Masechet Mo’ed Katan 2a-4b

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08 Mar 2007

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, The Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan


Mo’ed Katan 2

The intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot – the days of Chol ha-Mo’ed – are difficult to define. While not fully days of Yom Tov, neither are they regular days of the week. This necessitates establishing halakhic boundaries that will guide us in our activities on those days. As we will learn in this perek, the Sages work to find a system of laws that will clarify what types of activities are forbidden and which are permissible so that the holiness and uniqueness of Chol ha-Mo’ed can be kept. One of the ways of establishing these rules is by comparison to the halakhot that are found in parallel settings, for example, agricultural work that is forbidden or permitted during the Sabbatical year (shemitta).

The first Mishnah in the masechet discusses types of work that are not all that common in our day-and-age but which were basic to the needs of the farmer. When can fields be watered on Chol ha-Mo’ed or during the shemitta year, times when agricultural work is generally forbidden, but activities that are done to sustain the field and to keep the produce from getting ruined would be permissible? The Mishnah teaches that fields that cannot be sustained by rainfall and need to receive water from some type of irrigation, can be watered, so long as the method of watering is a fairly easy one. Thus, a plentiful water source like a well can be used, but rain water or mei kilon cannot.

Many explanations are offered for the term mei kilon that appears in the Mishnah. The Arukh and the Ran suggest that a kilon is a deep ditch from which water will have to be collected by bucket to water the field. The Ri”f and the Ritva explain that the word kilon means a bucket, and is taken from the Aramaic kulta. Another approach suggests that kilon is a Greek word, which describes a method of raising water from a river or irrigation ditch by means of a long stick.

Mo’ed Katan 3

Just like the laws of Shabbat have Avot (primary activities that are forbidden) and Toladot (secondary activities – see Masechet Shabbat), similarly the laws of shemitta have both Avot and Toladot. The Avot are the agricultural activities that are specifically listed in the Torah (see Vayikra 25:4-5) as being forbidden during the Sabbatical year, primarily activities of planting, pruning and harvesting.

The baraita that is quoted by our Gemara lists various activities that are considered Toladot, but the conclusion is that these Toladot are only Rabbinic in nature, and are, therefore, not punishable. What is included in the Toladot? Among them we find –

MekarseminThe accepted definition of kirsum is the removal of dry branches, which Rashi points out is identical to zemirah (pruning), although zemirah is specific to grape vines. Another suggestion is that it refers to the removal of excess branches by methods other than pruning.

MezardinRabbi Yechiel mi-Paris’ student suggests that this is the removal of branches from a tree so that the tree will grow thicker; the anonymous perush (commentary) on Mo’ed Katan says that it is the removal of extra roots.

MefasginRashi explains this to mean supporting weak branches of the tree (from the word pisgah – height – that is, to lift up); the Ran suggests that it is tying up the branches to help the tree grow; the Me’iri teaches that it is the removal of branches.

Mefarkin: Rashi understands that this means removing stones that are weighing down the roots of a tree; the Me’iri suggests that it is the removal of excess leaves.

Me’ashninSmoking the trees was done with either regular smoke or sulfur smoke, and its purpose is the same as current practice – as a pesticide that kills the insects and other destructive elements on the leaves and the fruit.

Mo’ed Katan 4

Although there are many restrictions on agricultural work on Hol ha-Mo’ed, work that is done for the needs of the holiday is permitted. For example, a person is allowed to water his field so that vegetables will grow and be ready to be eaten on the holiday, but if they are ready for harvest and are being watered to make them better, they cannot be watered. Rashi explains the latter case to be that they are being watered so that they will grow more and fetch a better price at the market after the holiday. Others forbid even watering them so that they will look nicer, which is not essential for eating them on Yom Tov.

To illustrate this story, the Gemara tells of Ravina and Rabbah Tosfa’ah who were walking together on Hol ha-Mo’ed and saw someone who was watering his vegetable garden. Rabbah Tosfa’ah called on Ravina to place the person under a ban for performing a forbidden activity on Hol ha-Mo’ed. Ravina responded that the person was undoubtedly watering them so that they will be eaten on the holiday, which the baraita teaches is permitted. Although Rabbah Tosfa’ah wanted to interpret the baraita differently, Ravina insisted that this was the correct interpretation of the baraita, and his colleague conceded that it is permitted.

Rabbah Tosfa’ah was one of the last of the Amoraim, and he participated in the editing of the Talmud. Although we find a number of his rulings in the Gemara, since he was one of the last of the Amoraim, few of his teachings remain. As we see evident in the above story, he was a student of Ravina; after the passing of Mar bar Rav Ashi, he headed the academy in Sura for a period of six years. Some suggest that his nickname “Tosfa’ah” stems from his encyclopedic knowledge of the Tosefta, while others think that it is the name of the city that was his home. Another likely possibility connects it with his word in adding material and editing the final version of the Gemara. Rav Sherira Gaon records that he passed away in the year 474 CE.

Mo’ed Katan 5

In the first Mishna in Masechet Mo’ed Katan (2a ) we are taught that Chol ha-Mo’ed was a time during which a series of activities took place for the betterment of public facilities. These public works projects include a number of tasks that follow or prepare for the rainy season – for example, clearing the roads and mikva’ot and marking graves so that the people who are coming to bring sacrifices will not, inadvertently, become ritually defiled by contact with a grave and be unable to enter the Temple .

The Gemara on our daf (page) asks for a source for the practice of marking graves, and brings a passage from the prophet Yechezkel (39:15 ) that describes the calamity of the war of Gog and Magog, and how it will take seven months for all of the dead to be properly buried so that the land of Israel will once again be tahor (ritually pure). The prophet describes the method that is to be used to carefully mark the graves, bone by bone.

This source for the halakha that graves must be marked (see Rambam , Hilkhot Tum’at Met 8:9) is introduced as a remez – a hint – to the law, rather than as the actual source. Given the clarity of the story in Yechezkel, many of the commentaries ask why the passage is only considered a remez.

From Rashi it appears that since it is not presented as an obligation, but rather as a story, it cannot be considered a true source.
Tosafot suggest that the story can only be considered a hint to the halakhah because it is a description of an event that will take place “at the end of days.” Such a story cannot be the source for a present day halakhic obligation.

It should be noted that the Yerushalmi presents this as a true source text, not simply as a remez. In fact, it is not uncommon to find the Bavli discounting a source unless it appears in the chamisha chumshei Torah (the Five Books of Moses), while the Yerushalmi accepts other sources from Tanah as well.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.