Tzemach Tzadik - Chap. 9 Sadness and Worry Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leone da Modena


Back to Chapter 8 about joy

Translated by Ralph Anzarouth and an anonymous friend

Sadness and worry

Sadness and worry are the antithesis of joy: they involve excessive anguish over a past or future event: anguish over the past is termed "sorrow" and over the future is termed "worry": both of these are negative traits. Man may be sad only over his past sins, as King David said (Psalms 6, 4): "My soul was deeply shocked etc." or he may worry in fear that he may sin in the future, as in (Psalms 16, 8): "I perpetually envision the Lord before me". Since the past is gone and cannot be remedied, one must not dwell upon it and regret it, as our Sages of blessed memory said (Talmud Bavli, treatise Berachot 54a): "One who prays that his pregnant wife should give birth to a son is praying in vain1." Similarly (Talmud Bavli, treatise Moed Kattan, 27b): "Do not grief excessively over the dead, and do not mourn over him more than the prescribed time", namely 3 days for weeping, 7 days for eulogizing, etc. and they said there further: "Everyone who weeps in excess for his dead, will ultimately grieve over a further bereavement."

Regarding [worry about] the future, the poet said (Isaiah 32, 17): "Be silent and have trust" since worry will not put off what has already been decreed. And King Solomon said (Proverbs 12, 25) "Man should banish the worries of his heart etc.". And Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gevirol, in his book "Tikkun Hamiddot" ("Correction of spiritual traits"), dealt in much greater length with the correction of this particular trait, much more than any of the others, since he said that this trait comes close to bringing man to the gates of death.

Alexander of Macedon heard from his teacher Aristotle that worry will break one's heart and destroy it. In order to prove this, he took a certain species of animal, similar in nature to man, and locked it up in darkness for a long period, and kept it on a subsistence diet. After which, he released it and slaughtered it and found its heart completely dissolved, and then he knew that his teacher had been speaking the truth. And further he wrote that worry originates and intensifies in man as a result of his being addicted to worldly possessions and delights which cause him constant pain through their presence or absence or through the fear of their loss.

Socrates was once asked how he never showed any sign of worry. He replied that he never acquired anything the possession of which would cause him to worry about it. Therefore, every rational person should act upon the words of Ptolemy that whoever desires a long life should approach events with a brave heart.

The trait of sadness can be compared to the raven, who upon discovering on the birth of its offspring that they are white, becomes increasingly distressed to the extent that he distances himself from them and abandons them, since he is convinced that they are not his, because they are not black like him and he will not supply them with food until their feathers grow black, until which time they subsist on air and dew; or, as in the sayings of our Sages of blessed memory, the Holy One, blessed be He, prepares little mosquitoes, which fly into their mouths, as it is written (Psalms 147, 9): "He supplies […] to the offspring of the raven, when they call." And the raven behaves in this way as a result of being overcome by sadness. It is also more distressed than any other living creature over the loss of its brood.

It is written in the book of Ben Sira: "Do not worry, since worry has caused many casualties". Plato said: "Worry does not befit the wise man". Seneca said: "Worry brings man to his grave. Don't let it take over your heart, and if you fall prey to it, don't let it be visible, since a wise man does not reveal the feelings of his heart".

One should bear in mind that most sadness stems from lack of activity, as our Sages of blessed memory said (Talmud Bavli, treatise Ketuvot 59b): "Idleness causes boredom" and boredom is what induces worry, and the wise man said that just as it is in man's nature that through intense activity he develops his mind, in the same way lack of activity retards his mind. Therefore, Kohelet said (Ecclesiastes 2, 24): "Isn't it good for man to eat, drink, enjoy the fruits of his efforts?" - toil in Torah and toil in work, thus he will forget his misery and worry (Psalms 55, 23): "Cast your burden on the Lord and He will provide for you". (Psalms 121, 7): "He will protect you from all evil, He will guard over your spirit".

Among those who alleviated the burden of worry, it is written that on death of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) he was carried in a golden coffin on the shoulders of kind people, governors, deputies, while philosophers followed him and eulogized him. One of them said: "He who in his might rules over the world and the earth from East to West will now be buried in four cubits of soil.". Another said: "During Alexander's lifetime everyone observed silence and now that he is unable to speak everyone else is speaking". Another one said: "Those who yesterday admired you will today pay tribute to you". And many others continued eulogizing him. However, before his death, he had sent a letter of comfort to his mother, in which he wrote: "Mother, when the death of Alexander will come upon you, command the organization of a great and marvelous feast in which you will prepare every kind of food and drink and in which you will gather around you to the banquet on the given day all the men of the realm; afterwards, pass the word that no men suffering from any adversity should come to the queen's feast, so that the mourning of Alexander should be different from the mourning of the common man." And the death of Alexander befell her, she ordered to carry out all of Alexander's instructions. And behold, not one person turned up at the banquet. When she asked why no one who was invited came, they reminded her: "Didn't you command that nobody suffering from adversity should come to the feast? And nobody is exempt from worry and adversity.” And she said: "Dear Alexander, how wise are your sayings! And how similar is your end to your beginning: in your lifetime, you [already] wished to comfort me completely2."

Notes of the translators:
[1] Since the gender of the foetus is already determined at that time.
[2] It is clear that Alexander foresaw that nobody would show up at the banquet, proving to his mourning mother that all kind of adversities are common events during every human life.

Rabbi Arye Yehudah di Modena (or Rabbi Leone da Modena) lived five centuries ago in Italy. This book is a very successful Jewish adaptation of an Italian Medieval ethics book called “Fior di Virtù” (The Flower of Virtue): Rabbi Arye Yehudah translated it in Hebrew after removing parts which are unfit for a book about Jewish moral. He also added many appropriate references to Biblical and rabbinic texts. The whole book in Hebrew (printed in Rashi characters) can be downloaded in PDF format at Chapter 9 on sadness and worry is found at pages 18-21.