As we learned in Tractate Shabbat, building is one of the prohibited Sabbath labors. The list of Shabbat prohibitions is — mostly — also applicable to festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). Yet the rules about festivals differ from those about Shabbat in one important respect: on festivals cooking is permitted, whereas on Shabbat it is not. Seems simple enough. But what happens when an extra action required for cooking seems to fall under the category of a prohibited labor? Today’s daf addresses that problem specifically regarding actions that might fall under the category of building.
For example: if you are a person who is cooking a stew for the second night of Rosh Hashanah in the fourth or fifth century C.E., you can’t simply light a burner with the yahrtzeit candle you kept lit throughout the holiday specially for the purpose of cooking (as is common practice amongst observant Jews today). No, you have to start by building your own stove in the form of a log pile. But wait: building is forbidden!
Rabbi Yehuda comes up with a somewhat odd but ingenious solution.
Rav Yehuda said: For a fire, if it is from the top down, it is permitted; from the bottom up, it is forbidden.
In other words, Rabbi Yehuda suggests that instead of building your log pile as you normally would, i.e. from the ground up, you should instead hold the top logs in the air while shoving the bottom logs under it, thus building your log pile from the top down. In this way, you are not really building. The Talmud goes on to list several other items that one might want to stack on a festival that should be done the same way, from the top down: a pile of eggs; the pot that goes on top of the firepit; a bed that you’re setting up, perhaps for your holiday guests and barrels, probably of wine to enjoy with that stew.
This top-down method is a technical workaround, a handy legal loophole that allows you to get the same finished product while claiming that you weren’t really “building” in the normal sense of the word. But it’s also an example of what it looks like to try to balance two competing values — on the one hand, the value of diligently observing prohibitions on forbidden labor, and on the other, the value of enjoying the holiday to its fullest by eating hot, freshly cooked food. Rabbi Yehuda suggests that even if we are going to compromise somewhat on one of our values (the forbidden labor one, in this scenario), we don’t just do so nonchalantly; instead, we do so with an acknowledgment that what we’re doing isn’t going to be ideal — in this case, purposely weird, inefficient construction that differentiates it from normal building. The Talmud implicitly recognizes that such moments of compromise are unavoidable, and with Rabbi Yehuda’s solution, offers us a way to move forward while making visible the different values that we still hold.