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From Parsha to Halakha: Bo Okhel nefesh: Food prep on festivals

Shevat 5784 | January 2024


“Milekhet avoda”[1]

While Shabbat is historically first, the Jewish People’s first encounter with sanctified time was yom tov (festivals). Before Israel left Egypt, God commanded them to observe Pesach: “And the first day shall be consecrated (mikra kodesh) and the seventh day shall be declared sanctified for you.”[2] The mitzvah to observe yom tov on the first and last days of the festival includes the prohibition against doing work, with the caveat: “But what every person eats, that alone you may make for yourselves.”[3] This verse, which brings the prohibition and its exception, allows for exceptions to the prohibition of melakha (creative work) when the final product is the food people will eat on that day.

When Sefer Vayikra discusses the festivals this exception is worded differently. For example, on the Festival of Matzot (colloquially called Pesach or Passover) we’re commanded: “The first day shall be declared sanctified for you, you shall not perform any milekhet avoda (servile creative work).”[4] These verses focus on the procedure, not the product; on Shabbat and Yom Kippur “kol melakha,” “all creative work” is forbidden, but on the sanctified days of the festivals we call yom tov, only “milekhet avoda,” “servile creative work” is forbidden – indicating that there are melakhot that are permitted on yom tov and forbidden on Shabbat.[5]

“Makhshirei okhel nefesh” Preparations to prepare food for the day

As is often the case when the Torah describes the same subject from multiple points of view, there’s some dispute as to which one is authoritative. Here the question is whether we’re only permitted to do certain melakhot in order to prepare food or whether any melakha for food prep is permitted. For example, in this case Rabbi Yehuda and the chakhamim (the sages in the mishna) dispute whether “makhshirei okhel nefesh,” “preparations for food prep” are permitted.[6] Rabbi Yehuda allows for things like fixing a knife so it can be used for shekhita (slaughtering) and an oven for cooking – since these are things that are used to prepare the food; chakhamim only permit melakha that directly deals with the food itself. In this case the halakha is a bit ambiguous, since many Rishonim rule that the fundamental halakha follows Rabbi Yehuda, but there are many practical limitations to what is permitted.[7]

Hotza’a mei’reshit l’reshut (transferring an object between domains)

The difference between these opinions may also explain another dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The mishna states: “Beit Shammai says we may not carry children, a lulav, or a Torah scroll into the public domain, and Beit Hillel permits this.”[8] Beit Hillel permits people to carry non-food objects from one domain to another, Beit Shammai prohibits these things.

Beit Shammai’s opinion is clear. Transferring objects from one domain to another is a prohibited melakha. Nevertheless, on yom tov sending food parcels is permitted, as described by Nechemia’s statement on Rosh HaShana: “Go eat delicacies and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those who do not have prepared.”[9] Beit Shammai permits sending food parcels on yom tov, but  not other things (both transferring objects from one domain to another as well as carrying 4 amot in the public domain are prohibited).[10] So why do Beit Hillel permit hotza’a for children, lulav, and a Torah scroll?

The gemara suggests two explanations.[11] The first is that “because it’s permitted when necessary, it’s also permitted when unnecessary.” This is curious. Would we say that: because melakha necessary to save a life is permitted on Shabbat, it’s also permitted when not necessary to save a life?![12] How does suspending a prohibition in a particular case cancel the entire melakha?[13]

In our introduction we mentioned two ways to look at the permissibility of certain melakhot on yom tov. In Sefer Shemot, only melakhot that are necessary for food preparation are permitted; it’s possible this is Beit Shammai’s point of view.[14] But in Sefer Vayikra, melakha in the service of food prep is permitted, since it is the final product of “okhel nefesh,” food for the day, that determines if an action is “milekhet avoda.” One could claim that if a melakha is permitted for okhel nefesh it is not considered “milekhet avoda,” and is therefore permitted in general. If this is true then one could also carry children, a lulav, or a Sefer Torah in the public domain.

What makes yom tov special?

The gemara also suggests that the prohibition of hotza’a doesn’t exist on yom tov. The gemara quotes a verse from Yirmiyahu that carrying between domains is forbidden on Shabbat to claim that this prohibition is only applicable to Shabbat.[15]

Hotza’a is one of the few prohibited melakhot explicitly derived from Torah verses.[16] One source is Israel’s first encounter with Shabbat in the beginning of their sojourn in the wilderness, when they were commanded not to go out with their vessels to gather manna on Shabbat.[17] Others claim that bringing  donations (terumot) for the Mishkan’s construction was considered a melakha and consequently prohibited on Shabbat.[18] The latter does not necessarily concern Shabbat; it’s the first melakha in the construction of the Mishkan.[19] But, if the melakhot prohibited on Shabbat are derived from the Mishkan then this is the first.[20]

The possibility that hotza’a is only prohibited on Shabbat points to an essential difference between Shabbat and yom tov. If the focus is on food prep then yom tov seems to be a day of joy, while Shabbat is a day of rest.[21]

The focus of the difference shifts if we take hotza’a into account as well. When Israel first received the manna they’re told: “No person shall leave their place on the seventh day.”[22] On Shabbat we direct ourselves inward. The prohibition of hotza’a is one aspect of this concentration. We prepare all our needs in advance to clear the way so we can bring the sanctity into our homes.

Yom tov has a different geographic focus: “Three occasions a year all you males should appear before the Sovereign Hashem.”[23] The festivals are a time to go to the Temple, to the House of God. People are outside their homes, sleeping as guests in scattered homes or in public spaces – in tents, sukkot, or under the stars. Preparing food in advance is less feasible, especially when it’s korban shelamim (peace-offering); similarly the festive atmosphere of gathering in public spaces on yom tov would be hampered if carrying between domains was prohibited.

There are solutions for these issues, and we use them when Shabbat and yom tov coincide; but in general the essential character of yom tov is incongruous with such prohibitions. Festivals are times to go outside the home, to public spaces. Instead of bringing sanctity inside, we go out to meet it.[24]

These days it seems that the differences between Shabbat and yom tov are blurred. So many neighborhoods, towns, and even cities have an eruv that we’ve lost the feeling of inward concentration that accompanies the prohibition of hotza’a. Sometimes it seems that the only Jews who feel the true impact of Shabbat are those who live in areas outside of Israel without an eruv or soldiers in the field.

Conversely, the desire to rest and enjoy yom tov, along with the invention of the refrigerator and hot plate, mean that many people do the bulk of their yom tov preparations in advance. For many people the only practical difference between yom tov and Shabbat is whether they can heat sauces or liquids during the day. There are still some people who cook on yom tov, but it’s no longer necessary and widespread.

These changes have created an atmosphere where many of us don’t feel a difference between Shabbat and yom tov. But even if the practical differences are unclear, we should remain conscious of the essential differences in the nature of these days. On yom tov we should strive for an outward movement to connect to sanctity while connecting with the rest of Israel; on Shabbat we should focus our attention inward and bring the sanctity into our home on Shabbat kodesh.

[1] This post is adapted from a chapter in the author’s upcoming book, “Mei’Ohel Moed l’Yimei Moed – Iyunei Mikra, Iyunei Mishna, Iyunei Drasha,” which will be published by Koren in partnership with Matan later this year.

[2] Shemot 12:16

[3] ibid

[4] Vayikra 23:7. Similar phraseology for other festivals: Vayikra 23:8, 21, 25, 35-36. [Yom Kippur is the exception, all melakha is forbidden. ibid 28-31.]

[5] Ramban defined these melakhot as melakhot hana’a – for benefit or pleasure (commentary on Vayikra 23:7), while Beit Yosef (OC 495) brings the Maggid Mishneh that the permitted melakhot are those a person performs on their own behalf, while melekhet avoda are things a servant would do for their master, which are also melakhot that are performed in advance for the coming days (more manufactured or bulk, less homemade).

[6] Tosefta Megilla 1:7; TB Beitza 28a (and more).

[7] In the mishna it seems that this is debated between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages. In TB Beitza 28a-b it seems that Rav Chisda rules like Rabbi Yehuda that, “This is the halakha but we don’t teach it.” But in another discussion it seems that halakha is according to the sages. (Beitza 22a – extinguishing fire not to burn the food. See Tosafot there.) For a summary see Beit Yosef, Shulchan Arukh, Rema OC 495, 509, 514.

[8] Mishna Beitza 1:3

[9] Nechemia 8:10

[10] See Mishna Beitza 1:9-10

[11] TB Beitza 12a

[12] Question found in Ohr Zarua Part I, She’elot v’Teshuvot 654.

[13] Many Rishonim indicate that the heter (allowance) is not “when it’s utterly unnecessary” (Rashi Beitza 12a) but “when it’s not necessary for okhel nefesh” but it’s not frivolous. See Rabbeinu Chananel (needs to be for a mitzvah), Tosafot ibid “hakhi garsinan Rashi” (includes anything necessary for yom tov).

[14] Nevertheless, there are limitations for things that can be done before yom tov or melakhot that produce things for long term use. These limitations may be based on a derasha – expounding verses – or sevara – logical deduction. See Tosafot Beitza 3a “gezeira.” While the discussion is about Beit Hillel’s opinion, it also seems applicable to Beit Shammai. A similar discussion differentiates between a minor’s preparation of a kli (tool or vessel) to prepare food and making a kli in general – which Rabbi Yehuda forbids. See Beit Yosef OC 509 and Shulchan Arukh, Rema ibid 1.

[15] Yirmiyahu 17:22. (And Yom Kippur which is Shabbat Shabbaton.)

[16] Alongside the prohibition against igniting fire (Shemot 35:3). In Shemot 34:21 it seems that plowing and harvesting/picking, but Chazal explained that these prohibitions refer to Shemita – the Sabbatical year (Mishna Shevi’it 1:4) Similarly, gathering wood is clearly prohibited on Shabbat (Bamidbar 15:32) but it’s not one of the 39 avot melakha prohibited on Shabbat and the sages are divided as to what melakha it violates. (TB Shabbat 96b)

Many halakhic authorities rule that only these two melakhot – hotza’a (carrying between domains) and hav’ara (igniting fire) – are permitted unnecessarily, since they are the only ones specifically prohibited on Shabbat. See Rambam Hilkhot Yom Tov 1:4 (and commentary of Yad Peshuta of Rav Nahum Rabinovich), Tur OC 495 and Beit Yosef.

[17] Shemot 16:27-30; Tb Eiruvin 17a.

[18] Shemot 36:6-7; TB Shabbat 96b.

[19] There are different versions of the text and Rishonim dispute if this prohibition of melakha is specifically referring to Shabbat. See Tosafot TB Shabbat 96b “mi’mai,” Rashi Shabbat 2a “shtayim she’hen arba bifnim.”

[20] Regarding the concept of learning melakhot of Shabbat from the Tabernacle see TB  Shabbat 93b – 94a and more.

[21] For example see Shemot 20:10 compared to 16:11-15, Rambam Hilkhot Shabbat 24:12 compared to Hilkhot Yom Tov 1:5.

[22] Shemot 16:29

[23] Shemot 23:17

[24] Compare to Ramban Vayikra 23:2

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.