Class Notes - Class #22

Mitzvot #313 – 317 are about Yom Kippur.  #314 mandates a mussaf sacrifice; we are already familiar with that material.

#315 prohibits doing m’lachah  on Yom Kippur and #317 requires that we rest on Yom Kippur.  All m’lachah is forbidden on Yom Kippur, not just m’lechet avodah.  The author explains that doing any kind of m’lachah would distract us from the serious focus on repentance.  Whatever is prohibited on Shabbat is also prohibited on Yom Kippur.  The author mentions two differences: 1. The punishment for doing m’lachah on Shabbat is death whereas the punishment for doing m’lachah on Yom Kippur is karet.  2.  In the late afternoon of Yom Kippur we may clean and trim vegetables so that something will be ready to eat as soon as the fast ends.  But Jews have been stringent and refrained from doing that preparation until Yom Kippur is over.

Mitzvot #313 and 316 deal with the special prohibitions of Yom Kippur. Our author explained his understanding of Yom Kippur in his essay on mitzvah #185 which prescribes the special sacrificial service for Yom Kippur.  God generously assigns one day a year for us to review our behavior and try to improve, lest we accumulate too much of a history of improper behavior.  In mitzvah/essay #313, the author connects that notion to fasting on Yom Kippur.  We refrain from some physical pleasures on Yom Kippur because the desire for physical pleasure can be a temptation to bad behavior.  Also, Yom Kippur is a moment of judgment, and someone ought not face judgment distracted by food and drink.

Many people are familiar with the traditional list of prohibitions: eating, drinking, washing, anointing with oil, wearing leather shoes and having sex.  Deriving those prohibitions from the words of the Torah and figuring out exactly what is prohibited d’oraita is more complicated than one might expect.

Look carefully at the source verses our author cites.  Lev. 23:27, the source verse for mitzvah #313, says that on Yom Kippur “you shall afflict your souls.”  That delineates a positive commandment: “afflict your souls.”  Lev. 23:32, the source verse for mitzvah #316, says that the soul of someone who fails to afflict his or her soul on Yom Kippur will be “nichretah,” “cut off.”  That verse would seem to delineate karet as the punishment for violating mitzvah #313.  Our author has taught us repeatedly that violation of positive mitzvot is not punishable and that negative mitzvot cannot be derived by implication from verses that specify a punishment.  The source verse for mitzvah #316 violates both these principles, and our author does not deal with that problem.  In Sefer haMitzvot, Negative Mitzvah #196, Rambam says that we infer a negative commandment; since the Torah mandates a punishment, there must be a negative mitzvah.  Rambam repeats a midrash halachah that derives a prohibition here by analogy to the language the Torah uses to prohibit on work on Yom Kippur.  

At this point we have identified a positive mitzvah to afflict our souls and a negative mitzvah that prohibits us from not afflicting our souls.  We need a definition of afflicting our souls.  The author cites the midrash halachah that we afflict ourselves by refraining from the life supporting activities of eating and drinking.  We refrain from eating and drinking even before Yom Kippur actually begins, since we extend the time to make sure we do not cut it too close and eat or drink on Yom Kippur itself. 

The status of the other prohibitions we mentioned above is less clear.  The author cites the midrash halachah for the notion that those other activities are prohibited, but this is derived from the repeated language “shabbat shabbaton,” language that appears to be about prohibited m’lachah.  Later in mitzvah/essay #313 the author says that these prohibitions are rabbinic and not Biblical.  In mitzvah/essay #316, the relevant negative mitzvah, our author says that that mitzvah prohibits “eating and drinking.”  Although there is some ambiguity, it seems our author thinks the other prohibitions we mentioned earlier are rabbinic rather than Biblical.

There are also exceptions to the rabbinic prohibitions on washing and anointing with oil.  Specifically, washing and anointing are prohibited only when they are not needed.  One may wash dirt off him or herself, or go through water to get from place to place in order to protect food or do a mitzvah, or anoint to treat skin lesions.  The author also explains that only wearing shoes made of leather is prohibited.  That is related to the question of what type of shoe is appropriate for use in the halitzah ceremony. (Note this instance of one area of halachah being dependent on an apparently unrelated area of halachah.) One may wear shoes make out of other materials, but authorities disagree about whether wearing those shoes is considered “carrying” since they do not function well as footwear and one might be tempted to just take them off.

We have seen before that typically, when a mitzvah prohibits eating something, we are prohibited from eating any of that substance but are only punishable if we eat at least a k’zayit, the volume of an olive.  Mitzvah #316, the negative mitzvah prohibiting eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, sounds like it should be governed by that same standard.  But the source for the positive mitzvah #313, which requires us to “afflict our souls”, is also relevant and turns out to be the source of a different standard.  We suggested earlier that a k’zayit was an approximation of a bite, the minimal unit of “eating.”  But our author says that refraining from eating one bite of food is not enough to “afflict our souls.”  Rather, the minimum amount one has to eat on Yom Kippur in order to be punishable is larger, a large date.   The author says the amount one has to drink on Yom Kippur to be punishable is a cheek-full.

The author includes a discussion of how different volume measures we have seen in various mitzvot relate to each other.  Two olives equal the volume of one egg.  (That would tend to indicate the volume of an egg is less than the volume of an egg we would typically buy at the supermarket.)  The volume of a large date is greater than an olive and less than an egg.  The author says experts have established these various volume measures in terms of an “argent,” a coin probably containing substantial amounts of silver.

Our author gives us guidelines about when an ill person should eat and drink on Yom Kippur.  Someone who is so ill that there is danger of death should eat and drink on Yom Kippur.  The person eats as much as the doctor thinks is needed or as much as the sick person thinks is needed, whichever is larger.  The author does not give a clear definition of what is meant by “danger of death.”  Someone who is frail but not in danger of death should eat and drink in a way that avoids the threshold for what is punishable on Yom Kippur.  The person eats a little bit at a time in servings less than the size of a large date.  The person should wait between each serving long enough so that the small servings do not aggregate into a larger serving, that is the person waits long enough for someone to eat half a pita, an amount equivalent to three eggs. We have seen the standard for that waiting time earlier.  We are also permitted to measure the amounts; normally making precise measurements is forbidden on Shabbat, but that prohibition is rabbinic and does not apply here.  The author does not give a definition of “frail.”

The author also lists questions for further study, mostly about who may eat on Yom Kippur.  He mentions a healthy person who is suddenly feeling ill: a pregnant woman who is seized by a craving after smelling the aroma of food, or someone who is suddenly taken with ravenous hunger.  (That last case may be low blood sugar.)  He discusses various opinions about when children should be encouraged to fast in Yom Kippur in practice for adult obligations.

Finally, the author explains that the behaviors prohibited on Yom Kippur are also prohibited on Tisha b’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of both Temples and other tragedies of Jewish history.  (The prohibitions here are the special prohibitions of Yom Kippur, not the prohibition on m’lachah.)  The author also compares the fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av to other fasts and to special fasts declared in times of drought.  The prohibitions of Tisha b’Av are entirely rabbinic, and our author knows that discussing Tisha b’Av is outside the structure of his work, but he discusses it anyway.


Mitzvot #318 – 325 govern Succot.  As the author explains in mitzvah/essay #323, what we think of as Succot is really two holidays: days one through seven are Succot, and day eight is Shmini Atzeret.  That works just fine where each holiday is celebrated for only one day.  Prayers that mention the name of the holiday refer to “shmini hag ha’atzeret” on the eighth day rather than referring to Succot.  But in places where holidays are extended to two days, things on day eight are a little confusing.  According to the practice of observing two days, that day is the last day of Succot, but Biblically that day is Shmini Atzeret.  (Then day nine would be observed as the “second” day of Shmini Atzeret.)  Now that we actually determine holidays based on the calendar, we know that day eight is Shmini Atzeret and not Succot.  Our prayers on that day refer to it as “shmini hag ha’atzeret.”  We do not refer to it as both Succot and Shmini Atzeret, as biblically the day cannot be both; it must be one or the other.  That is different from a holiday that falls on Shabbat, where our prayers designate the day as both holiday and Shabbat.  Identifying the day as Shabbat does not contradict identifying the day as a holiday, whereas identifying day eight as Succot does contradict identifying that day as Shmini Atzeret.  However, we can perfectly well eat in a succah on day eight, since someone might decide to picnic in a succah on any given day, and the author says that is what we should do.  He reminds us, though, not to recite a blessing that would imply the day was actually Succot and not Shmini Atzeret.           

            Several of these mitzvot cover familiar material.  #320 requires a specific mussaf sacrifice for each day of Succot, and #322 requires a specific mussaf sacrifice on Shmini Atzeret.  #318 requires resting on the first day of Succot, and #321 requires resting on Shmini Atzeret.  #319 prohibits m’lechet avodah on the first day of Succot, and #323 prohibits m’lechet avodah on Shmini Atzeret.  In mitzvah/essay #321 the author explains that, although mitzvot to rest on specified holidays are positive mitzvot triggered at a certain time, women are nevertheless obligated because doing m’lechet avodah on those holidays also violates negative mitzvot.

In mitzvah/essay #323, the author explains what is forbidden on hol hamoed, the intermediate days of Succot and Passover.  He gives two opinions about the level of halachic authority of these prohibitions. There is no specific source verse that prohibits work on hol hamoed.  The author briefly summarizes several possible ways of reading Biblical verses that might be the source for these prohibitions.  None of them seem to be a straight forward interpretation of Biblical verses.  At the end of the essay, the author says that Ramban thinks there is a Torah prohibition on some kind of work and that it was up to the rabbis to decide what activities to prohibit.  The author says at the end of the essay that Rambam thinks the entire prohibition is rabbinic.  Rambam does not list it as a separate mitzvah, and our author discusses it in the mitzvah that prohibits m’lechet avodah on Shmini Atzeret.  Rambam still has to account for the Biblical interpretations that Ramban relies on for the source of the prohibitions.  According to our author, Rambam thinks those interpretations as “asmachta.”  An asmachta is a mnemonic the rabbis formulate; they associate rabbinic legislation with Biblical verses as a way to make the rabbinic legislation more memorable.

The opinion that the Torah leaves it up to the rabbis to determine what activities should be permitted and what activities should be prohibited leads to an odd situation:  activities that the rabbis chose to prohibit are prohibited d’oraita.  But since determining the meaning of Biblical law was also something the rabbis did, the situation is not as unusual as it would seem.

Nor is it clear exactly what activities are forbidden on hol hamoed.  There are some general principles about what activities are forbidden and permitted on hol hamoed.  

1.        The days before a holiday are busy with preparations for the holiday, and people are tempted to leave whatever jobs they can for hol hamoed.  But the rabbis thought that the purpose of hol hamoed was to provide people with time to devote to holiday purposes and Torah study.  Thus, the rabbis forbade our doing any work on hol hamoed that we purposely put off for that time.

2.      In general, we should avoid difficult, burdensome work on hol hamoed.

3.      We may do work to avoid significant financial loss even if that involves difficult, burdensome work.  Thus, one may harvest ripe crops that will deteriorate if they are not harvested promptly; one may press grapes or olives if the fruit will deteriorate if not pressed promptly.  One may irrigate crops that need regular irrigation, although in that case one must avoid irrigating with pond or rain water, where the water needs to be transported in order to use it.  Rather, one should irrigate with spring water that has been channeled to flow to the field on its own, so as to avoid difficult, burdensome work.

4.      An unskilled worker may do necessary work as best he or she can whereas a skilled worker must do the task in an unusual way that does not involve doing the work the best possible way.  For example, a skilled tailor must sew in an irregular way, whereas someone not skilled in sewing may sew the best he or she can.  The author suggests that the same is true of writing.  He says he asked whether he could write in his usual way and was told he should not.  Although the author does not say who he asked, the translator points out that there is a responsum of ibn Aderet that reaches that result.

5.      Someone who does not have money to buy food may work on hol hamoed to earn money for food.  If the person has a house or goods he or she could sell and use the proceeds to buy food, the person may still work on hol hamoed.  

But the author explains that the most general rule about what we may or may not do during hol hamoed is that there is no rule.  The rules are detailed and complex because the rules are not the result of conceptual analysis but rather are a list generated by the rabbis.  Some strenuous, difficult activities are permitted and others are prohibited.    These rules are similar to the rabbinic prohibitions of Shabbat, which are also not entirely conceptually consistent.

            Mitzvah #325 requires dwelling in a succah on Succot.  It reminds us that God cared for the Jews in the desert after the Jews left Egypt, either by protecting them with the clouds of glory or, alternatively, by providing the huts the Jews lived in. Either way, when we recall how God cared for the Jews then, we will be inspired to observe mitzvot.

            Since dwelling in a succah is a positive mitzvah applying at a specific time it obligates men but not women.  “Dwelling” in the succah means eating and sleeping there.  A man who sleeps elsewhere, even to take a nap, or eats a regular meal elsewhere, violates this positive mitzvah.  And by Torah law a man is obligated to eat a k’zayit of bread in a succah on the first night of Succot.  After that, if a man wants to eat only snacks rather than regular meals, he may eat outside the succah.  Our author notes that some were strict on themselves and did not eat outside a succah at all.

But the obligations to eat and sleep in the succah only apply if the succah is a comfortable place.  If someone is sick, or someone finds it painful to eat and sleep in the succah, or if it is raining, the obligation to dwell in the succah does not apply.  Even someone who is attending a sick person is exempt from eating and sleeping in a succah.

            The author devotes most of this essay to details about how to build and use a succah, and he echoes material found in the early chapters of Mishnayot Succah.  The succah must cover an area at least seven by seven handbreadths, or about 30 by 30 inches.  Anything smaller is too small for someone to eat or sleep.  The author says it needs to have three walls and a rudimentary door, at least door posts and a top bar.  As the translator points out, that is an imprecise description of the minimum requirements for the succah walls.  The succah has to be at least ten handbreadths high, about forty inches, but no more than twenty cubits high, about thirty feet.  What makes a succah distinctive, though, is its roof, which must be made of plant material and in a form not susceptible to becoming tamei.  It should be obvious from our earlier discussions of tumah and taharah that figuring out what qualifies is complicated.  There has to be enough roofing so that it creates more shade than direct sun inside the succah, although the roofing can be so thick it might be almost comparable to a real roof.

            Working with this basic definition, the author mentions several close cases.  Although a tree still growing from the ground cannot be part of the roofing material, can a live tree be part of a succah wall?  Does the succah have to be on the ground, or can a succah be built on a cart of boat?  Can one make a succah by putting appropriate roofing on a pre-existing architectural feature?  (If I remember right, Young Israel of Greenfield used to create a succah by laying roofing over the space between two “temporary” building extensions.)  What if not all of the roofing is made of qualified material, or if there are gaps in the roofing?   What if there is a horizontal barrier between the roofing and the person in the succah?  For example, what if someone builds one succah on top of another succah, or the person is sleeping in a canopy bed, or is sleeping under a bed, of is sitting under a sun umbrella, or spreads a tarp to keep debris from falling into the succah, or puts up a decorative horizontal sheet?

            Our author mentions other interesting cases.  If a succah is made of stolen materials or built on stolen land, is it still a valid succah?  What if dwelling in a succah is inconvenient because one is travelling or doing guard duty for a town or a farm?  If someone built a succah for some other purpose, for example as an animal shelter or to provide shade for an agricultural watchman,or if someone who need not dwell in a succah builds a succah, is that still a succah?  The author gives answers to some of these cases; see if you can figure out how those answers work.     

Mitzvah #324 mandates the ritual of the four species.  We take samples of four different plant parts and wave them in each of six directions (north, south, east, west, up and down.) This mitzvah applied in the Temple on each of the seven days of Succot.  Outside the Temple the Torah mitzvah applies only on the first day of Succot.   After the Temple was destroyed, the practice of taking the four species on each of the seven days of Succot was instituted as a remembrance of Temple practice.

            By way of shoresh, the author returns to a theme we have seen before: our character is built based on the actions we do.  God gives us many mitzvot to provide many different opportunities for us to improve our character.  Our author looks for ways in which doing the ritual of the four species on Succot might mold our character.  Succot celebrates God’s loving care of the Jews who left Egypt and ended up stranded in the desert.  But Succot also comes at the end of the harvests that have been ongoing since spring.  If the harvests were plentiful, people are feeling ecstatic and relieved.  In their joy, they might miss that the plentiful harvest was a manifestation of God’s loving care.  A ritual mitzvah that uses various plant products might help remind people of the appropriate gratitude.  Our author suggests this is parallel to t’fillin.  T’fillin are worn on the head, near the brain, and on the upper arm, near the heart, organs associated with intelligence.  That is a ritual reminder that our deeds should be righteous and honest.

            Our author cites another interpretation of the four species, and associates each type of plant with a different part of the human body.  The etrog resembles the heart; the lulav resembles the spine; the myrtle resembles the eyes; the willow resembles the lips.  That is a reminder that each of us should serve God with each of our faculties.  We should direct our intelligence toward serving God, keep our service of God straight and upright, not follow our eyes into temptation, and make sure everything we say is appropriate.

            The author also speculates on why the message of the four species is a mitzvah specific to Succot.  On Passover, we are not celebrating the harvest, and we have many other rituals that convey important messages.  Shavuot celebrates the revelation, and that message stays unadorned with ritual lest we be distracted from it.  But Succot does celebrate the harvest, and is a good time for a reminder of our need to direct our behavior carefully.  Even though Shmini Atzeret is also a joyous holiday, it is not part of Succot. Rather, it reflects the desire at the end of the holiday season for closeness between God and the Jews, and therefore it needs no extra ritual.  The author ends his explanation of the shoresh for the ritual of the four species and how it fits with the annual cycle of holidays with the observation that he mystical tradition has its own wondrous explanations for this mitzvah.

            Our author describes exactly what we need for each of the four species.  He says that the four species are m’akev to each other; that all four are necessary, and that someone who tries to do this mitzvah with fewer than the required four accomplishes nothing.  However, one succeeds in doing the mitzvah by taking the four species in series rather than all bundled together.

            Our author also mentions cases where it is not clear if someone fulfilled this mitzvah because there is a question about who owns the relevant objects.  What if the etrog is owned jointly by two people?  What if someone died and his or her etrog is inherited by several heirs?  The author seems to imply, without saying so, that someone can only do this mitzvah if that person owns the four species used to do the mitzvah.