Beitzah 13

A cupful of peeled barley.

Today the Gemara continues its discussion of the labors that would ordinarily be prohibited on festivals but are permitted because they allow one to prepare food. There turn out to be a number of interesting facets here. For instance, preparing food wasn’t just about slaughtering animals or preparing grains and then cooking them. It also inevitably meant separating terumah and ma’aser — special tithes for the priests and levites respectively. Can you separate these gifts for the Temple workers on a festival? And if so, can you bring the produce to the Temple on a festival? Hillel and Shammai, and then the Gemara, consider these questions.

Another aspect of food preparation was separating grains and legumes from their inedible woody stalks (winnowing) and their outer hulls (threshing). (The discussion of terumah naturally dovetails here because terumah is not separated from unprocessed food products. That is, it is separated from olive oil, not raw olives; from wine, not grapes.) These activities are also among the 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat. Though they are technically part of food preparation, they are still serious labor and generally removed enough from immediate food preparation to be forbidden on festival days. But there are exceptions. Threshing small amounts of grain in an unorthodox manner (like rubbing the kernels between a few fingers), for instance, is permitted.

This all gets complicated and technical quickly. For now, I’d like to direct our attention to a mishnah from Ma’asrot (“Tithes”) that the Gemara brings in the course of the discussion. (Incidentally, Ma’asrot is one of the mishnaic tractates that has no Gemara so we will not be studying it in the Daf Yomi cycle.) Here it is:

One who peels grains of barley (to eat them raw) may peel them one by one and eat them (without separating a tithe). But if he peeled and placed several into his hand, he is obligated to separate tithes. 

Rabbi Elazar said: A similar halakhah applies to Shabbat.

Ordinarily, a person who threshed a pile of barley was then obligated to separate out a tithe. But, says this mishnah, peeling a single grain of barley and popping it into one’s mouth raw constitutes a kind of snacking too minimal to trigger the tithing obligation. Likewise, Rabbi Elazar remarks, it doesn’t violate Shabbat.

But what are the limits of this “one raw grain at a time” approach to snacking? The Gemara continues:

Is that so? But didn’t Rav’s wife peel (barley) for him (on Shabbat) by the cupful? And likewise Rav Hiyya’s wife would peel for him by the cupful?

Here the Gemara offers a humanizing and perhaps wry view of rabbis — who not only know the law but who are actively involved in both shaping the law and encouraging people to follow it — pushing the boundaries of that law in their homes. Sure, technically if you don’t want to violate the law against threshing grain on Shabbat you should sit and peel the barley grains one at a time, popping each into your mouth before peeling the next. But surely it’s not too much of a stretch to peel a cupful to enjoy — especially if someone else does it for you?

Read all of Beitzah 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 13th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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