Moed Katan, Chapter Three, Mishnah Nine

 

Introduction

The last mishnah in Moed Katan continues to discuss womens’ mourning practices during the festival.  It concludes with a note of hope for the future, for a messianic age when God will conquer death.

 

Mishnah Nine

1)      On Rosh Hodesh, on Hannukah and on Purim they may wail and clap [their hands in grief].

2)      Neither on the former nor on the latter occasions may they offer a lamentation.

3)      After the dead has been buried they neither wail nor clap [their hands in grief].

4)      What is meant by wailing?  When all wail in unison.

5)      What is meant by a lament?  When one speaks and all respond after her, as it is said: “And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation” (Jeremiah 9:19).

6)      But as to the future, it says: “He will destroy death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:9).

 

Explanation

Section one:  Rosh Hodesh, Hannukah and Purim are semi-holidays. There are special prayers and Torah readings for all three of them, but work is not prohibited.  Two of them (Hannukah and Purim) are not mentioned in the Torah and hence, their importance is less than that of the other holidays. Due to their diminished status, the women may even clap their hands in grief at a funeral. This was prohibited during the festival.

Section two:  Lamenting (explained below) is forbidden on all holidays, both those mentioned in section one of this mishnah and the festivals discussed in yesterday’s mishnah.

Section three:  The women are permitted to wail or clap only as long as the dead body has not been buried.  Once the body is buried, both practices become forbidden.

Section four:  The mishnah now defines, at least partially, wailing and lamenting. Wailing is done by all of the women simultaneously.  Lamenting is done responsively, one woman speaking and the others answering after her.  This is hinted at in Jeremiah who says that one woman teaches another lamentation, interpreted to mean that one woman recites the lamentation and the others repeat after her.

Section five: All of this talk about death can be depressing and scary.  Indeed, it was often considered forbidden for young men to learn the third chapter of Moed Katan because all of this talk about death could bring on bad luck (the evil eye).  To alleviate this distress, the tractate ends on a positive note. The current stage of humanity, where we must face the distressing possibility of mourning in the middle of the joy of a festival, will be alleviated in the messianic period, when God will conquer death.

 

Congratulations!  We have finished Megillah. 

[You probably already know what I’m going to say but I’ll say it anyway].

It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.

Most of Moed Katan was about the laws of the festival.  These laws are fascinating (at least to me) because they are grayer, more ambiguous, than the prohibitions in effect on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Some activities are generally prohibited but are allowed under extenuating circumstances, unlike Shabbat where any given labor is basically always prohibited.  When I think of the laws of the Moed (the festival), I think of a sort of mathematical equation which we would need to perform before determining whether a labor is permitted or forbidden. There are several factors that might lead to something being permitted/forbidden. For instance, will not doing the work cause a significant financial loss?  Could the work have been done before the festival? Is it strenuous?  Did the person plan on working on the festival?  Is it being done in the normal fashion?  Only when we know the answers to these questions can we decide whether the work is permitted.

Today, many of these laws are neglected.  In our busy modern economies it is hard enough to take off of work for Yom Tov (the first and last days of the festival), let alone for the rest of the festival.  Many of these halakhot are basically no longer observed because any cessation of work causes a “grave financial loss.” While this may be to a certain extent true, I think we should keep in mind that the rabbis wanted to preserve the character of the festival by turning it into a celebratory vacation. Rejoicing is one of the main obligations on the festival and its much easier to party when you’re not working.

As always, congratulations on learning another tractate of Mishnah.  One more tractate to go and we’ll have finished Moed, and half of the Mishnah!  Hard to believe.  Tomorrow we start Hagigah.

 

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