The Talmud is full of rules. Much of the time, the Gemara’s rules come with exceptions. You can learn a lot about the rabbis and the world that they were trying to create by studying the rules, but it’s the exceptions that are often the most illuminating.
The second chapter of Moed Katan opens with a mishnah that lists unforeseen circumstances that would prevent a person from being able to complete a particular task before the onset of a festival, when many labors are prohibited.
One who had already turned over his olives as part of the process of preparing them for pressing, and mourning for a close relative befell him, or an unavoidable accident occurred, or his workers misled him, so that he could not press his olives before the festival, he may place the olives in the press and load the beam with weights for the initial pressing of the olives during the intermediate days of the festival and leave it this way until after the festival — this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yosei says: He may press the olives and complete the process and then plug each barrel of oil in its usual manner.
We learn from the mishnah that when unforeseen misfortunes interrupt our work in the days before a festival, it is sometimes permissible to complete the work during hol hamoed, the intermediate days of a festival. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosei disagree, however, about how much of the remaining labor can be completed during hol hamoed. Rabbi Yehuda allows the owner to load the olives into the press — to do what is necessary to prevent a loss; Rabbi Yosei allows one to complete the entire process.
Just as work is limited during hol hamoed, so too is work limited during the week that follows a close relative’s funeral. The former restriction allows laborers to be free to celebrate the festival, the latter permits those who have experienced a loss to focus on their grief. Because the case of the mourner is first on the mishnah’s list of circumstances, the Gemara inquires about what a mourner should do if their olives are turned over but not yet pressed when the mourning period begins.
The rules of festivals affect everyone, but the restrictions that fall on mourners only affect a few. So Rav Sheisha, son of Rav Idi, teaches that people should help:
If a mourner’s olives have already been turned over, others may load them for him into the olive press.
But what if no one is available to take care of a mourner’s olives?
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: If his olives have already been turned over and there is no skilled worker available who knows how to press them properly but him, he may do so in private.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel permits mourners to complete work in progress during their mourning period to prevent a financial loss. But he requires that they complete the work privately, so that they will not be seen working during their time of mourning. Doing so prevents others from seeing them work and from giving the impression that they are not taking the mourning period seriously.
In this case Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel makes an exception, allowing mourners to work to protect them from loss. He also makes an exception if the mourners are needed to perform a communal function:
If this mourner was a craftsman who serves the public, providing a necessary service, or a barber or a bath attendant for the public, and the time of the festival arrived, i.e., it was the eve of a festival, and there is no other skilled worker available but him, then he may perform the labor even in public.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s first exception is helpful to mourners. Not only does it protect them from financial loss — it also puts their mind at ease. Allowing them to take care of their olives sets their concerns aside and frees them to focus on their grief.
The second exception pulls in the other direction. It frees the mourner from personal, religious obligations so that the community can benefit from their services. There is a certain logic to this — a community needs its front line workers, especially before a holiday. Yet, this one gives me pause. Certainly, there are necessary services that the community can’t live without. And, if the text had made reference to those who prepare food for the communal soup kitchen or those who teach children, it might have sat better with me.
But, the text points to barbers and bath attendants. True, it’s nice to bathe and get a trim before the holiday; yet, couldn’t the community do without these services to allow a worker to mourn their dead, even leading up to a holiday? I am left wondering if this exception is more about Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s desire to preserve his creature comforts (recall in Yoma 34 that Rabban Gamliel, a relative of Rabban Shimon, declared himself to be “delicate” as a way to support exceptions to the rules that he made for himself) than to comfort those who are in mourning.
Read all of Moed Katan 11 on Sefaria.