Chagigah 8

What brings you joy?

What brings you joy?

It’s a question seen often in titles appearing in the self-help section of the bookstore, one that drives Marie Kondo-esque purgers and animates the field of positive psychology. It’s even one of the essay questions on Princeton’s admissions application. And, of course, there’s an app for that.

Today’s daf ponders this question with regard to fulfilling the mitzvah of rejoicing on holidays. The rabbis are in the midst of a conversation about the shalmei simcha, the peace offerings of joy, which are one of the three types of sacrifices offered on festivals. On yesterday’s daf, we learned that the obligation to eat shalmei simcha can be fulfilled by eating the meat of animals that were offered for vow offerings and gift offerings, but not by eating bird offerings and meal offerings. 

Today the Gemara explores the source for this rule:

One might have thought that they can fulfill their obligation even by bird offerings and meal offerings. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall rejoice in your festival.” This teaches that eating those animals from which the festival offering may come (i.e., sheep and cattle) is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of rejoicing. This excludes these (i.e., bird-offerings and meal-offerings) from which the festival peace offering may not come.

This teaching is based on the fact that the word for festival (chag) shares its root with the word for the festival peace offering (chagigah). Applying a rabbinic version of the transitive property, we see that since chag and chagigah are linguistically related, and since only sheep and cattle can be brought as festival offerings, the way to rejoice in the festival is to eat the meat of sheep and cattle.

Rav Ashi comes along and poo-poos this mathematical exercise as overly complex. Instead, he explains:

This halakhah is derived from the phrase “And you shall rejoice,” which excludes those bird offerings and meal offerings that do not have an element of rejoicing.

It’s really very simple, goes this reasoning: Bird and meal offerings contain no joy, so how could you possibly eat them to fulfill the obligation of rejoicing? It seems that Rav Ashi is suggesting that only the meaty sacrifices of sheep and cattle can bring us joy.

Or is he? Aside from being an affront to vegetarians everywhere, this read of Rav Ashi may not be entirely accurate — or at least not complete. Let’s recall that birds were offered only as part of an olah, a type of sacrifice that was burnt entirely on the altar, and that meal offerings were (almost always) eaten only by the priests. In other words, with rare exception these two types of sacrifices were not eaten by the owner, nor shared amongst their family and community members.

It is possible, then, that Rav Ashi is teaching not that joy comes specifically from meat, but rather that it comes from what we share with others. If this sounds a little juvenile, consider what Maimonides says about how to rejoice on the festivals:

“While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach … Such joy is a disgrace for them …” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Rest of the Festivals, 6:17-18)

The religious experience of joy, says Maimonides, can be attained when we open our hearts and our doors and include others in our celebration. We can therefore posit that sheep and cattle are the only offerings that qualify for the shalmei simcha because these are the animals used for sacrifices that can be shared with others. The joy of our festivals, Rav Ashi seems to suggest, is derived less from what we eat, and more from how we eat — specifically, how we care for others and strengthen community through these meals. 

The drama of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and of gathering with thousands of others at the Temple is no longer part of our holiday celebrations. But we can — and must, according to Maimonides — recreate the joy of those moments by ensuring that everyone can be part of them. 

Read all of Chagigah 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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