Scholars have long been puzzled by a difficult verse in the book of Psalms, recited towards the end of the festival Hallel prayer: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festival (issur lahag) with ropes (or cord-like branches, `avotim) up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118:27).
What does it mean to tie the festival with ropes? Many scholars, following Ibn Ezra, claim that the reference is to the festival offering, an animal bound up in rope and brought to the edge of the altar, which was decorated with horns, or a sacrificial animal tied directly to the horns of the altar with rope (However, the word hag, “festival”, is never used in the sense of a sacrificial animal, and we have no other reference to a procession in which the animals were led live, bound in cords, up to the edge of the altar, and there is certainly no reference to binding the animal’s leash to the altar horns themselves. This has led other scholars to claim that the reference is to a circular procession or dance (hag, hug) in which the dancers are linked to one another with branches (avotim), a poetic description of processions around the altar in which the people carried branches. One of the four species taken up on Sukkot, the myrtle, is referred to in Leviticus 23:40 as “the branch of an avot (leafy) tree”).
The Talmud (Bavli Sukkah 45a-b) preserves three midrashic interpretations of the verse. The first two see the verse as an illusion to two different Sukkot rituals involving branches – decorating the altar with willow branches (see Mishnah Sukkah4:5) and taking up the four species. The third interpretation, cited in Bavli Sukkah in the name of a number of sages, is no less obscure than the verse itself:
Said Rabbi Yirmiyah in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, and Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Simeon the Mahozite in the name of Rabbi Yohanan the Macuthite: Anyone who makes an issur (literally: “binding, tying up”) of eating and drinking for the festival is considered as one who built an altar to God and sacrificed thereupon.
According to this interpretation, “tying the festival with ropes” means “making a binding of eating and drinking for the festival”. One who does so nowadays is considered as worthy as one who built an altar and offered a sacrifice. But what does it mean to make a binding of eating and drinking?
The two most common interpretations of issur lahag, “a binding for the festival”, are those cited by Rashi in his commentary to the Talmudic passage: (1) a group of friends who assemble or “tie themselves together” for eating and drinking on the festival; (2) the day after the festival, which is “tied” or appended to the festival by eating and drinking on that day as well.
Rashi’s first explanation, that issur lahag refers to the festive meal when shared with company, is difficult. This concept is elsewhere termed miqra qodesh, (See Nahmanides’ commentary to Leviticus 23:2). but festive assemblies are never referred to in Hebrew with the roots ‘asar or qashar in the sense of “tying together”; on the contrary, the root qashar when used of people has a negative connotation, and means “conspiracy” (II Kings 12:21; Bavli Sanhedrin 26a).
Rashi’s second explanation – tying the day after the festival to the festival with food and drink — is equally difficult. The “day after the festival” is usually interpreted as a weekday – the weekday following Simhat Torah (or the weekday following the last day of Passover or Shavuot). In fact, this day is often called isru hag, on the basis of Rashi’s second interpretation of our passage. The notion that the day after a festival, like a festival eve, is a minor festival in its own right is mentioned elsewhere in rabbinic literature, (Megillat Taanit; Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 1:1 (39b)). but nowhere is it referred to as isru hag or issur lahag. In fact, the word issur is never found with the meaning of “tied on” appendage.
Both of Rashi’s interpretations make sense, however, if we assume that the Rabbinic exegesis of the phrase isru hag is based upon substitution of `ayin for aleph and samekh for tsadi. Issur lahag is tantamount to `itsur lahag, an `atseret for the Sukkot holiday (For these substitutions in rabbinic Hebrew, see A. Ben-David,Leshon Miqra ulshon Hakhamim, Tel Aviv 1967, pp. 440-441. For similar substitutions in rabbinic exegesis, see Genesis Rabbah 20:22 and Yerushalmi Shabbat 7:2 (9b)). In his commentary to Deuteronomy 16:8 Rashi interprets the word’atseret, used to describe the seventh day of Passover in that verse and elsewhere in the name Shemini Atseret given to the holiday appended onto Sukkot, in the sense of “a gathering for eating and drinking”. Hence Rashi’s first explanation of issur lahagin his commentary to Bavli Sukkah, as an invitation to company to join in the eating and drinking – issur lahag = `itsur lahag = `atseret(gathering) on the holiday, for the purpose of eating and drinking.
According to this line of reasoning, it would seem that Rashi’s second interpretation of issur lahag as “the day following the festival” has been universally misinterpreted. The reference is not to the first weekday after a festival, such as the day after Simhat Torah, but to the issur = `itsur = `atseret of the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atseret itself. According to Rashi, this exegesis of Psalm 118:27, urging eating and drinking on the issur/`atseret of the festival of Sukkot, is parallel to Mishnah Sukkah 4:8, “…a person is obligated to recite hallel and be joyous and honor the last day of the festival [=Sukkot] just like the other days of the festival”. Thismishnah implies that Shemini Atseret was not universally celebrated with food and drink, and the Rabbis had to encourage the people to treat the day as a full-fledged festival; hence, according to Rashi, the Rabbis responsible for our passage praised one who eats and drinks on Shemini Atseret and equates him or her with one who builds an altar and sacrifices thereupon.
Rashi had a special love for Shemini Atseret. In Bavli Sukkah 55b Rabbi Eleazar explains significance of the Sukkot offerings – seventy bulls are offered over the seven days of Sukkot, and a single bull on Shemini Atseret – as follows: “What do these seventy bulls represent? The seventy nations of the world. Why one bull? It represents the unique nation [Israel]. This can be compared to a human king who said to his servants: Make me a big party. On the last day of the party he said to his beloved friend: Make me a small party so that I can enjoy your company”. In his commentary to Leviticus 23:36, Rashi expands and rewrites Rabbi Eleazar’s exegesis in his own words, words full of emotion. According to Rashi, the parable of the king explains not only the single bull offered on Shemini Atseret, but the very significance of the festival itself: “`Atseret (literally, a “stopping”) – I had you stop over at my house, like a king who invited his children to a party which lasted a number of days. When they were ready to leave, he said to them: Children, I beg of you, stay with me one more day, your departure is very hard on me”. Rashi’s paraphrase of this parable likewise indicates that eating and drinking on Shemini Atseret are not to be taken for granted: they are the response of God’s beloved children to his special request.
Until now we have dealt with Rashi’s interpretations of the phraseissur lahag beakhilah ushtiyah, “binding the festival with eating and drinking”. It would seem, however, that the passage is best interpreted literally, as the Maharsha writes in his commentary toSukkah 45b:
… Issur should be interpreted in the usual sense: he makes himself a prohibition and restriction to the requirement to eat and drink on the festival by not overeating and not getting too drunk, which would not be for the sake of heaven. And it is that excess which he refrained from eating and drinking that is accounted to him as the building of an altar and the sacrifice of an offering.
It would seem that one can take the Maharsha’s interpretation a step further. The usual sense of issur is prohibition, a negative commandment which binds and restricts the observant Jew from certain behavior altogether. This is especially true of eating and drinking; the word issur or issar is often used in the sense of an undertaking to fast. Here too it would seem that the sages who praise the person who makes an issur on eating and drinking on the festival, equating him with one who offers a sacrifice, are urging people to undertake a complete prohibition of food and drink on the festival. This would explain the “sacrifice” – fasting, which entails a caloric loss within the body, is often equated with animal sacrifice and is said to atone for sin, like sacrifice.
Is it conceivable that Talmudic sages urged people to fast on the festival? Indeed it is. In Bavli Betsah 15b the sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus insists that people choose between devoting the festival day to God or to themselves, and he rebukes those of his students who choose themselves and spend the day on food and drink rather than Torah study. His colleague Rabbi Joshua urges that the day be divided: half for God and half for you. Although the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Joshua’s position, it would seem that the authors of our passage in Bavli Sukkah adopted the view of Rabbi Eliezer, and praised those who give up their holiday feasting in favor of Torah study, equating the sacrifice of those who refrain from eating and drinking on the festival with the offering of an animal on the altar. This is the simplest explanation of the phrase issur lahag beakhilah veshtiyah — a prohibition against eating and drinking on the festival.
The notion of fasting on a holiday was so foreign to generations of Talmudists that they simply refused to believe that the phrase issur lahag beakhilah veshtiyah meant a prohibition against eating and drinking on the festival. They insisted that the reference is to the very opposite of fasting: inviting friends to “bind” themselves together in communal eating and drinking, or “tying” an additional feast day to the festival, whether the reference is to Shemini Atseret or the weekday following the festival, as in the contemporary use of the phrase isru hag.
Our generation, however, would seem to be uniquely suited to readopt the original meaning of the phrase issur lahag, as a reference to less, rather than more, eating on the festival. This for two reasons: (1) Our generation has a unique interest in self-restraint when it comes to eating and drinking. In the days leading up to each and every Jewish holiday, the Israeli media is full of discussions about maintaining nutritional balance over the holiday and avoiding overeating, and warnings about the dangers of intoxication and its effect on road safety. We understand that excessive eating and drinking on holidays are not necessarily “for the sake of heaven”. (2) Our generation may be in need of encouragement with regard to the more spiritual aspects of the Jewish holidays. Rabbi Eliezer urged that the entire day of each festival be devoted to Torah study and spiritual endeavors, and although the halakhah has been decided in accordance with Rabbi Joshua, that half of the festival day should be devoted to one’s self and half to God, our generation is in danger of forgetting the half devoted to God. Placing the emphasis on the importance of Torah study and mitsvot on the festival, rather than a focus on eating and drinking, is a desideratum.
Interpreting the injunction to “bind the festival” in Psalm 118:27 as a call for less eating and drinking and more Torah study and spiritual endeavor on Jewish holidays will help us recognize that the central value of the festival lies in the first words of the verse: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light”.
Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem
Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.