Today’s daf continues our discussion of the mitzvah of “appearance” — the obligation, stated in Exodus 23:17, that on “three occasions in the year all your males will appear before the Lord God.” The rabbis understand this verse as requiring one to go to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. But who exactly is required?
The mishnah that opened our tractate states:
All are obligated in the mitzvah of appearance except for a deaf-mute, an imbecile, and a minor; and a tumtum, and an androgynos, and women, and slaves who are not emancipated; and the lame, and the blind, and the sick, and the old, and one who is unable to ascend on his legs.
Today’s daf goes into depth on the rationales for each of these exclusions. In discussing the tumtum and androgynos for example, the Gemara states:
Granted, the exclusion of an androgynos (one who has both male and female external genitalia) was necessary, as it could enter your mind to say that since he possesses an aspect of masculinity he should be obligated like a male. Therefore, the beraita teaches us they are a being unto themself.
The Gemara reads the obligation to appear very narrowly, as incumbent only on males. Since the Gemara recognizes that there are more than two sexes, those that fall outside of the category of “male” are not obligated to appear.
But as the discussion continues, it becomes clear that not even all males are required to appear.
Aherim (others) says a scrimper, and a melder of copper, and a tanner, are exempt from appearance. This is because it is stated: “All your males,” which indicates that only one who is able to ascend with all your males, excluding those who are not suited to ascend with all your males.
According to this teaching, the Torah’s requirement that males appear on the festivals doesn’t apply to all males. Those who have particularly stinky jobs are excluded from appearance because their odors will ruin the experience for everyone else.
Reading the Torah’s descriptions of the pilgrimage festivals, it is easy to feel like we’re missing out on something major. The image of millions of Jews gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate the agricultural calendar and give thanks to God is a powerful one. But today’s daf reminds us that this major experience was missing the majority of Jews — women, children, elderly and disabled men, men performing particularly low-class forms of labor, enslaved men, and those who fall outside binary ideas of sex.
Even today, pilgrimage can be a dangerous undertaking, with large numbers of people often traversing great distances and cramming into small spaces together. We can imagine that in ancient times many women, elderly men, and people with disabilities would have felt relief at not being obligated to travel on bumpy roads three times a year. But Aherim’s statement reminds us that there is a difference between not being obligated and being excluded. Sometimes exclusions are not for the sake of the person being excluded, but the sensory experience of those who aren’t. There’s a fine line between not obligating someone to do something that might be difficult or unsafe and creating a space where many people are invisible or absent.
The Torah’s descriptions of the pilgrimage festivals and the Gemara’s discussions of who is not obligated to participate challenge us to think about who doesn’t participate in the mitzvah of appearance, and to creatively imagine a world in which all really can appear before God in Jerusalem to celebrate.
Read all of Chagigah 4 on Sefaria.