THE BREAKING OF THE AXE AND THE CELEBRATION OF GIVING.
As a Jew I have my fair share of holiday celebrations. Chanukah is a popular one. The week-long Passover has its own strict dietary laws and the family-centric Seder; I’d be remiss not to mention it. Then there’s a week of dining outdoors in a small hut (marked annually at the onset of the rain and chill of autumn for added measure) — the holiday of Sukkot. The Receiving of the Torah (Shavuot) and The New Year (Rosh Hashana) both seem fundamental to Jewish practice in their own rights. But I wouldn’t proclaim any holiday as “The Greatest Jewish Holiday”, per se.
I don’t even have to, because the Talmud (ca. 200 CE) already has. Full disclosure: it’s none of the above.
“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days as joyous (alt. holidays) for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.” (Mishna Taanit, 4:8)
Ok, so Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and forgiveness; generally considered a day of great solemnity, but a joy in divine connection and atonement does not stretch our conventional thinking all too much. In this essay I’d like to focus on exhibit A: the fifteenth of Av — the 5th of August on the 2020 calendar. There are no rules or traditions to the celebration of the 15th other than this (somewhat) simple dictum: act — and be! — more joyous. (The Talmud does describe the celebration that was held in Israel on this day — I refer to traditions for our current-day celebrations.) What is the given reason for this ultimate greatest-of-all joy?
“Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: The fifteenth of Av was the day on which they stopped chopping down trees for the arrangement of wood that burned on the altar… From the fifteenth of Av onward, the strength of the sun grows weaker, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the arrangement, as they would not be properly dry, and they would therefore be unfit for use in the Temple.” (Gemara Taanit, 31a.)
Well, there you have it… The last day of which the people were allowed to cut wood for the Temple. Celebrating the culmination of a job well done, then? The Greatest Jewish Celebration?
Wait, there’s more: as with any key celebration the day needed a moniker, a title, something more than merely its placement on the calendar by which it should be known. Turns out the rabbis have thought of that as well. Thus continues the passage from Taanit:
“Rav Menashya said: And they called the fifteenth of Av the day of the breaking of the Axe!” (He refers to the axe that was used to chop the wood during the hot summer season — on this day it was ceremoniously broken.)
This ends the section of the essay where I cite age-old texts — and at this point you’ve already studied some Talmud, so kudos to you! In the following section I’d like to suggest why perhaps The Breaking of the Axe might truly be the greatest Jewish celebration, and how this little-known holiday honors the soul of all Jewish living.
The overall chapter of the above-cited passage from Talmud is primarily dealing with the laws and reasons of mourning on the ninth of Av. To this day in Jewish tradition, the ninth of Av is a day of fasting, abstinence, and sorrowful prayers. The primary reason: the first and second Holy Temples in Jerusalem were both destroyed on the ninth of Av (586 BCE, and 70 CE respectively). In light of such sorrow and destruction the Talmud continues with naming the antithesis and the converse of this ruination; the first signs of a rebuilding — the fifteenth of Av.
Ok, first, one more quote:
“The (second) Temple was destroyed (by divine punishment) on account of baseless hatred.” (Gemara Yoma, 9b.)
Now, some context on the wood used for the fire in the Temple: Any individual who would bring a sacrifice to the Temple — both the sacrifices mandated by halachic law as well as the occasional gift-offering — would make use of the fire already burning at the top of the altar. That fire was fueled by wood donated to the temple — the very wood which had to be chopped by the benefactor before the fifteenth of Av. Thus, the chopping of the wood was part of a kindness; unassumingly giving resources to be used by the public in facilitation of their relationships with G-d. (The benefactor would never know whose sacrifices he was facilitating, and the one with the sacrifice would never know who to thank for the Temple’s fire.)
There was something uniquely special about the donations given on the fifteenth of Av — the one who was donating was giving away a resource that naturally he would be unable to procure until the following summer season! (Best quality dry firewood.) As well, from another angle, from that date onward he was providing the one who wished to bring a sacrifice with something that they themselves would be entirely unable to provide.
This donation was selfless caring at its best; giving what only you can give even when it will most definitely cause the giver a “loss”: lost time, resources, and/or expended energy. The catalyst of such giving? Oneness. A sort of “baseless love” without a care for differences, worthiness, and consequences. And this oneness, and perhaps only this oneness, is the remedic antithesis to the baseless hatred and destruction. To the division that we choose to sow amongst ourselves. The fifteenth of Av says, when given the choice — albeit it isn’t easy — choose to give. Choose to love. It might be uniquely yours and it might hurt when given. But that’s the only way the Temple will have its continuous fire. That’s the seed of the greatest joy our people have ever known.
The Breaking of the Axe? Let’s take a look at the Torah’s treatment of the axe in general.
“And when you make for Me an altar of stones, you shall not build them of hewn stones, lest you wield your sword upon it and desecrate it.” (Exodus 20:22)
In simple words, the altar couldn’t be shaped with any tool of metal because “the altar was created to lengthen man’s days, and iron was created to shorten man’s days.” (Midrash on the verse)
An axe (as any weapon) is seen as a symbol of the inherently unholy. It merely serves a constructive purpose at times. Here’s what we’re saying when we break the axe:
“G-d, we’ve channeled all that energy into a positive connectivity, into selfless giving. We’ve used the challenges and created something better. We found our oneness. The axe took us there; it was the struggles that brought us together. We are now ready to move the party to the temple which ‘lengthens our days’. Thank you axe, and goodbye forever!”
I don’t believe the talmudic rabbis need my support, but I can’t think of a greater celebration after such destruction than finally using whatever purpose there was and is in all of this madness, finding our oneness, and laying the axe to rest.
So there you have it. The great Jewish festival of the Breaking of the Axe. Turning it into a plowshare would be fine too.
This essay was based on a written Torah dissertation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, originally in Yiddish. In other years, within Yeshiva’s walls, it would be customary to have a farbrengen gathering to celebrate the day. This year, that was rendered impossible. We have to contend with this new axe in our paths.
This year, though, I did have plentiful time for reflection. I can never and would never claim to know the reasons for any of the things that G-d chooses to bring into our lives and onto our world. But I do believe that whatever it may be, it is here to serve a purpose. That it was set in motion to facilitate the rebuilding of the Temple.
This year I took a moment to turn to G-d and say, “Thank you for this axe that you have given us. All of this destruction has shaken me to the core and I commit to choosing oneness. And at times I’ll fail, but I’ll try again. I’ll choose to give, the things that only I can give, and even when it might be humbling. I won’t stop trying to view and treat others the way that you view them and would like them to be treated. Please G-d, I’m ready for this axe to be broken; for all that is broken to be healed; for the imperfect shattered world to be put back together in your image. Why don’t we go ahead and shatter the axe?”
It is my fervent hope, that we shall soon see the swords turned into plowshares. And that we soon be in that place of “baseless love” and oneness. Shabbat Shalom!