This past year, I’ve learned the whole of Seder Moed of the mishnah, which deals mainly with laws about shabbat and holidays.
One of the themes that I’ve been struck by in Seder Moed, is the interplay between the real – or maybe the objective, and the invented, and I’d like to share a couple of pieces of mishnah from the seder that bring this out in different ways:
Firstly from eruvin. The kind of eruv that we’re most familar with today is based on a model of an several courtyards off of an alley. The alley leads to the main street. To make an eruv – literally a combining – that renders all the dwellings off of that alley one domain, within which things can be carried around, the point at which the alley meets the main street has to meet certain criteria, and eruvin begins by defining these.
מבוי שהוא גבוה מעשרים אמה, ימעט; רבי יהודה אומר, אינו צריך
[A beam that is placed over the entrance to] an alley [in order to combine its courtyards], if it is higher than 20 cubits, it should be lowered. Rabbi Yehudah says: one need not [lower it].
There has to be a beam across the alley at, or close to where it joins the main street. The first opinion in the mishna limits the height of this beam, presumably because above 20 cubits – around 30 feet – people wouldn’t think of it as an entrance to a private domain. Rabbi Yehudah, however, is not worried about this. A major concern with the eruv, is that it can be seen as a legal fiction – avoiding the prohibition of carrying by designating an area as a private domain, even though no-one really treats it as such in regular life. Perhaps the first opinion, as opposed to Rabbi Yehudah, is attempting to emphasise the reality of the eruv, by making sure that it does not depart too far from how people normally understand boundaries between domains.
And throughout the tractate, there is this underlying tension – the eruv is in some sense a fiction, but if we stretch too far, it loses any tether to the reality of distinctions between domains.
A very different example is from masekhet sukkah. On sukkot, in the days of the Temple, there was a huge celebration, followed by the filling of a vessel with water from the Temple mount spring, and the pouring of this water as a libation. Here is part of the detail of the ceremony, from chapter 4, mishna 9:
How was the water libation [performed]?
A golden flask holding three logs was filled from the Shiloah. When they arrived at the water gate, they sounded a teki’ah, a teru’ah and again a teki’ah. [The priest then] went up the ramp [of the altar] and turned to his left where there were two silver bowls. … They had each a hole like a slender snout, one being wide and the other narrow so that both emptied at the same time. The one on the west was for water and the one on the east for wine.
Now, having this detailed description of the ceremony is very exciting because it makes it so vivid. I knew about this ceremony before, but only after reading the mishnah could I really visualise it. I now really feel closer to this ceremony, and all of the other Temple rituals that are described in mishnah Moed.
But where do all these details come from? We see that there are disagreements amongst the rabbis of the mishnah about certain issues, and the mishna was compiled well over one hundred years after the destruction of the Temple. And this mishna ends with a story of a high priest who poured out the water on his feet instead of onto the altar, and the people threw their etrogs at him – apparently because he was a Saduccee, and the Saducees did not believe in doing the water libation. So even at the time there may have been disputes over the correct ritual, and we are only hearing one side of it. Perhaps this whole scene only happened in the rabbinic imagination?
But, through the Mishnah, I now connect to it nevertheless.
To bring this theme to bear on the whole Seder, our moadim – our seasons – have their foundation in the real, objective world. The earth rotates on its axis 365 1/4 times during a complete rotation of the Sun. The weather gets warmer, the rains fall, the crops grow. And we have our three harvest festivals – pesah, sukkot and shavuot accordingly. But how we understand and experience all of these times – rest, pilgrimage, celebration, commemoration, repentance, ritual – is the result of the Jewish people’s creative dialogue with God.
And perhaps the enduring power of these holidays and seasons is that they are “inventions”, going beyond our mere observation of the world, but still remaining rooted in it.