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Have a Nice Day

In Tractate Beitzah, the Talmud answers a central question of human life: What makes a day good?

by
Dovid Bashevkin
October 08, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“How was your day?”

It’s a question many of us hear often, from spouses or parents or friends. We hear it so often that it’s become background noise, the elevator music of our lives. But the question is profound and deserves deep reflection: What, if anything, makes a day good?

Reb George Costanza famously issued his own precise recipe: A good day, he taught us, involves some combination of reading a book from beginning to end (in that order), learning to play Frisbee-golf (otherwise known as frolf), and biting into a big hunk of cheese as if it were an apple. These are all very pleasurable things (well, maybe not the frolf), but surely, there must be more.

Thankfully, the Talmud, as it so often does, comes to our aid. What is the meaning of a good day is the central question of Tractate Beitzah, which we concluded reading this week and which was aptly titled after its opening discussion about the permissibility of eating a freshly laid egg on Yom Tov—which is Hebrew for holiday but which literally means, you guessed it, “good day.”

At the core of the tractate is a conundrum that might feel esoteric to nonobservant Jews, but which raises many fascinating philosophical questions still highly relevant to all. It’s this: What are the differences between Yom Tov and Shabbat? The two may feel similar, but there are a few very key Halachic distinctions. Most notably, as the Talmud points out, on Shabbos we are forbidden from cooking while on Yom Tov work needed for the preparation of food is permitted.

This is more than a legal distinction. All preparation is prohibited on Shabbos because it is a day meant to be otherworldly. Shabbos is described as akin to olam habah, the world to come, and the magic of observing it has a lot to do with feeling, if only for 25 brief hours, as if you’re stepping out of time and space and getting a taste of a slice of heaven. Not so Yom Tov: The holiness of the Jewish festivals is a product of the very human sanctification of the calendar, the date of which can shift, change, and move depending on the year. Shabbos is always on Saturday—its holiness is fixed. Yom Tov, a good day, needs to be designated, sanctified, and much like the Jewish people itself, chosen. God sanctified Shabbos, the Jewish people sanctify Yom Tov.

So, once again, let us ask: How do we turn an ordinary day into a truly good one?

Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, had some thoughts on this matter. “What good shall I do this day,” begins his ideal schedule. “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness!” Franklin also included time to “prosecute the present study, and breakfast.” The writer Mason Currey approached the question a tad more methodically: In his charming book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, he lists the daily schedules of over 150 artists, painters, and writers. Few if any definitive themes emerge that would point to any clear direction as to what exactly is a perfect day: Kierkegaard took long afternoon walks, Jane Austen woke early to play piano, Faulkner drank but his daughter insisted that “he always wrote when sober, and would drink afterwards.” Some, like Stephen King (“writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays”), Saul Bellow (“my self-discipline seemed excessive”), and Bernard Malamud (“a time-haunted man”) were rigid and fixed. Others, like James Joyce (“A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism”) and Marilynne Robinson (“I am incapable of discipline”) have hopelessly varied schedules. Kafka, predictably, was more somber about our ability to craft the perfect day, writing, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

The Talmud, too, does not provide a clear schedule for Yom Tov. Instead, as the Talmud does, it presents a dispute. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Yom Tov should be spent either entirely with the gastronomic pleasures of eating and drinking or entirely immersed in the spiritual delights of Torah study. Rabbi Yehoshua, however, takes a more compromising approach: Half the day should be for God and half the day should be for you.

It’s a strange dispute, given that Rabbi Eliezer himself—who supposedly insists that you pick a lane, either physical or material—would beckon his students following his lecture to return home and “eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages.” Instead, this debate needs to be reframed. Everyone agrees that a Yom Tov needs a Godly focus—even Rabbi Eliezer. But Rabbi Eliezer imagines a world where one’s focus, whether on food, or studies, or prayer, can be elevated as a spiritual endeavor. Rabbi Yehoshua is more practical. It is hard to explicitly consider Godliness when surrounded by carbs, wine, and deli—instead, he bifurcates the schedule: half for God, half for us. We, of course, live in the practical world of Rabbi Yehoshua: Not everyone can retain such lofty focus during a festival meal, so we split the day. This leaves us with the Maimonidean schedule for a good Yom Tov day:

Even though eating and drinking are included in the positive commandment (of joy on the holiday), one should not eat and drink the whole entire day. Rather this is the appropriate measure: All of the people get up early in the morning to go to the synagogues and study halls to pray, and to read in the Torah about the topic of the day. Then they go back home, eat, and go to the study hall, where they read and study until midday. And after midday, they pray the afternoon prayers and return to their homes to eat and drink for the rest of the day, until the night.

One of the great difficulties of modern life is that if you aren’t having a good day, odds are you are lost in the drudgery of having a very bad one. In the late David Foster Wallace’s oft-quoted 2005 commencement speech, “This is Water,” he paints a dreary picture of the slog of everyday life. A laborious day, a last-minute, traffic-filled journey to an overcrowded dimly lit supermarket, wandering through aisles, a long checkout line, and finally “you get told to ‘Have a nice day’ in a voice that is the absolute voice of death.” All of our technological wonders, developments, and advances, only make the tedious, anticipatory moments of life all the more grating. What’s a good day for modern man? No traffic, no lines, no inconveniences, no frustrations, no meltdowns in Trader Joe’s where you’re left screaming “this isn’t fair” at the checkout aisle because someone just cut you in line. Frankly, a good day in modern life involves no other people. What Wallace describes as “the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” A good day is a day that is just mine.

That is not the Talmudic vision of a good day. While rabbinic literature calls festivals Yom Tov, they are called mo’ed in the Torah. A mo’ed, deriving from the Hebrew word va’ad, is a gathering place. Normally, we gather in space—stadiums, coliseums, and daises. Jews gather together in time. We gather in time in order to recognize our collective capacity to invest sanctity and holiness in what Walter Benjamin described as “empty homogenous time.” Shabbos is our recognition of God’s sanctification of time; Yom Tov highlights our capacity to create sacred time. Shabbos brings us to someplace otherworldly—all preparations cease. Yom Tov remains tethered to humanity. If Sabbath is the world to come, Maharal explains, then our festivals are the messianic era. Unencumbered by our daily work responsibilities, but still tethered to our most basic human needs, the Jewish holidays imagine a day where we can focus on what is really most important in life: each other and where each of our values will lead us.

In the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, the question is not whether to focus on God or me—the question is how to see God in us. The Hebrew word lachem, from which each sage derives their view, is decidedly plural. I can’t have a good day—only we can, together. A Jewish good day is good because it teaches us how to live the rest of our days. As Franz Rosenzweig writes:

The holiday will serve as a training school for every day. Once a man’s legs are accustomed to its rhythms, he will have no difficulty walking the streets of the work-a-day world. The gait is the same. If he has been well-trained here, he will not stumble later. Rather he will halt in amazement at how simple life actually is.

At a crowded table or in a crowded shul, Yom Tov refocuses our otherwise myopic selves, so we can see the capacity of the Jewish people to tether the monotony of life to something loftier. And the only way to do that is if you also learn to discover transcendence in one another. Shabbos connects us to God, Yom Tov connects us to the Godliness within each other. As Rambam writes about Yom Tov celebrations:

While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach.

A good day is a day when people gather together to bring joy not just to themselves but to one another. A good day, in Wallace’s words is when you discover that “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” A good day is when you can see each day as an opportunity to build toward something more, something infused with the Messianic spirit that each of us has an inner potential that we are working toward. A good day is the birth of an opportunity to free ourselves from the cynical drudgery that can characterize our lives.

And maybe that’s why this tractate about The Good Day is called Beitzah, an egg. Because what is an egg if not the birth of possibility, the birth of opportunity. No good day arrives with a clear and obvious meaning or purpose—it needs to be nurtured and discovered. And like that egg, unrealized yet brimming with potential life, each of our days are laid as such. And it is our job to see what lies beneath each day and each person in our lives and help it hatch.

הדרן עלך מסכת ביצה והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.

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