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The Mitzva of Rejoicing on the Festivals

  • Rav Chaim Navon
LECTURE #17a: THe Mitzva of Rejoicing on the Festivals
Part I
The Mitzva of Rejoicing
There is a popular song, often sung at weddings, which goes: "It is a great mitzva to be happy at all times." The truth is that this formulation is imprecise: there is no mitzva to be happy at all times, neither a great mitzva nor a lesser one. This, perhaps, is the first lesson that may be learned from the mitzva to rejoice on the festivals, even before we know anything else about it: Judaism expects us to rejoice on certain prescribed festivals; the rest of the time we are expected to conduct ourselves with restraint.
The mitzva of rejoicing on the festivals is derived from the following verses:
Seven weeks shall you number to you; from such time as you begin to put the sickle in the corn shall you commence to number seven weeks. And you shall keep the feast of weeks to the Lord your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God has blessed you. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the Lord your God has chosen as the residence of the name. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; therefore you shall observe and do these statutes. You shall observe the feast of booths seven days, after you have gathered in your corn and your wine. And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, therefore you shall surely rejoice. Three times a year shall all your males appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of booths; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty. (Devarim 16:9-16)
These verses refer to the festivals of Shavu'ot and, of course, Sukkot, and Chazal understand that they refer to Pesach as well.
What are the parameters of the mitzva?
What are the parameters of the mitzva of rejoicing on the festivals? What does the mitzva obligate us to do? There are many opinions on this matter. Let us start with a well-known passage from Rambam:
The seven days of Pesach, the eight days of Sukkot, and the other festival days, are all days on which funeral eulogies and fasting are forbidden. It is one's duty to rejoice and be of cheerful heart on these days, together with his children, his wife, his grandchildren, and all the other members of his household, for Scripture says: "And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, etc." (Devarim 16:14).
Although rejoicing in this context refers to the peace offering to be brought on the festivals, as we shall explain in the laws concerning the Chagiga offering, it includes also the duty incumbent upon each man, his children, and his household, to rejoice, each person as befits him.
Thus, children should be given parched ears, nuts, and other dainties; women should have clothes and pretty trinkets bought for them, according to one's means; and men should eat meat and drink wine, for there can be no real rejoicing without meat to eat and wine to drink. (Rambam, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17-18)
Rambam draws two concentric circles in his definition of the mitzva of rejoicing: an inner circle, in which the mitzva reaches its clearest expression through the offering of a peace-offering; and an outer circle, which allows for another, more flexible option – "each person as befits him." For men, this rejoicing is most fully expressed through meat and wine. Sha'agat Arye (no. 65) proves that in addition to these two circles there exists an even wider circle, in which the Torah obligates a person to engage in any activity that brings him joy, without precisely defining those activities. We are dealing here with a set of concentric circles; in the outermost circle we are commanded in a general way to engage in joyous activities in accordance with our own personal preferences, while in the innermost circle Halakha directs us to a specific act, independent of our tastes and personalities. Thus, the mitzva of rejoicing on the festivals is comprised of three levels of specification.
The necessity for such a complex system stems from the fact that Halakha is trying here to construct a formal system that reflects and shapes our inner emotions. Two contradictory tendencies come into play, one alongside the other: individualization and formalization. On the one hand, Halakha's general inclination is to cast individual feelings into a mold of clear and uniform deeds. On the other hand, when a mitzva is connected to a particular emotion – in this case, joy – it is impossible to ignore the personal preferences of the individual.
Actions and Feelings
We have spoken about the tension between formality and individuality that finds expression in the mitzva of rejoicing on the festivals in the various levels of specification regarding the command. This tension stems from the fact that the two ideas – "commandment" and "rejoicing" – come from entirely different worlds. The tension in the mitzva of rejoicing expresses itself most sharply in the following point: Does the mitzva of rejoicing involve the performance of joyful deeds or does it require a person to rejoice? That is to say, to what degree does the mitzva directly relate to our internal emotional world, and to what degree does it relate exclusively to external actions? The Gemara, the Rishonim, and the Poskim relate almost entirely to the external actions. Truth be said, this reflects the general tendency of Halakha. As a rule, even when Halakha is interested in stirring up a certain emotion, it relates directly only to formal actions, and not to conceptual aspirations. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argues, however, that this is not true with respect to the mitzva of rejoicing on the festivals. Rabbi Soloveitchik bases his argument on a talmudic passage in tractate Mo'ed Katan, which explains why mourning practices are not observed on the festivals:
A mourner does not conduct himself [in accordance with the laws of] mourning during a festival, for the verse says (Devarim 16:14): "You shall rejoice on your festival." If it is a preexisting mourning, the positive precept pertaining to the community comes and supercedes the positive precept pertaining to the individual. And if it is mourning that was to begin now, the positive precept pertaining to the individual does not come and supercede the positive precept pertaining to the community. (Mo'ed Katan 14b)
The Gemara asserts that a festival sets aside the observance of mourning practices, because rejoicing on a festival, which is a mitzva pertaining to the entire community, supercedes the mourning, which is a mitzvah that is restricted to a particular individual. The characterization of these mitzvot as pertaining to "an individual" or to "the community" is of great significance. It would appear that the distinction between the two does not relate to the number of people bound by each of the mitzvot; even if the entire Jewish people were relatives of the deceased, the mitzva of mourning would still be deemed as pertaining to an individual. The Gemara seems to distinguish between mitzvot performed in the privacy of one's home and mitzvot observed in the public arena. Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, focuses on a different point:
At first glance, the words of the Gemara require explanation: Why can't a person observe both [mitzvot], mourning as well as rejoicing on a festival? Surely, a mourner is permitted to eat meat and drink wine; and where is it written that on a festival a person is forbidden to remove his shoes, or abstain from washing, anointing, greeting people, and the like? The answer to our question is obvious. The mutual contradiction between mourning and rejoicing on a festival does not relate to the practical observances of mourning and rejoicing. The external practices do not contradict each other, and they can co-exist. The contradiction lies in the fulfillment of the mitzvot of rejoicing and mourning, in their very essence. The essence of rejoicing is a spiritual act, joy of the heart. Similarly, the nature of mourning is a spiritual attitude, grief in the heart. The Torah commanded that heart-felt grief must dress itself in a tangible form of mourning practices, and that heart-felt joy must be symbolized by the partaking of sacrificial animals. These acts, however, are merely the means through which a person fulfills the mitzvot of rejoicing and mourning in the heart. With regard to rejoicing and mourning in the heart, there is obviously a mutual contradiction … Hence, the festival comes and supercedes the observance of mourning. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, U-bikashtem Misham, p. 210)
Rabbi Soloveitchik brings additional proofs in support of his position that with respect to the mitzva of rejoicing on a festival, it is the feeling of joy itself that constitutes the essential fulfillment of the mitzva.[1] Thus, for example, Rabbi Soloveitchik cites Tosafot, who ask why Shabbat counts toward the seven days of mourning, even though public acts of mourning are not observed on that day, whereas a festival day does not count toward the seven days of mourning, even though according to most Rishonim, private acts of mourning are in fact observed then, and a festival day is only excluded from public acts of mourning – exactly like Shabbat!
He asks: The implication is that even according to the opinion that [mourning practices] are not observed [on Shabbat], Shabbat counts toward the seven days of mourning. If so, regarding a festival as well, even if [mourning practices] are not observed, it should count! Yet above we said: "He didn't ask about the seven days, for [practices associated with] the seven days of mourning are not observed on a festival"! And he answers: Even though Shabbat counts, a festival does not count, for [on a festival] there is no mourning at all, because regarding a festival "rejoicing" is mentioned. Regarding Shabbat, however, "rejoicing" is not mentioned; [hence], even if mourning practices are not observed, it counts. (Mo'ed Katan, Tosafot, s.v., man de'amar)
What is Tosafot's answer? A festival day does not count toward the seven days of mourning, because on that day there can be no fulfillment of mourning. This is because the festival obligates rejoicing that contradicts mourning in a most essential way. On Shabbat, however, it is only because the day obligates honor and pleasure that the practical mourning rites cannot be observed. But the essential fulfillment of mourning, the grief that is felt in the heart, can be observed, because on Shabbat there is no obligation to rejoice. Hence, Shabbat is counted toward the seven days of mourning.
Rabbi Soloveitchik proposes here a principle that is prominent in his entire outlook regarding the reasons for the commandments, as well as in his talmudic discourses. Joy of the heart is not merely a result of the mitzva of rejoicing, at the level of a "reason for the commandment," but rather it is the mitzva itself. There are certain mitzvot whose essence involves an internal feeling, even though they may have some external expression. When we discussed the fundamental principles of Halakha, we mentioned Halakha's tendency to translate vague and fleeting feelings into solid deeds. There are cases, argues Rabbi Soloveitchik, in which feelings are also included within the realm of Halakha proper. In such cases, Halakha enjoins a specific action that gives expression to the amorphous feeling; that action is "the act of the mitzva." The "fulfillment of the mitzva," however, is achieved through the feeling in the doer's heart.
Rabbi Soloveitchik's novel distinction between the mitzva's act and the mitzva's fulfillment gives us a new perspective on the various circles relating to the fulfillment of the commandment of rejoicing on a festival. We can now update the diagram of the circles that we have drawn. The outermost circle, hazy and undefined, contains the feeling of joy. Halakha mandates that we consolidate that feeling and express it in some concrete action. As we move inwards, we are to make use of the specific act of partaking of meat and wine (or "each person as befits him," according to his age and gender). In the innermost circle, we are to rejoice by eating the meat of the chagiga offering. We are dealing here not with chronological development, and certainly not with gradations of importance, but rather with concentric circles that co-exist in the halakhic system and allow it to preserve its formal character, without strangling religious feelings and emotions.
Rabbi Soloveitchik's distinction finds support in a precise reading of Rambam's halakhic code. Wherever the act of a mitzva is distinguished from its fulfillment, Rambam deals with the act of the mitzva in the body of the halakhot, but in the heading where he lists the mitzvot to be discussed in that book, he relates to the fulfillment of the mitzva. We shall cite a number of examples:
[There is a positive commandment] to rejoice on the festivals. (Rambam, heading to Hilkhot Chagiga)
The rejoicing mentioned with regard to the festivals consists of bringing a peace offering in addition to the chagiga offerings. These are called joy of the chagiga peace offerings. (Rambam, Hilkhot Chagiga 1:1)
The act of the mitzva consists of eating the peace offering; fulfillment of the mitzva, however, is only achieved through joy in the heart.
Let us consider another example:
[There is a positive commandment] to serve God every day through prayer. (Rambam, heading to Hilkhot Tefila)
In the body of Hilkhot Tefila, Rambam discusses the details of the laws of prayer; the "fulfillment of the mitzva," however, is mentioned in the heading – "service of the heart."
Rabbi Soloveitchik uses this principle to resolve a difficult problem in Rambam. In the heading to Hilkhot Teshuva, Rambam writes:
[There is a positive commandment] that the sinner shall repent from his sin before the Lord and make confession. (Rambam, heading to Hilkhot Teshuva)
What Rambam says in the body of his code is entirely different:
With regard to all the commandments of the Torah, positive or negative, if a person transgressed any one of them, either willfully or in error, when he repents and turns away from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be He. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1)
The formulation in the body of the code implies that there is no mitzva to repent, but only to confess! Indeed, the Minchat Chinukh argues that there is no separate mitzva to repent; we are obligated to repent for the simple reason that at every moment we are bound to observe the mitzvot. If, therefore, we have transgressed a commandment, we must repent and make amends. The unique obligation related to repentance consists of confession. Following the general principle outlined above, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his book "On Repentance," maintains that the fulfillment of the mitzva involves repentance, and that confession merely comprises the act of the mitzva. In other words, the essence of the mitzva is repentance of the heart; confession is merely the act that gives concrete form to that religious feeling. The two elements are vital for the maintenance of a system that is both sound and stable, and at the same time stormy and spiritual.
What exactly is the relationship between "the act of the mitzva" and "the fulfillment of the mitzva"? The Sha'agat Arye (no. 69) maintains that the mitzva of rejoicing on a festival only includes actions that arouse joy, as opposed to actions that express joy. Thus, he argues that there is no mitzva to sing on a festival, because song – in his opinion – does not arouse joy; it merely expresses it. Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of an internal feeling "donning tangible form" through an external act. Both processes appear to be correct: an external act arouses feeling and also gives restrained and controlled expression to an existing feeling. On the one hand, an external act promises to stir up emotion – "the heart follows one's actions"; on the other hand, an act gives concrete expression to a feeling and, thus, ensures that it will remain constant. The act also directs the feeling into positive channels, giving it restrained and controlled expression. In the absence of concrete acts, one of three things is likely to happen: feelings will not be stirred up at all; feelings will be aroused, but they will be fleeting and unstable; or wild feelings will be stirred up that will lead a person in undesirable directions. A well-defined act arouses emotions, ensures their survival, and channels them in desirable directions.
[1] In addition to the discussion in his article, "U-bikashtem Misham," Rabbi Soloveitchik also deals with this issue in his book, "Shi'urim le-Zekher Abba Mari," II, pp. 188-190.
(Translated by Rav David Strauss)