The mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s daf listed a number of texts that one is forbidden to write on hol hamoed: Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs. The presumption is that whoever is writing these texts is doing so in order to sell them, and we’ve seen already that commerce is to be avoided if possible on hol hamoed. The mishnah includes one voice of dissent, Rabbi Yehuda, who states that it is permissible to write the scrolls that go inside tefillin or mezuzahs for personal use.
On today’s daf, Rabbi Yehuda offers a seeming contradiction to his earlier statement, employing a wink-wink type of workaround for someone wishing to sell such items:
Rabbi Yehuda says: If he initially made them for himself, he may employ artifice, sell his own and go back and write new ones.
Rabbi Yehuda describes a method by which a scribe could in fact sell tefillin or mezuzahs on hol hamoed. He simply sells his own tefillin or mezuzah and then creates new ones for himself. Sneaky!
Along comes Rabbi Yosei, who cuts through the subterfuge entirely and states:
He may write and sell them in his usual manner, enough for his livelihood.
According to Rabbi Yosei, the ruse described by Rabbi Yehuda is unnecessary. The scribe can sell his items in a normal fashion on hol hamoed if he needs to make a living.
We’ve seen already in this tractate that activities normally prohibited on holidays are permitted on hol hamoed if they are necessary for a person’s sustenance. Why then would Rabbi Yehuda suggest a scribe must employ artifice to sell his wares?
Imagine you are a scribe and don’t have enough money to celebrate the holidays properly. The special meals with wine and delicacies are just not in the cards for you this year. Maybe even a basic amount of food is beyond reach. And what if, on top of that, you can’t work without violating rabbinic law? That could prove quite an embarrassing — not to mention hunger-inducing — situation.
Rabbi Yehuda offers a workaround to save your dignity while ensuring your family has enough to eat. You can simply offer your own tefillin or mezuzah for sale and then make yourself new ones after they sell.
Why would Rabbi Yehuda have suggested this? Perhaps because he himself lived in abject poverty.
According to Tractate Nedarim (49b), Rabbi Yehuda was so poor that he shied away from public events because he didn’t own dignified clothing. Rabbi Yosei was not impoverished, and therefore may have lacked Rabbi Yehuda’s sensitivity.
Throughout this tractate, we have learned that to provide sustenance for oneself and one’s family, a person can in fact bend the rules. But being seen as a person who needs to do so can be demeaning. Rabbi Yehuda’s teaching shows us that it’s just as important to protect a person’s dignity as it is to observe the law. And it only takes a little maneuvering to get there.
Read all of Moed Katan 19 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 31st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.