Beitzah 2

Science and Health

Regarding an egg that was laid on a festival:

Beit Shammai say it may be eaten.

Beit Hillel say it may not be eaten.

Welcome to Tractate Beitzah (literally: egg). The tractate is named for this opening mishnah which presents three disputes between Hillel and Shammai, including this one about whether an egg laid on a festival may be consumed. The disputes have two things in common: (1) In each of them, Shammai is (uncharacteristically) more lenient than Hillel. (2) They deal with questions of festival observance.

This tractate also sometimes goes by a more descriptive title: Yom Tov — literally, “good day,” meaning any festival day on which work is prohibited. These festival days include the first and last days of Passover, Shavuot, both days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (though, as we saw in Tractate Yoma, this is really its own special category of festival), the beginning of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The labor prohibitions of festivals will be our subject now for the next 39 pages.

If you joined us on our journey through Tractates Shabbat and Eruvin, you will recall that the Torah prohibits labor on Shabbat, but is a little fuzzy in the details, despite stating a few verboten activities (lighting a fire and gathering sticks, for example). The rabbis solved much of this ambiguity by creating a concrete definition of forbidden labor based on 39 primary categories of work, which are themselves derived from the labors required to build the tabernacle in the wilderness. As is often the case though, the devil is in the details, which is why Tractates Shabbat and Eruvin offered us over 250 pages of discussion.

And now we’re back — sort of. Instead of discussing Shabbat’s work prohibition, we’re discussing the prohibition against working on festival days. This, too, comes from the Torah: You shall do no occupational work. (Leviticus 23:7, Numbers 29:1 and elsewhere). But the Torah’s prohibition on festival labor is apparently lighter. For one, the Torah prohibits not melachah (“labor”) but m’lechet avodah (“occupational labor”). For another, there is an apparent exemption for labor required to prepare food (Exodus 12:16). Finally, the Torah does not prescribe death as the punishment for violating a festival, as it does for Shabbat (Exodus 35:2).

Why, though, would some rabbis think it is forbidden to eat an egg laid on a festival? After all, it’s the chicken that did the “work,” not us. The concern here is that of muktzeh, one of the trickier concepts in the suite of Shabbat and festival prohibitions. Objects that are designated muktzeh, which means “set aside,” are not supposed to be touched or moved on a holy day. The sages disagree about what exactly constitutes muktzeh, but it includes several categories. Objects that are used for forbidden labor, like a sewing needle or a pen, are one example. These objects may not be touched because they might tempt us into performing prohibited labor. There are also objects that are muktzeh because they are disgusting (this kind of muktzeh is not obviously connected to the work prohibition). And some objects are muktzeh because they came into existence on the day on which labor is forbidden — such as an egg that is laid on a festival. But there is widespread disagreement about much of this framework.

This tractate jumps into the discussion of festival prohibitions at the deep end. The first page, and the second, subjects this debate between Hillel and Shammai to rigorous scrutiny. About what exactly do they disagree? Is it the type of chicken that lays the egg? Or whether the egg is even muktzeh at all? And where does the law actually stand?

As we move through this 39-page tractate, and the sages debate the various details distinguishing Shabbat labor prohibitions from festival labor prohibitions, sometimes they offer comments that signal larger concerns, as they do on this very first page:

Shabbat is stringent and therefore people will not come to treat it with contempt … but a festival is lenient and therefore people will (more likely) come to treat it with contempt.

Will the less stringent prohibitions on a festival, not to mention the less stringent punishment attached to violation, lead Israel to believe it is unimportant and treat it with contempt? Hopefully not. After all, festivals are not just about hewing to a strict list of work prohibitions. A primary commandment on festivals is to rejoice, as Deuteronomy 16:14–15 has it: You shall rejoice in your festival … you shall be only joyful. This, too, is a priority for the rabbis as they explore and define the rules for festival days.

Read all of Beitzah 2 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 2nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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