Learning halacha can be tricky, as it often seems to devolve into a complicated laundry list of “do this” and “don’t do that.” If we haven’t studied the background in depth, some of the details can seem kind of weird. Does it really matter how many handbreadths wide my sukkah is or how low my decorations hang? If I have to drink on Yom Kippur – one ounce every nine minutes? Really? Okay, whatever, that’s random.
Except it’s not random. When we do study in a little more depth, those same picayune details can be mind-blowing, sometimes precisely in the simplicity of their explanations.
Those shot glasses every nine minutes on Yom Kippur? That’s because the specific Torah requirement on Yom Kippur is not about “eating,” but about “affliction.” We are instructed to afflict ourselves, and refraining from eating and drinking is only one of several ways Rabbinic tradition determined we achieve that affliction. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t eat at all on Yom Kippur, not even one bite. But in an imperfect situation, where someone’s health is at risk if they don’t eat – but they don’t need full meals – we turn back to the roots of the commandment and the definition of “affliction”: How much can I eat and still technically feel “afflicted?” While it might be easy to say “just don’t eat,” or on the flip side, “you can’t fast, so don’t” – or, perhaps, “whatever, just take one bite, it’s not a big deal” – if we pay careful attention to those picayune details, we find that we can eat our cake (or, you know, something more nutritious) and “fast” on Yom Kippur, too. Not because “it’s one bite, what’s the big deal?” – every bite does actually count – but because that one bite is defined differently from a full meal.
I did the shot glass thing once, for the sake of a nursing baby who was struggling to grow, and it was a beautifully technical-halachic experience. I felt fine, but not really comfortable. I internalized the difference between eating for sustenance and eating for satisfaction. I was able to appreciate the significance and necessity of those dry Talmudic analyses and definitions in my very real, meaningful, human life.
(It’s at this point that I must insert the following disclaimer, which can’t be emphasized enough: Always consult with a doctor in the case of any concern about fasting, and remember that every situation is different.)
One of my favorite examples of this nuance comes from the laws of Sukkot. Not just the rules about construction of the sukkah, though those can get overwhelmingly and fascinatingly and meaningfully detailed too, but the rules about what and when to eat in it – or not.
We’re supposed to eat in the sukkah for seven days, right? But what if it’s raining or otherwise uncomfortable? What if I just want a quick bite?
It would be easy to simply say “eat in the sukkah means eat in the sukkah; who cares how you feel about it?” or “oh, well, if it’s uncomfortable then you shouldn’t have to go crazy” or “oh, one quick bite isn’t a big deal; just eat it in the house!”
Except that in halacha, everything is kind of a big deal, and we kind of do make ourselves…well, not crazy, hopefully, but certainly attentive and careful about a great many things. So how do we decide when it’s okay to eat outside a sukkah? Is it ever okay?
The Shulchan Aruch, of course, says yes. For instance, Orach Chaim 639:2 states, “We eat and drink…in the sukkah all seven [days]… but it is permitted to eat achilat arai [insubstantial, or non-meal, food] outside the sukkah.”
Why is that okay? The easy answer would be that achilat arai is just not a big deal, so halacha doesn’t care where you do it. And indeed, a glance at the first few words of the Mishna Berurah (s.k. 12) might seem to support that: “For this is not important.” However, as I frequently remind my students, we always have to keep reading; at the very least, let the man finish his sentence! What the Mishna Berurah actually says is: “For this is not important, to obligate him in sukkah, because even with his house, it is common that one would eat arai outside of his house.”
What does that mean?
Just like we returned to the base Torah rule for Yom Kippur to determine the halacha in particular situations, we do the same with sukkah. As it turns out, there is no Torah law to “eat in the sukkah” (except perhaps the first night); our eating in the sukkah is simply one fulfillment of the law to dwell in the sukkah for seven days. Chazal (see Sukkah 26a, with Tosfot) define that law through the principle “Teishvu – k’ein taduru”: “dwelling” means in the sukkah whatever it means regularly in one’s house. As the Shulchan Aruch puts it, one must “…live in the sukkah all the seven days…the same way he lives in his house on the other days of the year.” People snack outside their houses even in a society in which meals are only eaten sitting down at home, so snacking can be done outside a sukkah (i.e., in one’s house) as well.
(Disclaimer #2: Consult your preferred halachic authority before implementing anything I say about practical halacha. Maybe about anything. Ever.)
The reason this example is so powerful to me is precisely because of the way my understanding of the halachic exception changed as I read the Mishna Berurah’s full comment. That shift, from seeming to say “it’s not important” to actually saying “it’s not considered to be in the relevant halachic category,” highlighted for me the difference between playing fast and loose with halacha on our own terms, versus submitting to a carefully-defined halacha on its terms.
We find the same sort of definitional nuance when it comes to a situation of “mitzta’er,” one who is too uncomfortable to stay in the sukkah because of weather, bugs, or other conditions. Other than the first night (ahem, disclaimer…), one who is mitzta’er in the sukkah may eat in the house (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 640:4) – not because it’s unreasonable to expect someone to observe the mitzvah in those conditions, but because that is the mitzvah. As the Mishna Berurah explains there: “For we require k’ein taduru, and even during the rest of the year, a person will not live in a place where he is mitzta’er.” People don’t eat in their houses when the roof is leaking on them or cockroaches start joining them at the table, so we don’t have to eat in the sukkah in those conditions.
It’s not that our subjective experience overrides halacha, that some things are less important or more important than halacha. On the contrary, that is the halacha – and it’s found in those details of textual analysis.
I once read an article that claimed “we must be human beings before we are Jews.” The writer implied she felt that we sometimes place too high a premium on rules and details, and not enough on the subjective human experience. Her words got me thinking about Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and so many other cases in which all those rules and details actually take the subjective human experience into careful consideration, and sometimes arrive at the same conclusion she would. The difference is that we get there through objective analysis of our sacred texts, rather than setting ourselves above the texts. We don’t say “I know best and will determine when to apply the text or not,” but we often say “I need to understand this text better so I can apply it to my situation.” Certainly, there are things we don’t get to do that we want to do, because we choose to subject ourselves to halacha – but halacha is not the dry, unsympathetic system it might sometimes appear to be.
One final example, returning to the question of eating on Yom Kippur: Why is it ever okay to eat anything on Yom Kippur? Because sometimes one’s life depends on it, of course; we violate almost any mitzvah for the sake of a life. This principle is so ingrained in us that it seems self-evident – but is it? If we can approach the question without any pre-conceived ideas: Where do we actually get the right to say our health comes before G-d’s command? Indeed, some people are innately uncomfortable with the very idea, and go to great lengths to observe all details of halacha regardless of the circumstances and even at great personal risk – even though that’s rarely the actual halachic requirement. On the flip side, others might feel free to simply react, “no way am I going to keep a mitzvah that puts someone’s life in danger!” Jewish tradition arrives at the same conclusion as the latter, but not through subjective human values. Instead, we learn it from a pasuk: “Keep My laws… which a person will do and live by them; I am G-d” (Vayikra 18:5). “Live by them” – but not die by them (Sanhedrin 74a). Even this most fundamental principle, the overriding value of life, has to come from a pasuk – but not to worry, because come from a pasuk it does.
The careful analysis of details of text, all the seemingly random, picayune details – it all adds up to a halachic system that carefully weighs the details of human experience and offers a reasoned, sourced framework for halachic living through it all. From the smallest bite to the biggest moment of potential self-sacrifice, everything has meaning. Nothing is random; the divine is in the details.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.