Talmud pages

Beitzah 36

Let's dance.

The mishnah on today’s daf starts with a laundry list of rabbinic prohibitions that apply on festivals just as they would on Shabbat. As Rashi explains, these matters fall into three categories: shevut (actions that are not at all related to a mitzvah); reshut (optional activities that are “mitzvah-adjacent” but not mitzvot themselves); and actual mitzvot

Today, we are going to concentrate on the first category. Shevut refers to actions that have nothing to do with the performance of a commandment and were prohibited by the rabbis on Shabbat. The mishnah gives several examples:

And these are the acts (prohibited by the sages) as shevut: One may not climb a tree (on Shabbat), nor ride on an animal, nor swim in the water, nor clap his hands together, nor clap his hand on the thigh, nor dance.

The Gemara goes on to clarify why these non-mitzvah activities are prohibited on both Shabbat and festivals. Climbing trees? That might lead to ripping something off the tree, which is effectively harvesting. Or it might lead to someone breaking off a stick to use as a whip for riding animals, which is itself a prohibited activity lest someone go riding beyond the acceptable boundary of Shabbat movement that we learned about in Tractate Eruvin. And swimming? That might lead you to build a tube or some other flotation device. 

Yesterday, we again encountered the phenomenon of building fences around the Torah — prohibiting something that itself isn’t objectionable, but might lead to an action that is. That same sentiment is at work here. All these activities would seem to be permissible on Shabbat, except for the fact that they may well lead to prohibited outcomes. 

Except for the last ones: clapping, thigh-slapping and dancing. What prohibited action might that lead to? The Gemara has an answer for that: 

All of these are prohibited due to a decree that was made lest one fashion a musical instrument (to accompany his clapping or dancing).

In other words, clapping, slapping and dancing are banned because they might involve the use of musical instruments, which in turn might lead to crafting or repairing those instruments. But that doesn’t actually make sense. 

On Sukkah 50, we learned that raucous music, including copious use of instrumentation, was not only permitted on festivals (particularly Sukkot) during Temple times, but was a focal point of the celebration. Earlier in this tractate, on Beitzah 30a, the Gemara notes this as well and adds this comment. 

Rava bar Rav Hanin said to Abaye: We learned in a mishnah: The rabbis decreed that one may not clap, nor strike (a hand on his thigh), nor dance (on a festival, lest he come to repair musical instruments). But nowadays we see that (women) do so, and yet we do not say anything to them.

Commenting on this passage, the medieval commentary Tosafot notes that, already in their time, people were unlikely to create or repair musical instruments because they did not know how to do so. Therefore, say Tosafot, these activities should be permitted. The Mishnah Berurah, an early 19th century commentary, agrees. 

Today, many liberal Jewish communities use instrumentation, even on Shabbat. In Orthodox and other more strictly observant settings, that doesn’t happen. But clapping, thigh-slapping and dancing — these are regular features of festival and Shabbat worship even in Orthodox communities. So while the ethos behind creating a fence around the Torah stands, the practicalities change over time — which is great news for those of us that like to infuse our Shabbat and holiday celebrations not only with singing, but with more active expressions of joy as well. 

Read all of Beitzah 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 6th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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