World of the Sages: Fear factor

'A haircut causes fear for three days and paring nails affrights a person for one day'

We all have moments when we experience fear. It may be an uncomfortable tingling deep in the recesses of our innards, at other times we are overcome with fear. Our sages relate to the causes of fear, how fear should be treated and of what we should be fearful.

A student was following Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose in the marketplace of Zion (B. Berachot 60a). The sage noticed that the disciple was anxious and he turned to him: "You are a sinner!" Buttressing his accusatory declaration with a biblical verse, Rabbi Yishmael continued: "For it is written: 'Sinners were afraid in Zion (Isaiah 33:14).'" The student was quick to defend: "Isn't it written: 'Praiseworthy is the person who is always fearful (Proverbs 28:14)'" The sage dismissed this source, explaining that fear is commendable only in the context of Torah matters. If people are constantly wary of forgetting their Torah learning, they will carefully, continuously and conscientiously review the material (Rashi, 11th century, France). In this case fear serves as a goad to better Torah study and is therefore laudable. Perpetual fear in other contexts, however, is not considered virtuous.

Continuing on the theme of fear, the Talmud adds a further vignette that highlights the dangers of fear. Yehuda bar Natan, who was following Rav Hamnuna, emitted a deep sigh. Hearing the sigh, Rav Hamnuna commented: "That person wants suffering brought upon himself, for it is written: 'For my sigh ushers in my bread, my moan pours forth like water because I feared a fright and it has overtaken me, that which I dreaded has come upon me (Job 3:24-25).'" A sigh - being a sign of fear - can herald suffering.

The same defense was offered and dismissed: "But it is written: 'Praiseworthy is the person who is always fearful.'"

"This verse is written concerning words of Torah." Indeed, fear's ability to be a harbinger of suffering may be connected to its tendency to weaken people (B. Gittin 70a).

What brings about fear? Our sages enumerate various actions that precipitate fear if they are done without washing the hands after the action (B. Pessahim 111b-112a with Rashbam): People who eat cress experience fear for 30 days without knowing why they are afraid. Likewise bloodletting from the shoulder without washing the hands instills anxiety for seven days, a haircut causes fear for three days and paring nails affrights a person for one day.

In another passage, our sages explain that fear can be perceived even when it is masked from the human eye (B. Megila 3a; B. Sanhedrin 93b-94a). The Bible recounts: "I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; and the people who were with me did not see the vision, yet a great fear fell upon them and they fled into hiding (Daniel 10:7)." The Talmud asks: Since these people did not see the vision, why were they afraid?

Our sages explain that though they did not see the vision with their own eyes, their personal accompanying angel did perceive the vision and thus precipitated their fear.

One sage, Ravina, concludes a general rule from this biblical account: If one becomes frightened for no apparent reason, the accompanying representative angels have perceived something that justifies the fear.

Our sages offer a remedy for one who is confronted by unexplained fear: Read the Shema, for this Torah passage has the power to eliminate detrimental forces (see B. Berachot 5a). And if the anxious person is standing in an unclean place where it is inappropriate to read this Torah passage, he should jump four cubits, thus leaving his personal space where the fear was sensed.

If this is impossible, the Talmud offers an incantation that provides strength in the face of unseen danger: "The goat of the slaughterhouse is fatter than I" - suggesting that the invisible cause of the fear should go to the goats and leave the fearful person.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, our sages offer another method for combating fear (B. Bava Batra 10a). Rabbi Yehuda was wont to say that 10 tough things were created in the world, yet for each item a complementary elixir was also created: Thus a solid mountain can be cut by iron; hard iron can be softened by fire; fiery flames can be extinguished by water; powerful water can be borne by clouds; strong clouds can be scattered by wind; persistent winds cannot fell a human body; an able person, however, can be broken by fear; formidable fear can be dispelled by wine; the effect of potent wine is dissipated by sleep. Death, however, is the most prevailing force created, and even death can be overcome by giving charity, as it says: "And charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2)." A stiff drink, therefore, is remedy for fear.

The hassidic masters offered a different perspective on fear. They suggested that true and worthy fear should be reserved for the Almighty. All other things we fear should only remind us how we should feel in the presence of the God (B. Berachot 59a; Rabbi Menahem Nahum Twerski of Chernobyl, 18th century, Poland, today Ukraine).

One of the early hassidic masters, Rabbi Meshullam Feivish of Zbarazh (1740-1795, Galicia, today Ukraine) added an insightful parable: Imagine an angered king who sends one of his most fearsome soldiers to arrest one of his subjects. A foolish citizen, upon seeing the frightening soldier begins to try to appease the messenger with gifts and endearing words. A wise subject, however, understands that such attempts are futile: "The soldier merely acts on the kings orders. I should hurry before the king and present my case before him." Another hassidic master, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841, Galicia, today Poland), went even further, saying that it was a disgrace for a righteous person to be fearful of anything but the Almighty.

If a person experiences fear, the hassidic masters recommend recalling that all fear is naught except for fear of God. Indeed, temporal fear should be viewed as a reminder or prompt for the only worthy fear, fear of God.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.