Masechet Mo’ed Katan 6a-12b

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15 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 6a-b

As noted earlier in this masechet, although many agricultural activities are forbidden on Chol HaMoed and during the Sabbatical year, those tasks that are essential for the ongoing upkeep of fields are permitted. One example presented in the last Mishnah on our daf (=page) is the need to destroy pests that would otherwise damage the plants and fields.

The example presented by the Mishnah is the need to trap ishut and akhbarim. The Gemara appears to know that akhbarim are mice. What are ishut? Rav Yehuda claims that they are creatures without eyes. Although this description sounds strange, it is actually not difficult to identify the animal discussed in the Mishnah. It is likely a type of spalax – a blind mole rat – and specifically the spalax eherenberg, which is the most common type found in Israel. This rodent, with a round body covered with gray fur, grows to a length of 12-25 centimeters.  Since its small eyes are covered by fur from birth, it is blind. This creature lives underground where it digs the burrows in which it lives. It eats the roots of plants and can do serious damage to produce.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that offers another example of a pest. Ants do occasionally damage crops, and it is necessary to destroy anthills in order to protect the field. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that the suggested method of controlling the ants is to bring a clod of earth from another field, place it on top of the existing anthill, and the ants will destroy one another. This method works because every anthill has a particular odor, which develops from the type of earth, the food that is brought in, the remains of dead ants, etc. Ants recognize one another based on this particular smell and from bodily secretions. When a “foreign” ant enters an anthill, he is taken for an enemy and is killed by the ants protecting their home.

Mo’ed Katan 7a-b

When we develop a skin condition today, our first response is to see a dermatologist. During Temple times, the correct reaction was to find a kohen whose job it was to evaluate whether a lesion was a nega tzara’at – the leprosy-like plague described by the Torah.

According to Rabbi Meir in the Mishnah, a person who suspected that he was suffering from tzara’at could visit a kohen on Chol HaMoed, but the kohen was only allowed to declare the nega to be healthy. If he found the person to be tamei – ritually defiled – he could only announce that after the holiday was over. The Chachamim rule that a kohen could not check potential nega’im until after the holiday was over.

The Torah describes tzara’at as a condition that could only be evaluated by a kohen. When a person would see a mark on his body that he suspected might be a nega tzara’at, he would show it to a kohen who decided whether the nega should be disregarded, watched, or declared to be tzara’at. Even in generations when kohanim were not expert in evaluating the nega’im, they played an essential role. The trained Rabbi who examined the spot would offer his opinion about whether the nega was actually tzara’at or not. In any case, the person remained tahor (ritually pure) until such time as the kohen – basing himself on the recommendation of the Rabbi – would declare the individual to be ritually impure.

These rules are unique. In contrast with other laws of tumah v’taharah, a nega tzara’at was not considered to be ritually impure solely based on the appearance of the lesion, but rather based on the statement of the kohen, which was essential. Without his statement, even a clear nega was not considered tamei, nor would a recovered metzorah (one stricken with tzara’at) be considered ritually pure without the Kohen’s official statement.

Since we are no longer certain who is truly a kohen, we no longer apply the rules of nega tzara’at as they are described in the Torah.

Mo’ed Katan 8a-b

We are all familiar with the Jewish burial practices of today. Jews take great care to treat the deceased with respect. The body is purified by special volunteers who clothe it in shrouds and place it in a simple wooden box (in Israel the body is usually buried in the ground without a box) so that the body can decompose, fulfilling the passage in Bereshit 3:19 – “for you are dust and to the dust you shall return.”

During the time of the Mishna the standard burial practice was different.  In those days, relatives placed the deceased in a burial cave, where the body was allowed to decompose for a year. After the year was over, the relatives would enter the cave and remove the bones, transferring them to the family burial cave for permanent interment.

In the Mishnah on our daf (=page), Rabbi Meir teaches that a person can gather his parents’ bones on Chol HaMoed to transfer them to their permanent resting place, since it is a joyous day for him. Rabbi Yossi argues that it is a day of mourning for the son and can thus not be scheduled for CChol HaMoed .

Rashi explains Rabbi Meir’s position based on the fact that it is a relief to the individual who successfully brings a relative to his/her final resting place in the family burial cave. The Yerushalmi, however, sees the joy of the occasion in seeing that the flesh has decomposed, which indicates that the person’s sins have been forgiven. The Ra’aviah suggests another approach – that the child is happy that the maggots are no longer gnawing on the flesh of his/her parents.

Rabbi Yossi’s position appears much simpler to understand. Seeing one’s parents’ bones would appear to be an obvious reason for sadness and mourning. Nevertheless, Rabbeinu Yehonatan suggests another explanation. According to him, seeing the bones reminds the child of his own impending death, which saddens him to the extent that it should not be done on CChol HaMoed .

Mo’ed Katan 9a-b

One activity that is forbidden on Chol HaMoed is a happy one. People are not allowed to get married on Chol HaMoed, because, as the Mishnah teaches on 8b, ein me’arvin simcha be-simcha – we are not supposed to mix one celebratory event with another.

The source for this concept that is suggested by the Gemara is the story of King Solomon’s consecration of the Temple, which took two weeks and ended prior to the Sukkot holiday (see I Melakhim 8:65). This is understood by the Gemara to indicate that Shlomo felt that he could not allow the festivities connected with the Temple to impinge on the festivities of Sukkot.

It is interesting to note that although King Solomon was not willing to celebrate on Sukkot, the celebrations did take place on Yom Kippur. The Gemara records that these celebrations included food and drink, because ein simha b’lo akhilah u’shetiyah (there is no joy without eating and drinking). This conclusion may be based on the fact that we find that establishing an altar includes the bringing of sacrifices and eating them (see Devarim 12:7, 27:7). Rabbi Parnakh quotes Rabbi Yohanan as teaching that the Jewish people feared for their lives, given that they did not fast as required on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes, a heavenly voice came from the heavens promising all of the participants that they would have a place in the World-to-Come.  This is based on I Melakhim 8:66, which teaches how the people all returned home joyous and happy.

The Gemara adds an explanation to the rule forbidding marriages on Yom Tov – that the preparations for the event are so involved that they will detract from the participants’ ability to fully enjoy the holiday. Thus, while Tosafot ask whether other types of celebrations should be forbidden on the holiday because ein me’arvin simha be-simha, the Ritva argues that only weddings, whose meals are so involved as to keep someone from being able to properly celebrate, cannot take place on Chol HaMoed; other festivities, however, would be permitted.

Mo’ed Katan 10a-b

Food preparation is permitted on Yom Tov, and certainly on Chol HaMoed. We are therefore not all that surprised to learn in the Mishnah that setting up a stove or an oven is permitted on Chol HaMoed. Similarly, the establishment of a grindstone in a mill is permitted, since producing flour for the holiday is permitted. Rabbi Yehudah limits this, in that he says ein mekhabshin et ha-reihayyim ba-tehillah – forbidding one le-khabesh the millstone.

Two suggestions are raised by the Gemara in an attempt to explain what mekhabshin means. According to Rav Yehuda it means to roughen the surface of a stone that has become smooth so that it will grind better. According to Rav Yechiel it means to make the hole in the center of the stone, in which the grain is placed for grinding.

The Ra’avad points out that it is not clear which explanation is the more surprising one. On the one hand, making the hole in the stone is the work of a trained craftsman, and we usually forbid such work on Chol HaMoed; on the other hand, even without the furrows, the millstone will work and successfully grind flour, albeit with some trouble, so fixing it on Chol HaMoed may be seen as unnecessary work on the holiday.

Millstones come in pairs. The base, or “bedstone,” is stationary. Above the bedstone is the turning “runner stone,” which actually does the grinding. Although there are many types of runner stones, depending on the type of mill, it is essential that this stone have a central hole into which the grain is poured so that it can be distributed between the two stones and crushed into flour.

In order for the stones to successfully grind the grain, furrows must be made in the stones so that the kernels of grain will get caught and crushed between the stones. Since these furrows can become worn down with time, it becomes necessary to chisel out new furrows in the stone.

Although most of us no longer work with millstones on a regular basis, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 540:8) rules in this case like the Tanna Kamma (=first) and permits both making a hole in the millstone and gouging out furrows on Chol HaMoed.

Mo’ed Katan 11a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Isidore Scheikowitz (2 Nissan).

In the previous chapter of Mo’ed Katan, we learned different reasons that a person might be allowed to engage in work on Chol HaMo’ed, among them the idea of davar ha-aved – when the individual would suffer a financial loss if the work was not performed at a specific time. In the second perek (=chapter), which begins on today’s daf (=page), the Gemara investigates when the rule of davar ha-aved should be applied. One question is how we define davar ha-aved. Is every case of financial loss enough to allow work on Chol HaMoed, or does the loss need to be a significant one? Furthermore, if a person creates a situation whereby he must work on Chol HaMoed or else he will suffer a loss, do we permit the work based on the fact that it is a davar ha-aved, or do we penalize him for his behavior?

Two other reasons for permitting work on Chol HaMoed are discussed in this perek:

  1. If a person is working for the community, and not for himself
  2. If a person is destitute and will not have anything to eat unless he works.

The first Mishnah in the perek offers a case of davar ha-aved that would permit agricultural work on Chol HaMoed. According to Rabbi Yehuda, a person who has already “turned his olives” but was unable to complete pressing the olives into oil (either because of some accident or because his workers did not appear as promised) is permitted to set the olive press and remove the first oil, which will minimize his losses, but he has to leave the rest until after the holiday. Rabbi Yossi permits such a person to complete the work in its entirety.

After the olive harvest, the olives are usually very hard and need to be softened before the oil can be removed. To accomplish this, the newly harvested fruit is first collected in a pile, where the olives become warm and soft.  The reasoning behind “turning the olives” is that they will become ruined if they get too hot, so it is necessary to occasionally turn them over. When they are sufficiently softened, they need to be processed, or else the harvest may go to waste.

Mo’ed Katan 12a-b

Once, Rav had his field harvested on Chol HaMoed , which upset Shmuel greatly. The Gemara rejects the possibility that Shmuel rules like the minority opinion, which forbids all work on Chol HaMoed , explaining that in Rav’s case it was a wheat field that could have been harvested a week later without any monetary loss.

If that were the case, however, why would Rav have allowed his field to be harvested?

The Gemara explains that this was a case of ein lo mah yokhal -that he had nothing to eat, so harvesting the field was essential to derive income, even on Chol HaMoed .
The Gemara further explains that when Shmuel objected, either he was not aware of the situation, or else he felt adam hashuv shani – that a prominent person is different and should not be involved with work on Chol HaMoed ,even if it is permitted according to the letter of the law.

Although the general approach of the commentaries is to understand that Rav was in a situation of ein lo mah yokhal, the Me’iri explains that this was a case where the workers had nothing to eat. The harvesters were hired by Rav, who sought to give them work so they could earn enough money to be able to eat, which is permissible even when one is not in a situation of monetary loss. According to this explanation, we can well understand Shmuel’s objection, for Rav could easily have arranged for someone else to find work for these people.

According to the standard approach – that Rav was in the situation of ein lo mah yokhal – it is unlikely that Rav had no money with which to purchase food; rather, he preferred to eat from his own produce than to purchase from someone else’s field. Shmuel felt that for a prominent person like Rav, this was not a good enough reason to harvest the field on Chol HaMoed. The Ritva considers the possibility that Rav truly did not have enough money to eat, but Shmuel felt that as a prominent person he should have chosen to take out a short-term loan rather than have his field worked on Chol HaMoed.

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.