August 7, 2018

Redefining Simcha (Adar)

Life can be stressful. While there are moments in life when things go well, there are also situations that we encounter when things do not go to plan; as Shlomo Hamelech famously wrote עֵת לִבְכּוֹת וְעֵת לִשְׂחוֹק עֵת סְפוֹד וְעֵת רְקוֹד – [there is] a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.[1] However, while some parts of the Jewish calendar are not necessarily hardwired for specific emotions, there are two months in the Jewish year for which we are required to take greater control of our emotions – the month of Av, and the month of Adar.

1. Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha

The Gemara states:

אמר רב יהודה בריה דרב שמואל בר שילת משמיה דרב: כשם שמשנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה – כך משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה, אמר רב פפא: הלכך, בר ישראל דאית ליה דינא בהדי נכרי – לישתמיט מיניה באב דריע מזליה, ולימצי נפשיה באדר דבריא מזליה.

Rav Yehuda the son of Shmuel the son of Shilat says in the name of Rav: Just as one is required to minimize simcha when the month of Av begins, so too when the month of Adar begins, we increase simcha. Rav Pappa said: Therefore a Jew who has a court case with non-Jews should avoid doing so in Av because his mazal is bad. Instead, he should make himself available in Adar when his mazal is good.[2]

What we see from here is that the month of Adar is treated as a mirror image of the month of Av, and that just as we decrease our simcha in Av, we are required to increase it in Adar. Yet, the Gemara does not provide a clear definition of what we are supposed to do in order to achieve this increased state of simcha. Instead, it offers a strange piece of advice, which is that if we are in a situation where we have a court case against a non-Jew, we should choose for this to occur in the month of Adar because it is in this month that our mazal is good.[3]

Clearly this Gemara requires some explanation, and in order to achieve clarity about this instruction, we must step back and consider the broader expectations of simcha throughout the year.

2. Simcha in the year and simcha in Adar

Every Jew is required to be b’simcha throughout the year and not just during the month of Adar, as we find in the Torah where we are told:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל־הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן־לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ:

And you shall rejoice (vesamachta) in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.[4]

Yet though this verse instructs us to be b’simcha, it is evident from the context of this verse that it is describing an occasion in someone’s life when they have every reason to be happy – when they are blessed with a good harvest. When this occurs, they are instructed to bring their first fruits in a basket to Jerusalem (ie. bikkurim) and to rejoice because a Jew should be b’simcha when they see good in their lives.

But Jewish sources also speak of a more sophisticated level of simcha. It is the approach to challenging situations when we respond with the phrase גם זו לטובה which is a level of acceptance and inner peace when things do not go to plan. I believe that it is this type of simcha which is our goal during the month of Adar.

Let us recall the strange example given by the Gemara that a Jew who has a court case with non-Jews should choose for this to occur in the month of Adar. By choosing to have the case in Adar, the Gemara is not saying that a Jew is guaranteed to win all court cases that occur in Adar. Instead, what it is saying is that if a Jew knows that they need to confront a stressful situation, they should choose to do so in the month on Adar because it is in this month that we develop the emotional resources to cope with such situations. Thus, while every Jew is required to be b’simcha throughout the year when things are going right in their lives, I would like to suggest that the idea behind increasing our simcha in the month of Adar is in order to help us improve the ways in which we deal with challenging and stressful situations. While this is a radically different way of understanding the phrase משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה, I would now like to demonstrate how I am not the first to reach this conclusion, and moreover, how this interpretation is supported by Biblical and rabbinic sources.

3. The simcha of Adar according to Rav Shlomo Zalman

Since his passing in 1995, numerous students of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach have recorded the insights and religious practices of their holy teacher in the books Halichot Shlomo, and it is in this work that we find this very approach towards the simcha of Adar:

ואמר רבנו דהא דאמרו “מרבין בשמחה” אין הכוונה שיש להרבות בפועלים של שמחה דוקא, אלא עיקר הכוונה להסיר מלבו בימים אלו כל דאגה ועצב.

Our teacher explained that the statement of ‘we increase simcha’ does not mean that we should specifically add positive behaviours [in our lives]. Instead, the core meaning [of this statement] is that during these days [of the month of Adar], we should remove all worry and sadness from our heart.[5]

This explanation of Rav Shlomo Zalman teaches us that our avodah in Adar is not all about loud music and over-the-top behaviour. Instead, the month of Adar encourages us to develop a deeper, more sophisticated approach to life. In Adar, we are supposed to develop a more positive approach to our worries and our stresses, and see the good in the challenges that we face. Adar isn’t about running away from our worries. Instead, Adar is the month in which we confront our worries while finding the positive even in the negative.

4. From sorrow (yagon) to joy (simcha)

A further source to support this understanding of the simcha of Adar comes from Megillat Esther itself. Having turned around a perilous situation, the Megillah tells us:

כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר־נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאוֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁלוֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים:

Like the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned to them from sorrow to joy (Miyagon L’simcha), and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.[6]

The Megillah informs us that the situation switched from sorrow to simcha, but does this mean that the Jews switched from being sad to being euphoric? According to the Maharal in his commentary to Megillat Esther, the definition of simcha associated with Purim is not euphoria, but rather, an inner peace and a sense of completeness. As he explains:

מה שנהפך מיגון לשמחה, דהיינו שהיו יראים מן המן, והגיעו אל השמחה, שהיא שלימות האדם.

The switch from sorrow to simcha means that they were [initially] afraid of Haman. However, [as a result of the salvation] they attained simcha which means that a person is at one with himself.[7]

This means that the simcha associated with the month of Adar is an inner peace – a sense of shleimut – which we should all try and achieve. Just as the Jews turned around their situation in the month of Adar and transformed sorrow into simcha, it is our task each Adar to confront our worries and try and make peace with them.

However, I would now like to claim that this definition of simcha is itself evident from a number of our Purim rituals.

5. Reading the Megillah at nighttime

One of the strangest practices on Purim is the double-reading of the Megillah on Purim, once at nighttime and once during the day. As the Gemara states:

אמר רבי חלבו אמר עולא ביראה: חייב אדם לקרות את המגילה בלילה ולשנותה ביום, שנאמר (תהלים ל’) למען יזמרך כבוד ולא ידם ה’ אלקי לעולם אודך.

Rav Helbo said in the name of ‘Ulla of Biri: It is a man’s duty to recite the Megillah at night and to repeat it the next day, as it says (Tehillim 30) “So that my glory may sing praise to you [by day] and not be silent [by night]. O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever”[8]

However, a question that has troubled numerous commentaries is why the Megillah needs to be repeated, and why must one reading be at night-time as opposed to most other festivals when the reading of the Torah or Megillah occurs during the day? In seeking to explain this ruling, the Ktav Sofer[9] offers the following brilliant interpretation, basing himself on a different Gemara found in Brachot 54a.

There we are told that just as a person must recite a bracha on a positive moment, so too must they recite a bracha on a negative experience. This is because the ultimate level is to find simcha in both bad and good.[10] Moreover, the Ktav Sofer reminds us that it is from the very chapter of Tehillim cited by Gemara in order to explain why two readings are necessary where we learn that night-time is analogous to times of distress, while daytime is analogous to good times. Based on all this, he explains that the reason why we read the Megillah twice on Purim – once at nighttime and once in the daytime – is because the first Megillah reading at night expresses how we are able to see good in how the Jews were threatened, while the reading in the daytime expresses how we appreciate the salvation from the impending threat.

This explanation teaches us that there are two levels of simcha reflected by the two different Megillah readings. One is the simcha we have when things go right and when salvation comes, which is represented by the daytime megillah reading which reflects the simcha that we should always have. However, the more sophisticated type of simcha expresses the way in which we must make peace with difficult and stressful situations. It is a simcha which approaches challenges with a גם זו לטובה perspective, and it is this simcha which is illustrated by the night-time megillah reading.

This means that in contrast to many other festivals when we are supposed to be happy for the good times, Purim forces us to see good in the tough times. Purim is the time when we have to make a ‘blessing’ on the bad and not just on the good, on the threat as well as on the salvation, and it is this higher level of understanding which is the simcha that we should be developing during the month of Adar.

6. Getting ‘drunk’ on Purim

Let me now offer a further piece of evidence that part of our avodah during the month of Adar should enable us to see good in the bad, and find better ways of dealing with stressful situations. The Gemara states:

אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי.

Rava said: It is the duty of a man to intoxicate himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’.[11]

This is one of the most oft-cited statements on Purim, and is understood as endorsing excess drinking ‘for the sake of Purim’. However, the real question is what does this phrase actually mean?

Rather than granting permission for drunken behaviour, I believe that we are being encouraged to reach an emotional and intellectual point in which we cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’ because we should reach the point where we see good in the ‘bad’ and not just the ‘good’. Like the insight by the Ktav Sofer, this statement of Rava teaches us that we have to make a ‘blessing’ on the bad and not just on the good, on the threat of Haman, as well as on the salvation that came through Mordechai. However, while I have understood this statement as requiring us to reach an emotional and intellectual state, doesn’t the Gemara tell us that we should reach a state of drunkenness?

The answer to this question is an emphatic no.

Just a few lines above Rava’s statement in the Gemara, we are told of a saying that ‘רווחא לבסימא שכיח – there is always room for sweet things’, meaning that at the end of a meal, we always find room for dessert. As Rav Chaim Friedlander points out,[12] the term used by Rava of לבסומי is the same word used in the phrase to mean sweet, which means that what Rava is telling us to do is to have a paradigm shift in which we find sweet in the bad so that we cannot tell the difference between the curses of Haman and the blessings of Mordechai. As he writes:

מיתוק הרע הוא ע”י הבנה זו שגם הרע עצמו מסייע כגורם לעליית הטוב

The sweetening of [our perception of] the bad is achieved by the deeper understanding that bad itself enables us to reach the good.

What we see from here is that while some people interpret the word simcha to defend practices that lead to drunken stupor, what Rava is teaching us is that during the month of Adar, and specifically on Purim itself, we should try and see good in the bad, make peace with the challenges that we confront in our lives, and we should remove all worry and sadness from our heart.

7. Final thoughts

When thought of this way, it becomes clear that far too many of us approach Adar, Purim, and the days that follow Purim, with an attitude that is not consonant with the sources I have explained. Many people spend the weeks prior to Purim worrying about what they should wear on Purim and who should be the recipients of their Mishloach Manot. Yet, not only does this not express the simcha that we should achieve in Adar, but it doesn’t even reflect the simcha we should have throughout the year. If we have enough food to eat on Purim, and can celebrate Purim with friends or family, then we are obligated to be happy, period.

In addition to this baseline of simcha that we should all have, the month of Adar encourages us to adopt a stress-free approach to life. Not everything that will occur in the month of Adar will succeed. You may have a court case and you may lose. But what we should be working on in this month is removing all stresses and worries from your heart. If someone is abrupt with you this month, try not to react or take it personally, and if things don’t go well at work, try not to get too upset about it.

On Purim itself, realise that the reason we hear the Megillah twice is to teach us to see the good in the bad, and that the teaching of Rava is not a ‘green light’ for getting drunk, but rather, a statement that Purim is the day when we should find sweetness in the bitter.

Finally, given the fact that the duty to be b’simcha lasts throughout Adar, we learn that in the weeks following Purim we should not get stressed. Instead, we should be b’simcha, and find a way to prepare for Pesach in a positive way.


[1] Kohelet 3:4

[2] Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 29a-b

[3] As will become evident from my analysis, I believe that the concept that the mazal of a Jew is ‘good’ is to be understood to mean that the broader psychological perspective of a Jew is good at this point in time. Consequently, a Jew should choose to have their court case during the month of Adar because, as I will explain, Adar is a month when Jews are encouraged to develop a more positive attitude towards stress-related situations.

[4] Devarim 26:11

[5] Halichot Shlomo, Purim Ch. 18, Orchot Halacha no. 63

[6] Esther 9:22

[7] Or Chadash (Maharal) on Megillat Esther 9:22. In a similar vein, the Maharal writes that כל שמחה כאשר הוא שלם ואין לו חסרון, ומפני השלימות נמצא השמחה (Netiv HaTorah Ch. 4).

[8] Talmud Bavli, Megillah 4a

[9] Drashot Ktav Sofer Chelek 1 Drush L’Parshat Zachor, cited in Sefer Meorei Tefillah pp. 12-13

[10] See Talmud Bavli, Brachot 60b

[11] Talmud Bavli, Megillah 7b

[12] Siftei Chaim, Moadim Vol. 2 p. 230

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