The Boundaries of Halacha

Maaserot (3:7) | Allon Ledder | 13 years ago

The festival of Sukkot is referred to twice in the Mishnayot that we studied last week. 

In the first reference (3:7), the Mishnah discusses whether a sukkah is sufficiently like a house so as to render produce liable to maasrot and even prohibit snacks (see previous issue). According to R’ Yose, a sukkah is considered to be a permanent dwelling like a house during the festival of Sukkot and therefore it renders produce liable to maasrot. However, according to the Chachamim (which is the Halacha) a sukkah is by definition a temporary dwelling, even during the festival of Sukkot. Therefore a sukkah will not render produce liable to maasrot.

The second reference to Sukkot is not as obvious. The Mishnah(4:4) discusses un-tithed wine that is still in the winepress and therefore is not yet fully processed. Such wine may be drunk casually, but not in a formal manner. Drinking the wine over the press is considered ‘casual’ and is permitted. Taking the wine away from the area over the press is considered ‘formal’ and is not allowed. 

Kehati (based on the Gemara Shabbat 11b) defines ‘drinking the wine over the press’ as being when a person has their head and more than half of their body over the press. 

The same measurement also appears in the Mishnah in masechet Sukkah(2:7). We see there, that for a person to be considered ‘in the sukkah’ they must have their head and the majority of their body in the sukkah. The minimum size of a sukkah to be halachically valid is seven tefachim by seven tefachim because that is big enough to contain a person’s head, the majority of their body and a small table (Sukkah 3a).

The ‘head and majority of body’ test is also applied elsewhere. The Gemara(Eruvin 99a) states that it is forbidden on Shabbat to stand in one domain (either a reshut harabim or a reshut hayachid) and bend forward into the opposite domain (ie a reshut hayachid or a reshut harabim) to drink. The concern is that the person may transfer the cup into the domain in which they are standing and thereby violate the prohibition on Shabbat against transferring objects from one domain into another domain. However, the Gemara rules that if his head and most of his body are in the domain in which he is drinking, then it is permitted.

The three cases outlined above all focus on where a person is located for the purposes of the Halacha. Or perhaps more precisely, when does the Halacha consider that a person is sufficiently in a location such that we are no longer concerned that the person might inadvertently move their food or drink out of that particular location (i.e. out of the sukkah; into a different domain on Shabbat, or away from the area over the wine press).

In the case of the sukkah, a male is generally obligated to eat while inside a sukkah. The case of ‘inside’ however needs to be accurately defined, specifically in cases where a person is only partially within a sukkah. Based on the discussion above, the Halacha is clear. For the purposes of Halacha, a person is considered to be wherever their head and the greater part of their body are located. At that point we are no longer concerned that they will inadvertently consume food or drink outside the sukkah

We can see a very important principle at play here. The Mishnah and the Gemara are purposely defining the outer limits of the Halacha in order to facilitate its application to real life scenarios. 

When studying Mishnayot and Gemara we often come across cases that seem very far-fetched and highly improbable. The case of a tiny sukkah that is just big enough for one’s head and the majority of their body might seem strange. However we are not necessarily learning about cases that really happened. The cases are deliberately set right at the boundary of the Halacha so that we can see precisely where that boundary lies. In this way, when we are faced with a real case we can determine which side of the boundary we are on.


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