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Understanding Okhel Nefesh

  • Rav Moshe Taragin





Shiur #01:  Understanding Okhel Nefesh

Rav Moshe Taragin



Although the prohibitions against melakha on Yom Tov are similar to those of Shabbat, there is one significant difference.  Preparation of okhel nefesh, acts performed to facilitate food preparation and enjoyment, are permitted.  This allowance is articulated in a pasuk in Parashat Bo, which states "akh asher yei'achel le-khol nefesh hu livado yei'aseh lakhem" – "Only that which will be eaten by any soul – that alone may be made for you."  This leniency is understandable given the importance of simchat Yom Tov, which is realized in part through food and festive meals.  If chagim were subject to the same comprehensive list of forbidden melakhot of Shabbat, the overall pleasure that is expected from Yom Tov would be greatly compromised. 


Although the MOTIVE for the okhel nefesh allowance is clearly the concern of simchat Yom Tov, the actual allowance can be distilled in two very different manners. 


From one perspective, the permissibility of okhel nefesh is the result of the reconciliation and prioritization of two conflicting interests.  Halakha often addresses conflicts of halakhic interests and directs our procedural response.  For example, a positive commandment will override a prohibition if the mitzva can only be executed by violating the aveira; this principle of asei docheh lo ta'aseh is the most familiar instance of halakhic reconciliation between conflicting interests.


Okhel nefesh may be the product of such a resolution.  The value of simchat Yom Tov was prioritized over that of complete observance of the 39 melakhot, yielding a list of "sanctioned" activities; in THEORY, these activities should not be allowed, but they are acceptable because they serve a higher purpose.  Ultimately, then, chag is quite similar to Shabbat in demanding strict avoidance of all forms of melakha.  Practically, the Torah allows food-based activities in order to preserve the quality of simchat Yom Tov. 


The Ramban, in his comments to Parashat Emor, suggests a very different model.  Noting the frequency of the term "melekhet avoda" (harsh work) in the description in Parashat Bo of the prohibition of work on Yom Tov, the Ramban claims that Shabbat and Chag are FUNDAMENTALLY different.  On Shabbat, ALL work is forbidden, whereas on chag only melekhet avoda is proscribed.  Melekhet avoda refers to work that does not yield benefit, whereas the complementary term (alluded to but not articulated by the Torah), "melekhet hana'ah," would refer to work which does indeed produce benefit.  By stipulating a prohibition of melekhet avoda on Yom Tov, the Torah implies that melekhet hana'ah was never proscribed.  The permission to perform activities for okhel nefesh is not a product of "conflict resolution;" these forms of work were never forbidden on Yom Tov to begin with. 


Although this question may appear to be one of syntax, the different understandings may lead to several interesting consequences.  Most notable is the disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding the extension of "okhel nefesh" to non-food based needs of chag which evolve from the same basic act.  One is permitted to carry on Yom Tov for the purpose of okhel nefesh; may one carry a child on chag? A fire may be lit (from an existing flame) on Yom Tov in order to cook food; may fire be kindled to heat water for bathing?  Beit Hillel extended the okhel nefesh permission to any Yom Tov need; this is referred to as the principle of "mitokh" (literally, just as food permits work, general needs do as well). Beit Shammai did not endorse this principle and do not extend the permissibility to activities unrelated to food production. 


Perhaps Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel addressed the essential nature of the okhel nefesh permit.  If, as the Ramban suggested, the activities of okhel nefesh are forms of work which were never forbidden to begin with, we would certainly concur with Beit Hillel.  Since these actions, which generally yield okhel nefesh, were never forbidden, we cannot suddenly prohibit them in instances when they service non-food related Yom Tov needs.  If carrying was never forbidden on Yom Tov because it aids in the production of food, it can not be prohibited when serving other Yom Tov needs.  Beit Shammai, on the other hand, may have assumed that okhel nefesh is a dispensation, allowing melakha to be desecrated in order to achieve simchat Yom Tov.  Since the Torah only outlined food benefit as sufficient to suspend the issur melakha, we are not able to extend this allowance to non-food oriented benefit. 


A second major debate between the Tannaim revolves around the question of which type of activities may be performed. If an act is geared toward food benefit (in which case even Bet Shammai would permit it), may "secondary" actions – performed not upon the food but upon related objects – be allowed?  The debate surrounding the status of makhshirin, ancillary but meal-related objects, is detected in a machloket between Rabbi Yehuda and the Rabanan (see, for example, Beitza 28b).  Rabbi Yehuda permits melakhot related to machshirin to be performed on chag (for example, sharpening a knife), whereas the Rabanan disallow it. 


Once again, we may sense the larger structural issue underlying this machloket.  If the melakha exception simply OVERRIDES an issur to assist in the achievement of simchat chag, it would be difficult to distinguish between categories of melakhot performed upon food and melakhot performed upon secondary items.  We would more likely agree with Rabbi Yehuda that ALL activities relating to food are permissible, regardless of the object of the melakha.  The Rabanan, on the other hand, may have viewed the okhel nefesh exception as categorical - certain types of activities that are generally performed in the course of food preparation were never forbidden on Yom Tov.  Actions directed at secondary but food related objects were included in the original prohibition against melakha on Yom Tov. 


It should be noted that the identical logic cannot necessarily be employed to explain BOTH the machloket between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel and the disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and the Rabanan.  Presumably, even if we agree with Beit Hillel that even non-food related needs of Yom Tov warrant melakha performance, we could still debate the question of makhshirin and whether activities may be performed upon secondary items. Even if we posit that Beit Hillel assumed that the melakhot of okhel nefesh were never forbidden on Yom Tov, that does not necessitate that they adopt the position of the Rabanan forbidding melakha for makhsirin. Offering the aforementioned logic to explain one machloket may demand supplying a very different logic to explain the other. 


An interesting question arises from the first mishna in the third perek of Beitza, which prohibits fishing on chag, even if the fish will be eaten on chag.  Why doesn't the okhel nefesh permission allow this activity?  Although the Rishonim offer different responses, both Rashi and the Rambam claim that any melakha which could have been performed BEFORE chag may not be performed during chag - even if the melakha would serve okhel nefesh interests.  The Rambam presents this limitation as Rabbinic, whereas Rashi implies that such activities are forbidden even on a Biblical level. 


If we believe that okhel nefesh related activities were never proscribed, it would be counterintuitive to adopt this limitation of the Rambam and Rashi.  Cooking was never outlawed on Yom Tov and should be allowed independent of whether it could have been performed before Yom Tov.  Presumably, Rashi believed that okhel nefesh WAS theoretically forbidden on Yom Tov, just like Shabbat, but was overridden to achieve Simchat Yom Tov.  This leniency was only applied to activities which absolutely must be performed on chag.  Work which could have been performed earlier was never allowed.