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
Introduction to Masechet Mo’ed Katan
Masechet Mo’ed Katan focuses mainly on the rules and regulations that apply to the days of Chol ha-Mo’ed – the intermediate days of the Pesach and Sukkot holidays. Connected with this discussion, other topics are dealt with as well, specifically the halakhot of avelut (mourning) and niduy (bans and excommunication).
At first glance, the connection between holidays and days of mourning seems to be odd, but, in fact, there are two clear connections between these events. First of all, there is a connection with regard to the halakhot that rule these days, and in particular the fact that similar activities are restricted on both of them. A more fundamental connection is the source for these halakhot. Chol ha-Mo’ed, aveilut and niduy are all mentioned briefly in the Torah, but the Torah does not offer details explaining the requirements of these days. Thus, the halakhot that govern them are mi-divrei soferim – they are developed by Rabbinic interpretation, part of the oral tradition – even though they have a Biblical source and were practiced in the Jewish community since the time of Moshe Rabbenu. Thus, these halakhot are not seen as objective, definitive rules like those of the Torah, rather they are pragmatic and flexible, like many Rabbinic laws.
We therefore find significant differences between the restrictions on creative activities on the different holiday periods:
- On Shabbat and Yom Kippur, all creative activities are forbidden – kol melakhah lo ta’asu.
- On Yom Tov, creative labor is forbidden – kol melekhet avodah lo ta’asu – but work done whose purpose is food preparation is permitted.
- On Chol HaMoed (and similarly, during the days of aveilut) there is no restriction on work in terms of the 39 categories of forbidden activities, rather what is forbidden is toil, which is defined by the strain and difficulty involved, as well as by the level of professional expertise necessary to perform the task. Moreover, even these rules are not absolute. They are subjective in the sense that if an activity is necessary for the holiday itself, or if significant loss would be incurred if the activity is not performed, then that activity would be permitted. As opposed to a regular weekday when all manner of work is permitted, on Hol ha-Mo’ed a person can only perform activities that in some way enhance or are connected to the holiday. This rule points to the fact that the restrictions on work are not meant to be objective, rather their purpose is to lend an element of uniqueness to the day – to set it apart as a day of celebration (or sadness, in the case of aveilut) – to separate it from the ordinary and mundane.
Who establishes what falls into the category of permissible activities on these days? Not the Torah, but the Sages of the Talmud. They are the ones who decide how to best keep the individual focused on the holiday – or on his mourning – even as they permit him to perform activities that are essential.
Today we know the name of this masechet as Mo’ed Katan, but in earlier times it was known simply as Mo’ed. The change took place in order to distinguish this tractate from Seder Mo’ed – the order of the Mishnah that deals with holiday-related issues, of which Mo’ed Katan is but a small part. Most of the rishonim called the tractate Mashkin, which is the first word of the masechet.
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 www.steinsaltz.org 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.