Isru Chag in the Yerushalmi and Bavli

Although isru chag, the day following Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, is widely observed as a moderately joyous day, the halakhic literature is hardly in unanimous support. Rif, Rambam and Rosh fail to codify isru chag. What is more, as noted by Magen Avraham (O.C. 429:8, 494:3; see also Mishnah Berurah 429:6), the Mechaber (O.C. 494:3) only prohibits fasting on the day following Shavuot (known as yom tevo’ach, the day on which the Shavuot offerings continued to be sacrificed), implying that he denies the halakhic significance of isru chag altogether. Granted, the Vilna Gaon (O.C. 494 s.v. asur) and Rama (429:3) disagree, but it is striking that so many prominent authorities did not accept this practice.

There is a possible early precedent for treating the day following a holiday as unique, but even this source is not decisive. Nechemia (9:1) reports that, having discovered their mass ignorance, the Jews delay their desired fast day until the 24th of Tishrei, conspicuously opting not to fast on the 23rd, the day immediately following Shmini Atzeret. At first glance, this source implies that one ought not fast on the day following Sukkot. Still, this source is decisive. One might understand that the Jews waited until the 24th simply to recover from the intensity of the Sukkot celebrations.

Even those who accept the existence of this practice question how early it began. Tosafot (Rosh Hashanah 19b s.v. mimot), for example, claim that it was certainly not practiced during the Second Temple period.

There is one relatively early source that does clearly endorse isru chag, albeit by a different name. Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 1:1) calls the day after a chagbrei de-mo’ada,” explaining that gentiles are accustomed to celebrate on the day following their holidays as well. The Yerushalmi then asserts that this practice enjoys a halakhic basis, citing the aforementioned verses in Nechemia. What does brei de-mo’ada mean, and what is its significance? Pnei Moshe (ibid., s.v. mishum) claims that “brei” means food (as in the seudat havra’ah eaten by the mourner). In other words, the gentiles had the practice of eating a celebratory meal on the day after their holidays. However, the plain reading of the Yerushalmi, as understood by Beit Yosef (OC 494) and the Gra (ibid.), is that brei de-mo’ada means the child of the holiday. In other words, the Yerushalmi understands that due to its sanctity, the holiday automatically “spawns” an additional day of holiness. (Intriguingly, the Yerushalmi assumes that while the gentile holidays are pagan, their instinct to celebrate the day following their holidays reflects an authentic intuition.) On this view, it would appear that isru chag is a day of intrinsic halakhic status.

What of the Bavli’s view? Does the Bavli accept that the day after a holiday is invested with a unique status? If so, does it conceptualize that day along similar lines to the aforementioned Yerushalmi?

The locus classicus for our discussion appears in Sukkah 45b, which teaches:

With regard to anyone who establishes an addition [issur] to the Festival on the day after the Festival by eating and drinking, the verse ascribes him credit as though he built an altar and sacrificed an offering upon it, as it is stated: “Add [isru] to the Festival with thick [cords] until the horns of the altar.”

It is far from obvious that our passage refers to one who eats and drinks on the day after the holiday. As Rashi (s.v. ba’achila) notes in his first interpretation, the line may well refer to one who eats extra on yom tov proper. Alternatively, Maharsha (Chiddushei Agadot s.v. kol) maintains that the Gemara refers not to one who eats extra on yom tov but who avoids overeating on the holiday. Ben Yehoyada (s.v. kol) similarly offers three interpretations, none of which assume that the Gemara refers to the day after a chag.

Rashi, however, following a view among the Geonim, suggests in his second explanation that the Gemara does in fact refer to the day after the holiday. Rokeach (262) adopts this reading, and Rama (OC 429:3), Magen Avraham (429:6) and Mishnah Berurah (429:13), among many others, rule accordingly. There is, indeed, an obvious reason to prefer Rashi’s second interpretation to his first: there is an obligation of simchat yom tov on the holiday proper. Why, then, would the Gemara laud one who fulfills this basic obligation by eating and drinking? For this reason, it seems more reasonable to suggest that the Gemara instead refers to one who “ties” himself to the holiday after its conclusion through eating and drinking.

On Rashi’s second approach, how does the Bavli conceptualize isru chag, particularly in relation to the Yerushalmi? By citing the prooftext “isru chag ba’avotim ad karnot ha-mizbeiach,” the Gemara seems to suggest that one who continues to rejoice has thereby “tied himself” to the holiday. This implies a rather different approach to isru chag: rather than suggesting, as does the Yerushalmi, that the following day is invested with inherent holiness, the Bavli implies that the status of the day flows from our own efforts. As the Menorat Ha-Maor suggests, we extend the sanctity of the holiday by “binding ourselves” to the previous days. In Brisker terms, for the Bavli, it is not a din (law) in the yom (day) but in the gavra (person).

This Brisker insight, however, fails to suffice as a basis for interpreting the wider sugya in the Bavli. For numerous questions plague our passage as well as the wider context in which isru chag appears. Only by considering these difficulties can we fully appreciate the Bavli’s approach to isru chag.

Regarding our Gemara we can inquire:
-How exactly does the Gemara derive this ruling from the verse in Tehilim?

-What is the significance of considering it as if the individual brought a sacrifice? Why not simply say that one who eats and drinks is meritorious?

-There is a clear irony at play. The verse speaks quite clearly of one who brings a sacrifice, whereas our Gemara understands the verse to refer to one who has not offered a korban. What are we to make of this ironic inversion?

Moreover, there are numerous curiosities in the Mishnah and Gemara that serve as the wider context for isru chag. Before identifying those difficulties, let’s briefly review the sugya.

The Mishnah (45a) discusses the obligation of taking the aravot (willows) in the Temple:

How is the commandment of the willow branch fulfilled? There was a place below Jerusalem, and it was called Motza. They would descend there and gather willow branches from there. And they would then come and stand them upright at the sides of the altar, and the tops of the branches would be inclined over the top of the altar. They then sounded a tekiah, sounded a teruah, and another tekiah.

Each day they would circle the altar one time and say: “Lord, please save us. Lord, please grant us success” (Tehilim 118:25). Rabbi Yehuda says that they would say: Ani Va-hu, please save us. And on that day, the seventh day of Sukkot, they would circle the altar seven times. At the time of their departure at the end of the Festival, what would they say? It is beautiful for you, altar; it is beautiful for you, altar. Rabbi Elazar said that they would say: To the Lord and to you, altar; to the Lord and to you, altar.

As its performance during the week, so is its performance on Shabbat; except for the fact that they would gather the branches from Shabbat eve and place them in basins of gold so that they would not dry. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka says: There was a unique custom on the seventh day. They would bring palm branches to the Temple and place them on the ground at the sides of the altar, and that seventh day of Sukkot was called: The day of the placing of palm branches. Immediately after fulfilling the mizva of taking the four species on the seventh day of the festival of Sukkot, children remove their lulavim from the binding and eat their etrogim as an expression of extreme joy.

There are many puzzling elements in the Mishnah, perhaps above all the enigmatic phrase “Ani Va-hu Hoshiah Na.” To what does this refer?

The Gemara goes on to a make a number of similarly puzzling points.

-The Gemara notes that Motza, which was mentioned in the Mishnah, was a Roman military colony [kelanya]. Why does the Gemara bother with this seeming sidebar?

-The Mishnah asserts, and the Gemara elaborates at some length, that the aravah was required to be one cubit taller than the altar. Why was this necessary?

-While we have discussed the Gemara’s homily regarding eating and drinking, the Gemara deduces a total of three dicta from the verse of isru chag. First, the Gemara suggests that from this source we learn that the aravah must outflank the altar. Second, the Gemara states that “one who takes a lulav in its binding and a myrtle branch in its dense-leaved form, the verse ascribes him credit as though he built an altar and sacrificed an offering upon it.” Only then does the Gemara cite the derivation regarding one who eats and drinks. What, if any, is the connection between these three derashot?

The Gemara then cites three seemingly conceptually unrelated laws taught by Rabbi Yirmiya in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai:

  1. Our statement regarding one who eats and drinks.
  2. The Tabernacle’s acacia wood will be useable eternally, long after the building’s destruction.
  3. “Hizkiya said that Rabbi Yirmiya said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: I have seen members of the caste of the spiritually prominent, who are truly righteous, and they are few. If they number one thousand, I and my son are among them. If they number one hundred, I and my son are among them; and if they number two, I and my son are they.”

Beyond the mere associative relationship of authorship, is there any larger common thread between these three seemingly unrelated teachings?

To answer, we must return to the Mishnah with which we began. At first glance, the mizvah of aravah poses a grave religious challenge in the post-Temple period. Without the Temple and Altar, we are no longer able to perform this key obligation on Sukkot. Indeed, the previous and present Mishnayot discuss the mizvot of lulav and aravah as they apply in the Temple, leaving one to wonder what significance they do or don’t hold outside.

To this, the Mishnah implicitly responds by citing the enigmatic phrase Ani Vahu Hoshiah Na. While this term bears numerous interpretations, it is understood by the Yerushalmi, Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah) and Ritva (45a s.v. ani) as a reference to God’s intimate presence during times of exile: imo anokhi be-zara (Tehilim 91:15). Thus, in a Mishnah describing the mizvah of aravah in the Temple, the text consciously goes out of its way to stress that God is present even in exile.

The segments in the Gemara underscore similar motifs. It seems reasonable to conjecture that the Gemara regarding Kelanya means to serve as a reminder that even when the Temple stood, Jewish autonomy was incomplete. To collect the willow branches, the Jews of the late Second Temple period were required to enter a Roman town. This offers to comfort to the exilic Jews: even when the Temple stood, the Mishnah implies, matters were far from perfect. The significance of the willow standing above the altar may be understood along similar lines. In the end, the sugya implies, the willow itself was more essential than the altar, and thus stood taller than the Temple vessel. Finally, this is the common thread that runs through all three statements taught by Rabbi Yirmiya in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The acacia wood, while essential for the Tabernacle, will be significant far beyond the physical presence of the building. There are extraordinarily spiritually-elevated individuals living among the Tanaim, well after the Temple’s destruction.

This is also the lesson of isru chag. All three derivations from the verse in Tehilim center on this same motif. The aravah, as we explained earlier, was symbolically viewed as overshadowing the altar. Moreover, one who takes the hadasim and aravot is considered to have offered a sacrifice. In other words, one can meaningfully fulfill the obligations of Sukkot even in the Temple’s absence. Finally, turning to our law, even without the four species, properly commemorating the holiday through food - whether by indulgence or abstinence, on the holiday or after - is a meaningful form of observance.

Indeed, Arukh LaNer (45b s.v. be-Gemara) proposes precisely this thesis, suggesting that the three homilies are to be viewed as building on one another. Ideally, he explains, one is meant to fulfill the mizvah of aravah on the altar. Today, without a Temple, the hadasim and aravot suffice. Moreover, even one who lacks the four species should not give up hope. Even through food, one can achieve a meaningful, if incomplete, observance of the holiday. In his striking formulation:

For the intention of these three derivations that it learned from “isru chag ba’avotim,” it appears to me that after learning first about the encircling of the altar with the aravah and lulav, which is such an important mizvah that our Mishnah praised the altar at its conclusion, and all this we lost with the Temple’s destruction. [Therefore] to comfort us, Rabba Abahu himself taught...

Indeed, the ironic subversion of the verse in Tehilim underscores precisely this point: the rabbis interpret a verse concerning one who offers a sacrifice in regard to one who does not, underscoring precisely the comforting message the Gemara seeks to convey.

We now have a far deeper appreciation for the Bavli’s notion of isru chag. The greater message of the Gemara is that, in the wake of the hurban, not all is lost. The altar may be missing, but the fundamental obligations and opportunities of Sukkot remain intact. For Rashi’s second interpretation, the accessibility of the motifs of Sukkot - and, by extension, Pesach and Shavuot as well - means that its commandments are not mere shadows of their original intentions. In fact, the religious experience of Sukkot remains in force today (if not full force). We are therefore obligated to do our part, following Menorat HaMaor, to bind ourselves to the holiday’s themes and inspiration during the subsequent days.