Talmud to the Titanic: Makkot 24b Tisha B'Av
Reflections on Tisha B'Av, tragedy and the Makkot 24:2-4b
Eliav Cohen Benchabo
Makkot (Lashes) is a tractate of laws and teachings dealing (mostly) with punishments. 24b:2-4 is the last passage in Makkot.
24b is a story. It begins with four Rabbis (Rabbi Gamliel Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva) overlooking a ruined Jerusalem. A fox emerges from the rubble of the Holy of Holies. This causes them to weep. Except Rabbi Akiva, who laughs. “Why do you laugh?” They ask. “Why do you weep? This used to be a place only the high priest could worship and live, and now foxes roam; shall we not weep?” Rabbi Akiva answers: “just as prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed was fulfilled (Uriah), so too the prophecy that the Temple will be rebuilt shall be fulfilled (Zachariah)”. The Rabbis declare “You have consoled us! You have consoled us!”
The first time I watched Titanic I was 7 years old. It was my first introduction to “Tragedy” and it was Tisha Be-av. It is something of a tradition amongst some Jews to watch particular films on Tisha Be-av. Well, perhaps ‘tradition’ is a bit strong, maybe it is better described as a widespread custom. In any case, I know I am not the only one who does this. It is typically cinema in the vein of Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and The Pianist. Something aptly tragic, usually holocaust related, which (despite their subject matter) almost always end with the unmistakeble appeal to Hope. For me, it started with Titanic. Spoilers ahead.
“Titanic asks us to see in the murky footage of underwater wreckage, the realities of people’s hopes.”
Titanic film begins with present-day treasure hunters. They are retrieving artefacts from the sunken vessel. Rose, a (fictional) 101-year-old survivor of the sinking, is invited to identify the artefacts. At one point, a scientist explains, with the help of a CG reconstruction, the sequence of events which led to the sinking of the transatlantic voyager. Rose takes a moment and replies, somewhat condescending,“Thank you for that fine forensic analysis, Mr. Bodine. Of course, the experience of it was somewhat less clinical.”
It always surprised me how clearly that CG sequence stays with you throughout the 3-hour runtime. As a framing device, it works beautifully and effectively, becoming almost a spectral presence as you become entangled in the narrative. Like the narrator in a Shakespearean tragedy, we are presented with a broad-stroke view of events. Their outcome (if there was ever any doubt) is made explicit. We are told exactly why and how the Titanic sank, who survived, and who didn’t. So, the drama tethers itself not to the fact that it will sink, but by trying to make an audience care that it did.
And in this sense Titanic doesn’t hold back: Scenes of biblical deluge in a ballroom; a captain spending his final moments on the bridge of his ship, distraught and alone; a violinist playing a final goodbye; a mother singing her children softly to sleep for last time. These are the death throes of the Titanic. Brief, punctuated, vignettes of tragedy.
Titanic asks us to see in the murky footage of underwater wreckage, the realities of people’s hopes. It compels us, like it compelled greedy treasure hunters, to set aside ‘forensic analysis’ and recognise for a moment our moral duty to reflect, when looking back at tragedy, on people, and their shattered lives. Despite its flaws, Titanic never shied away from demanding genuine emotion from its audience. Tisha Be-av demands of us the same.
“However much it may have consoled his fellow sages, Rabbi Akiva’s laughter was in truth the hope of a captain on a half sunken ship.”
Tisha Be-av is a day constructed around the emotions of loss. The destruction of the Temple, the squandering of Jewish unity, the weight of persecution, find expression in feelings of abandonment, grief, isolation, despair. It is Jewish practice at its least cerebral. You are not implored to question, like on Pesach. It is not about you, like on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of profound personal introspection. It is not even about retelling historical events, like on Purim and Hanukkah. The Megillah of Tisha Be-av, Eikha (Lamentations), is a series of poems expressing desolation, each in more harrowing terms than the last. But at no point do we recount the siege of Jerusalem, the infighting amongst Jewish factions, the successive Roman conquest of Jewish cities, or the Bar Kokhba Revolts. On Tisha Be-av, we are forbidden to learn torah. We sit on the floor. Many stop greeting one another. Some practice taanit dibur- a fast of speech. The point is simply, for a day, to feel the necessary emotions of collective misery.
So, what to make of Rabbi Akiva and his laugh? Many take his laughter as a lesson in hope. As a man who decided to become a scholar at the age of 40, Rabbi Akiva certainly had a gift for hope. During the Bar Kokhba revolt, he immediately saw in Bar Kokhba the messiah of redemption, never doubting Jerusalem would be rebuilt in his lifetime. When sentenced to death by Roman soldiers for his refusal to submit to foreign idols, he expressed satisfaction at finally being able to fulfil a mitzvah “with all his soul” (Berachot 61b).
But we know how Rabbi Akiva’s story ends. It ends in violence. Though his laughter was real, so was his tragedy. And whilst in the uncertain moments of our lives, we may take lessons from this gift, I am not so sure the same is true when reflecting upon his. Lindsay Ellis states “a well told tragedy appeals to the human desire to hope”. It is this appeal which is highlighted by much of holocaust filmography and is similarly highlighted by those who see Makkot 24b as underscoring a certain duty, as Jews, to hope. Come Tisha Be-av, however, our responsibility is different.
However much it may have consoled his fellow sages, Rabbi Akiva’s laughter was in truth the hope of a captain on a half sunken ship. Poet and Clint Smith (if he was interested in Rabbi Akiva and his foxes) might suggest the following sentiment: “whenever people say ‘we have been through worse before’ all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones of those who did not make it”. I think this even more true of those who, although they did not make it, never lost hope they would. Tisha Be-av is for them. More than anything, Rabbi Akiva serves as a reminder that if our collective story is a tragic one, it is foremost because it is littered with unrequited hopes. In short, Tisha Be-av is important because it gives us space to be bitter at the divine slights of hand and spare a day to mourn the unfulfilled hope of those who did not make it.