of the period of ‘increased simcha’ for that is the prerequisite to sechel and chochmah.

Have a meaningful Tisha B’Av and fast well,

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