Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 20
March 6, 2006
Mitzvah 21: Rejoicing on the Festivals
Mitzvah 21 – It is a positive commandment to be happy on the festivals.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “and you shall rejoice on your festivals” (Deut. 16:14) When the Sanctuary was in existence, the rejoicing was that an extra peace offering was brought in addition to the festival offering. It was called the offering of joy and women were also obligated in this joy. At the present time, thought happiness is only through meat and wine. Then one has a duty to make his wife happy with pretty clothing and to distribute sweets to the members of his household. He is also obligated to make the poor happy. If someone does not bring happiness to any poor people, his is not rejoicing in a mitzvah but only the joy of his belly, and a joy that is a disgrace to him. (see Malachi 2:3)
Now, even though eating and drinking on the religious holidays is part of the positive commandment, one should not spend a long time with wine, amusement and frivolity, since this is wild foolishness and silly behavior, whereas we are commanded only about rejoicing that contains within it the worship of G-d and it is impossible to worship G-d amid unbridled amusement, frivolity or drunkenness, but only amid the happiness of a mitzvah. The happiness that a person enjoys while doing a mitzvah is a great form of worship It is in force everywhere and at every time.
We see here the two polls of what “rejoicing” is all about. On the one hand, the point of a Festival is to be happy. On the other hand, this “happiness” can easily get out of control. The Hafetz Hayim tries to address both sides of this issue.
We no longer participate in animal sacrifice, so the legal requirement of rejoicing means we need to eat meat and drink wine on festival days. Even if we are on rather strict diets, the few festive days should not have a long term impact on weight or health. Where does this leave Vegetarians and those who do not /can not drink alcohol? Clearly Judaism would have them celebrate with foods and drinks that are appropriate to their needs. The point is to make these days “festive” through the foods that we eat. Also it is important to mention again, that for those who can not drink alcohol because of medications they are taking or because of a history of substance abuse, the above mitzvah should NOT be taken as license to indulge in dangerous activities. The mitzvah simply does NOT APPLY in that case and one should eat and drink in a manner that will not endanger their life or the lives of others around them. Even for the purpose of saying a blessing, Kosher Grape Juice should be used that has no alcohol content at all.
But even for those who may be physically able to drink, the mitzvah does NOT give such a person free reign to let the festival joy descend into debauchery. Rejoicing is not a free ticket to get drunk, out of control or even simply silly. The point is not to awaken the next day with a hangover and to forget what transpired in the holiday celebration. It is one thing to drink and celebrate; it is another to lose all sense of what it means to be a human being. I can be happy with the time off from work, spent with my family, around a festival table, eating good food, enjoying my children and family, telling family stories and remembering why we all love each other. What joy would there be if we ended the meal so full, we felt sick, so drunk that we embarrassed our family and so wasted that we don’t even remember what happened? That is not rejoicing at all and would simply be a violation of the mitzvah. Yes, I know that drunkenness is prescribed for Purim celebrations (that is a different mitzvah that this one) but I think that even in the case of Purim, such drunkenness was meant to be a metaphor, and one should not get that drunk even on that crazy, happy day.
Want to know how a Rabbi celebrates? He uses the time to learn something new. Now that is my kind of happiness and joy!
Next week: Mitzvah 22: Removing Hametz before Passover