Class Notes - Class #20

Class Notes – Class #20


The next series of mitzvot deal with aspects of holidays, so we are more familiar ground.  We will see our author being very systematic in presenting the material, covering different aspects in relatively clear, concise essays.


Mitzvah #297 requires that we rest on the first day of Passover and mitzvah #298 prohibits certain work on the first day of Passover.  We have seen many other positive/negative pairs of mitzvot. The positive mitzvah to rest is derived from the Torah calling the first day of Passover “shabbaton;” the author explains that when the Torah uses the word shabbaton in conjunction with a holiday, that word identifies a positive mitzvah.  There are parallel mitzvot for other holidays, so what the author includes in these mitzvah/essays is not unique to Passover.

            There are two possible source verses for the prohibition on work, mitzvah #298.  Rambam cites Ex. 12:16.  But our author prefers to rely on Lev. 23:7 and he explains that he choose this verse so he could discuss the mitzvot about holidays as one unit.  Although we have been doing that more than our author does, we are apparently not far out of line with his plan.

            The question of what one may or may not do on the first day of Passover, and by extension on other major holidays, requires a careful reading of the source verses.  Recall that on Shabbat we are prohibited from doing “col m’lachah,” all 39 categories of activities modeled on what was done in the process of building the mishkan.    The two source verses we mentioned in the prior paragraph give two different descriptions of what is prohibited on the first day of Passover.  Lev. 23:7 prohibits “m’lechet avodah,” translated in the Feldheim translation as “laborious work.”  That term is obviously related to the m’lachah prohibited on Shabbat, but the relation is not clear.  Ex. 12:16 is more expansive.  It says m’lachah is prohibited on the first and seventh days of Passover, and then delineates an exception.  Only “m’lechet ochel nefesh,” “m’lachah that a person eats” is permitted.  So it would seem that on the first day of Passover we may do m’lechet ochel nefesh but may not do any other m’lachah. The author looks ahead and points out that the phrase m’lechet ochel nefesh is used about other major holidays as well, so the practical rubric for those holidays is the same as for the first day of Passover.  (The author will get to the topic of our current practice of keeping these holidays for two days rather than one day very soon.)  There is one verse which is an exception to this linguistic pattern.  Deut. 16:8 says that on the last day of Passover we should do no m’lachah.  The author explains that since other verses made it clear that m’lechet ochel nefesh was the permitted on the last day of Passover, there was no need to repeat that in a later reference.  The author notes that this reference is to m’lachah, not to “col m’lachah,” “all m’lachah,” the typical description of forbidden labor on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.       

            Because there are limitations on many of our activities on holidays, we have the leisure to focus on the idea of the holiday rather than on our everyday pursuits.  On Passover, people need quality time to fulfill the required job of telling their children about the Exodus from Egypt.  In their holiday leisure, people can gather to hear Torah teachings from rabbis and scholars.  Mosheh is credited with having instituted the practice of setting aside study time for Jews to learn the laws for each major holiday.

The author says the prohibition on most m’lachah but with an exception for m’lechet ochel nefesh fits with that shoresh.  Work involved in preparing meals is pleasurable rather than painful.  Presumably it is pleasurable because it is done in anticipation of the delicious meal.  Before refrigerators and freezers, being able to prepare food on a daily basis was more of a necessity than it is for us.

The obvious next step is to define m’lechet ochel nefesh.  The author provides lots of practical detail about what is and is not m’lechet ochel nefesh.  As we have seen before, what he says may not entirely match current practice.  M’lachah that directly provides human food for the holiday is permitted.  But ochel nefesh is not strictly limited to food preparation.  We may also do m’lachah to support mitzvot to be done on that particular day.  Thus we are permitted to carry a Torah scroll to get it to a place where it will be read, or to carry a knife to circumcise an eight day old boy.  And we may do m’lachah that helps provide for basic human needs for that particular day.    We may heat water to wash our feet or make a fire to keep ourselves warm.  Only universal human needs qualify to have m’lachah done in support of them, not proclivities of individuals.  So the author says one may heat water to wash one’s feet, because everyone does that sometimes, whereas one may not burn incense, since only some people choose to do that.

The restriction on “universality” does not apply to food preparation; one may do m’lachah to prepare any kind of food, even something rare and special.  But the author outlines five limitations on food preparation on holidays:

1.       Even for food preparation, we are only permitted to do activities that could not have been done just as well before the holiday.  Many food preparation jobs can be done well in advance, and we are not permitted to do those on holidays.    For example, reaping, threshing, winnowing, grinding and sifting grain are all prohibited.  But slaughtering animals for food, kneading dough, baking and cooking are all permitted because the food produced by those actions will spoil if it is done too far in advance.  We may grind spices because spices ground in advance tend to lose their flavor. 

The author’s examples reflect kitchen practices in a world with very different technology than ours. The rule seems fairly straightforward: although one may do actions for food preparation on holidays, one may not do actions that could have been done before the holiday.  But the examples the author gives do not fit current conditions.  Animals can be slaughtered well in advance if the meat is refrigerated or frozen.  Most of us do not grind our own spices.  We rely on pre-ground spices stored in glass or plastic so they do not lose their flavor.  Many cooked and baked items also keep fine if refrigerated or frozen.  Some cooked foods really do taste better when made fresh, though. In deciding what we do in our modern kitchen on holidays we would need to decide whether we apply the general rule to modern conditions, or whether we accept the examples articulated by various halachic sources even though those examples are based on very different conditions.

2.      We may prepare food for use on that particular day, but we may not do food preparation activities intended to prepare food for future days or for long term food storage.   

3.      Nor may we do actions hoping they will produce food when the ability of those actions to lead to food for immediate use is doubtful.  The author gives the example of hunting or trapping animals for food.  That is not permitted because the result of the hunt is doubtful.

4.      We may do m’lachah to prepare food on holidays, but only if the actual m’lachah is what we need.  For example, we may put a pot over the fire to heat and cook the food in the pot.  But we may not do actions where we aim at getting benefit from the cessation of the m’lachah.  For example, the author says one may not extinguish a fire to keep the food on the fire from burning.  (Instead, one should simply take the pot off the fire.) 

5.      One may do m’lachah to prepare food for Jews, not to prepare food for non-Jews or animals.


Late in mitzvah/essay #298, the author discusses the case of an egg laid on a holiday that follows Shabbat.  The passage is confusing.  The author is discussing the first topic discussed in Talmud Beitzah, a long and confusing passage.  Our discussion will barely scratch the surface.

The first Mishnah in Beitzah begins with a dispute about an egg laid on a holiday.  Beit Hillel say the egg may not be eaten and Beit Shammai say it may be eaten.  This is surprising because generally Beit Hillel are lenient and Beit Shammai are strict, whereas the result in this case is the opposite.  The Mishnah continues with several other cases where Beit Hillel are stricter than Beit Shammai.  The Germara opens with an attempt to figure out why Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai take their respective positions about the egg, and that discussion continues trying different theories for several pages.

Our author explains the outcome of one of the Gemara’s attempts at explaining the two opinions.  Rabbah thought that, by Torah law, all preparation for Shabbat and holidays had to be done on a weekday.  Rabbah would forbid preparing on Shabbat for a holiday or on a holiday for Shabbat.  The Gemara assumes that when a hen lays an egg, the egg was prepared by the hen’s metabolism on the previous day.  Thus, if a hen lays an egg on one day, the egg was “prepared” by the hen on the prior day.  

Now apply that rule to an egg laid on a holiday.  If the day before the holiday was a Friday, it should be fine to eat the egg on the holiday since the egg was prepared by the hen on Friday. But if the holiday falls on Sunday, the egg was prepared by the hen on the prior day, Shabbat.  According to Rabbah, something prepared on Shabbat may not be used on a holiday, so as a matter of Torah law one may not eat the egg on the holiday on which it was laid. Similarly, if Shabbat followed a holiday, one may not eat an egg laid on that Shabbat because it was prepared on the holiday.  The author says that according to Rabbah only in those cases are we forbidden by Torah law to eat a newly laid egg. 

But the rabbis were worried that people would get confused about what eggs were permitted and what eggs were forbidden if the only prohibited eggs were eggs laid on a Sunday holiday or on Shabbat following a Friday holiday.  Therefore, the rabbis also prohibited eating eggs in three situations that might appear similar but where the egg was actually prepared on a weekday.  They prohibited eating an egg that was laid on a holiday following a weekday.  They prohibited eating an egg laid on Shabbat on a holiday that falls on Sunday.  And they prohibited eating an egg laid on a holiday that is followed by Shabbat.  Given how hard it is keep track of all these cases, the rabbis’ concern was probably well taken.

The opening discussion in Beitzah also suggests several situations that appear parallel to the case of an egg laid on a holiday.  For example, oil in an oil lamp at the beginning of the holiday is unavailable since it is set aside to be burned in the lamp. One might suspect not all of it will burn up.  After the lamp goes out, one might think the leftover oil is analogous to the newly laid egg, since the oil was unavailable at the beginning of the holiday but becomes available later.  Or consider the case of an animal that died on the holiday.  It was unavailable for dog food at the beginning of the holiday, but became available once the animal died.  Maybe the newly laid egg is analogous to juice that oozes out of fruit on a holiday.  The juice was not available as a beverage when the holiday started, but it becomes available as it oozes out.  Our author says that none of those analogies fits the case of the newly laid egg.  Rather, the only case where Rabbah’s rule about preparation applies is to the newly laid egg, not to any of the apparently analogous cases.

 It is hard to know why the author chose to present a cryptic description of all that material.  He does note that what he provides is well short of an adequate explanation. We noted earlier that the author has begun to include halachic arguments that are more complex than the ones he discussed in the first half of the work.  (Yes, folks, we are just about half way there.) We will see him include paraphrases of famous Talmudic passages more often as we proceed.  The author again refers to his own teachers, something he has done several times in recent mitzvot.  And here he says he has explained this passage of Talmud at length. Apparently he is also writing something else and seems enthusiastic about his work on that manuscript.


Mitzvot #300 and #301 parallel the mitzvot we just studied, only about doing m’lachah on the seventh day of Passover.  The author notes in mitzvah #300 that the seventh day of Passover is part of one holiday with the first and middle days of Passover, whereas Sh’mini Atzeret, at the end of Succot, is a separate holiday from the rest of Succot.  Aside from that point, the author says he has already covered the material about resting on the seventh day of Passover in his discussion of resting on the first day of Passover.

Mitzvah #301 is exactly parallel to mitzvah #298.  The author uses this essay to explain why we celebrate two days on holidays when the Torah mandates only one day. And that gives him an opportunity to take his ongoing exploration of the role of doubt, safek, into new territory.

As we learned way back in mitzvah #4, the original method of setting the calendar was by having witnesses come to the Sanhedrin and testify that they had seen the new moon.  If that testimony was accepted, the Sanhedrin declared the beginning of a new month.  If that month contained a holiday, the exact date of that holiday was determined by implication from the determination of the beginning of the month.  The Sanhedrin knew to within a day when the new moon would appear so the actual choice was on which of two possible days the new moon would appear. In fact, the author says, if there was no sighting of the new moon the Sanhedrin would declare the new moon on the second of those two days anyway.

People who lived near Jerusalem would have no problem finding out on which day the new moon was officially recognized, and they could determine which day a holiday fell on based on that in plenty of time to observe the holiday properly.  Messengers were sent out from Jerusalem to make sure as many people as possible knew which day was the new moon and therefore which day the holiday fell on.  But in areas too far away for the messengers to reach timely, the people operated with a safek as to which of two possible days was the actual holiday.  Since this is a safek d’oraita, the people living in outlying areas observed both of the possible days as the holiday.

This history pertains to all holidays except Rosh haShannah.  Rosh haShannah takes place at the beginning of the month of Tishrei.  Even in Jerusalem people had no notice of which of the two possible days would be Rosh haShannah until it was too late.  So even if Jerusalem people kept both the two possible days for Rosh haShannah. 

Later, as the Sanhedrin’s functions deteriorated, a calendar was established as the basis for new moons and holidays.  In general that did not change things for people near Jerusalem.  They had always kept only one day.  Before they acted based on the Sanhedrin’s decision; now they acted based on the calendar.  For people farther away, once the calendar was established, the safek disappeared and everyone knew exactly which day was which.  People near Jerusalem also knew in advance exactly which day was Rosh haShannah, so in theory they might begin keeping only one day of Rosh haShannah rather than two.

But the practice of keeping two days in areas far from Jerusalem persisted, as did the practice of keeping Rosh haShannah for two days in and near Jerusalem.  This seems to be the persistence of a “minhag,” a practice that becomes binding over time.  The author says the minhag of keeping two days of holiday was reinforced by the rabbis.  Keeping two days was a long established practice that remained binding even when the reason for that practice dissipated.  This approach explains why people who live in areas where people used to get the news of the new moon promptly need not keep two days, but only keep one day as they did originally.  The questions of what constitutes a minhag, when and on whom it is binding, are complex and the author does not discuss them. 

This discussion provides yet another example of the impact of safek on halachah.  But the author takes us one step further.  He asks us to follow up the implications of all this for the newly laid egg we met in mitzvah #298.  Assume you live in a community far from Jerusalem when the Sanhedrin was still establishing each new month.  You would keep two day holidays out of safek.  That means you knew for sure that one of those two days was the holiday, but you didn’t know which one.  If an egg was laid on the first day of the holiday, according to Rabbah’s Torah rule about preparing on a weekday for holiday or Shabbat, the egg would have been “prepared” on the day before.  If that was a weekday, you should be able to eat the egg on the holiday.  If the egg was laid on the second day of the holiday, there are two possibilities.  Either the first day was in fact the holiday, in which case it is now a weekday and you should be able to eat the egg.  Or the second day is really the holiday, in which case the egg was prepared on the prior day, a weekday, and you should be able to eat it now.

Now consider the same analysis after the Sanhedrin stopped establishing the new months and we keep two days of holidays because the rabbis said we should maintain the practice of keeping two days.  The author says we treat that two day period as if it were one long day, one “period of holiness.”  In that case, the author says, an egg laid on the holiday cannot be eaten on the holiday.  The author does not specify why that is so, but he does note that there is something ironic about that result.  When holidays were kept for two days out of doubt, a newly laid egg could be eaten, whereas when holidays were kept for two days out of respect for the prior practice based on doubt, we end up with a stricter rule.  And, the author says, that goes too far.  The restrictions under current rules, based on the memory of how things were when the Sanhedrin declared new months cannot be more severe than the practice actually was during that period. 

The author’s discussion of keeping two days of holidays rather than one is a bit odd.  The author’s enterprise is to introduce us to all 613 Torah mitzvot and to give us the intellectual skills we need to continue our study of halachah at a more sophisticated level.  This essay is about how one example of a minhag operates, possibly in conjunction with halalchah d’rabanan.  Perhaps the author has some topics he wants to make sure he explains.