The Mishnah (13:3) in Masechet Shabbos describes the melecha of tearing on Shabbos. The Mishnah states that one would be patur for tearing on Shabbos if one did so out of anger, or for someone who died or any other destructive purpose. The implication in the Mishnah is that if one tore for a constructive purpose then one would be liable for a chatas offering.
The phrase that the Mishnah uses to describe the tearing for mourning is quite intriguing. The Mishnah specifically refers to meto (literally: his dead). The understanding from the literal reading of the text is that if one makes a tear for someone he is obligated to mourn for, then he would be exempt. This seems counter intuitive considering that making this tear would be a constructive action as one is obligated to perform tearing on the loss of a close relative. Bartenura therefore interprets the Mishnah to refer specifically to someone he is not obligated to tear for. This would then make the act purely destructive for which one is exempt for doing the action on Shabbos. This interpretation is difficult, however, considering the specific language used in the Mishnah. It is for this reason, that the Tifferes Yisrael adds a comment in his explanation of the Mishnah and interprets the word ‘meto’to refer to ‘tsa’aro’(his pain) – the pain that a person feels when someone close to him (although someone whom he is not obligated to tear for) passes away.
Prima facie, tearing (except for the case where one tears in order to sew) seems to be a destructive act. What possible constructive benefit can come from this tearing over a close relative? The Rambam writes that when one tears his clothing over someone who has passed away, it has a calming effect on his mind and settles one’s anger. The Tosfot Yom Tov seems to take issue with this interpretation for two reasons. Firstly, we learn in Masechet Brachot, that one must bless Hashem for the bad, just as one would do so for the good. The Mefarshim explain this as meaning that one must therefore accept all that happens with simcha and without getting angry. This seems to be in contradiction to our Mishnah which states that one tears in order to control anger! The second issue, is that if tearing is done in order to settle one’s anger there should be no distinction regarding whether the deceased was a close relative (and is considered constructive/chayav) or not (deemed destructive /patur).
The Tosfot Yom Tov answers the first issue by saying that there is no contradiction between the statements. The Gemara in Shabbos (105b) corroborates the statement forbidding one from getting angry, as it likens one who gets angry and tears his clothes out of rage to serving idols. However, even though it is forbidden, practically, if one where to do this it would have a calming effect on a person (and would be assur on Shabbos).
Based on this answer, we are left with the second issue with the Rambam, namely, why there is a difference for chiyuv if the person was a close relative or not. The Tosfot Yom Tov puts forward a challenging suggestion to this issue. The answer is based on the concept that the Torah is a blueprint for life and all mitzvot are commanded with a profound understanding of the very depth of human emotion. With this in mind, the Tosfot Yom Tov states that since the Torah does not command one to undertake aveilus for those that are not considered close relatives – there is no deep tza’ar or anger that needs to be eased through the procedure of rendering ones garment. It is therefore a destructive act, and one who undertakes it is patur.
This answer does not seem to sit well with the Tosfot Yom Tov. Firstly, he does not think that one’s anger would subside by the tearing, from the fact that this concept of tearing out of anger seems to contradict the Mishnah in Berachot of accepting the good along with the bad is difficult. Secondly Tosfot Yom Tov asks that a simpler solution would have been that the simply performing the mitzvah of tearing for a close relative itself is a constructive. The Ri(Tosafot Shabbos 105B) answers this point by stating that tearing for a mitzvah is not considered a constructive action unless another improvement is done beside the mitzvah. Consequently in this case you are being constructive for as you do the mitzvah of tearing, you are also calming yourself. It is not clear from here whether the Tosafot would also make someone who is not obligated to tear chayav for doing so on Shabbos.
Therefore, the Tosfot Yom Tov explains that in general the opinion of the Mishnah is that the tearing was not instituted in order to appease one’s anger, but rather should be performed with ‘tov-lev’(pleasantness of heart) however difficult the emotional circumstance may be. However, he mentions that as a side benefit the reality of the situation is that one’s anger would be subsided by doing this action and is therefore considered a constructive act.
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