War Anywhere is a Local Crisis

On Friday, many Jews will observe Asarah b’Tevet, a minor fast day commemorating the beginning of the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem in the time of the First Temple. These events would lead, a year and a half later, to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. 

Our main experience of most fast days on the Jewish calendar centers around particular dates like this one about which we know well in advance and which mark specific moments of catastrophe in Jewish history. In the time of the Mishnah, however, the experience of calling for a fast day was also often linked to a crisis happening in that very moment. 

Tractate Ta’anit of the Mishnah describes the anxiety-provoking passage of time in late Fall and early Winter in the case when rain had not yet started to fall in the Land of Israel. As time passed and the threat of a long-term drought grew more serious, the courts would decree sets of public fast days. After six fast days and no rain in sight, the court would decree an extra seven. The Mishnah states that these seven fast days were even more serious than the previous ones, in part because they would involve the blowing of a shofar. 

In the context of the Mishnah’s discussion of fast days, the blowing of the shofar is the ultimate signal of fear and danger. The third chapter of the Mishnah discusses the dire circumstances in which the first six fast days would be entirely skipped and the blowing of the shofar commenced immediately. The Mishnah then escalates the situation by enumerating the circumstances by which all places, even faraway ones, would sound shofar blasts. 

עַל אֵלּוּ מַתְרִיעִין בְּכָל מָקוֹם, עַל הַשִּׁדָּפוֹן וְעַל הַיֵּרָקוֹן, עַל הָאַרְבֶּה וְעַל הֶחָסִיל, וְעַל הַחַיָּה רָעָה וְעַל הַחֶרֶב, מַתְרִיעִין עָלֶיהָ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהִיא מַכָּה מְהַלֶּכֶת

For these they sound a blast in all places: for the drying up of crops (shidafon), for plant disease, for locusts, and for the hasil (a type of locust), for wild beasts and for the sword they sound a blast for these are plagues likely to spread. (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:5, translation by Dr. Joshua Kulp)

Among the disasters that require shofar blasts is “the sword,” which the mishnah describes as being likely to spread. The Rambam, in his comment on our mishnah, spells out what exactly this sword is and why people even in faraway places would fast and blow the shofar as it approaches. 

על החרב, אפילו לא נתכון הצבא להלחם בהם אלא להלחם באומה אחרת אבל יעברו עלינו בלבד הרי זו צרה ומתריעין עליה

For the sword, even if the army didn’t intend to fight them but rather against a different nation but rather they will simply pass by us, that is distressful and we blow the shofar because of it. (Translation my own)

On its face, the Rambam’s comment here helps us understand what the sword is and why we’d consider the sword to be something likely to spread beyond the place where it currently exists. Even if you know that the faraway army does not intend to fight you, but instead an entirely different group of people, that is worrisome enough to warrant your distress and the sound of the shofar, alerting the people around you to the potential danger.

This consideration of a threat to others is clear in the Babylonian Talmud’s treatment of our Mishnah. The sugya relating to our mishnah briefly entertains the possibility that the shofar would only be sounded in the case of a sword that is “not for peace,” meaning an army that passes by with the express intention of engaging in warfare. The Talmud quickly shuts down that proposal and the requirement to blow the shofar extends to any passing army, even if they intend merely to pass “peacefully.”

Perhaps most interesting in the Rambam’s comment above is his inclusion of “a different nation.” One might have thought that the concern about the distant sword, such that the shofar blasts are required, would be limited to people of your religious or ethnic group. Certainly, in the times of the Mishnah, a document addressed (at least in large part) to Jews living in the Land of Israel, it would make sense to have said that the concern would be limited to danger facing Jews. Instead, the threat of the sword is broadened, and we are meant to feel distressed merely by noticing that the sword is threatening others.

It’s clear from the Rambam’s gloss on our mishnah that not only is violence not something to celebrate but it is also not something to feel neutral about as it inches closer to home. Even when it is experienced by someone far away from us, someone with whom we may share nothing and who may not even be a part of the same group as us, we are supposed to sound the shofar to adjoin their current pain with our potential pain. When the threat and reality of the sword descends upon others, silence is not an option; the shofar must be loudly sounded.

Max Buchdahl is an MA student in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, studies at Yeshivat Hadar, and lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.

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