With all the discussion in this tractate of how to prepare food on festivals, the sages need to address a critical question: How does one acquire enough firewood to maintain a cooking fire for the duration of the holiday?
A mishnah on today’s daf reads as follows:
One may not chop wood (on a festival) neither from beams (intended for construction) nor from a beam that broke on a festival (although it no longer serves any purpose). And one may not chop (wood on a festival), neither with an ax, nor with a saw, nor with a sickle, (as these are clearly craftsman’s tools used on weekdays). Rather, one may chop only with a cleaver.
This mishnah teaches that one may not chop wood which had not been previously designated for use on a festival. It also tells us that one cannot use the typical implements for chopping wood — an axe or a saw or a sickle — but only atypical ones, like a cleaver. One can assume from all this that the act of chopping is permissible so long as the wood had been previously designated for festival use and it is chopped in a different manner than is normal. (We’ve already seen this principle a few times in this tractate, most prominently in Beitzah 14.)
Yet the subsequent discussion in the Gemara briefly entertains the idea that the act of chopping itself is the problem here, as chopping is clearly a form of work. The rabbis quickly conclude that the mishnah cannot possibly intend a blanket prohibition on chopping wood, as it only forbids chopping wood that has not been designated for use and it tells us explicitly which implement may be used for such chopping.
So why does the Talmud even bother to suggest such a ludicrous reading of the mishnah? Why even raise the possibility that chopping is forbidden just to quickly shoot it down?
In truth, when we consider the act of chopping wood in the broader picture of Shabbat and festival regulations, it is astonishing that gathering and chopping firewood — both labor intensive activities that could easily be done in advance — are permitted at all. The 39 categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat were derived from the building of the Tabernacle and the actions later performed in the daily Tabernacle service. Chopping wood was an essential element in both of these. The Tabernacle was made almost entirely from wood and fire was required for the making of the dyes of the cloths. The ensuing service required daily sacrifices on an altar of fire.
Furthermore, the Torah names very few specific actions which are forbidden on Shabbat, but one of those is the gathering of wood. In Numbers 15:33-37, we find the dramatic story of the mekoshesh eitzim, a person who was found gathering wood on Shabbat and was stoned to death for it at God’s instruction. The sages disagree as to the exact nature of the violation. A plain reading of the text suggests it’s the gathering of wood, but it also may have been the chopping. Either way, both this story and the underlying logic of Shabbat prohibitions would seem to make clear that gathering and chopping wood are forbidden.
Yet today’s daf makes no mention of any of this. There is no discussion about the severity of the prohibition of chopping (or gathering) wood on Shabbat. There is no mention that chopping wood was a basic part of life in the Tabernacle and therefore should be forbidden. Instead, the rabbis seem oblivious to the context in which they are permitting one to chop and possibly even gather firewood.
So perhaps this brief entertaining of the possibility that chopping wood might be forbidden on festivals is not a genuine reading of the mishnah, but rather a hint to the fact that the rabbis weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of chopping or gathering wood on a festival, even though the plain meaning of the mishnah is that such actions are permitted. Yet the rabbis quickly brush this possibility aside, for how can one truly experience the pleasure of fresh food on festivals without maintaining a fire? On festivals, even the most basic of Shabbat prohibitions are put aside to make room for the joy that comes from feasting.
Read all of Beitzah 31 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 1st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.