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Passing Through

In Tractate Moed Katan, the Talmud teaches us the only life lesson we need

Dovid Bashevkin
February 10, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Have you ever—either on purpose or by accident—visited a zoo or amusement park during Chol Hamoed, the Jewish holidays’ intermediate days? It’s a strange sight: hundreds of Jews converging at the Bronx Zoo or Great Adventure, a family outing that is part Jewish holiday, part field trip. Many look like they’re dressed in formal wear except, of course, for the ubiquitous baseball caps. Afternoon prayer services spontaneously form, with families texting each other messages like, “We’re meeting outside the orangutan cages at 3:30 for Mincha.”

But you’ll forgive the mixed signals because Chol Hamoed, as its very name suggests—chol means mundane, moed means holiday—is a study in intermediacy. A day that is both ordinary and elevated, white shirts and baseball hats, a regular Tuesday but also still Passover—it is a day whose identity is both literally and figurately “in between.” And that is what Tractate Moed Katan, dedicated to the laws of Chol Hamoed and—for reasons that will soon become clear, mourning—is all about: how to live a life that is in between, in flux, and sandwiched between conflicting identities.

First, then, some clarification is in order: What, exactly, is Chol Hamoed? Because some Jewish holidays, like Sukkot and Passover, are basically weeklong celebrations, they begin and end with what’s known as yomim tovim—literally, good days—which carry with them restrictions and rituals: We light candles, we wear special clothes, we generally abstain from work. But wedged in between these clear-cut holidays are days that aren’t exactly a festival but by no means just another Tuesday. We call these in-between days Chol Hamoed, and we observe them by keeping the basic outlines of the restrictions that apply on the big ticket holidays, except for some murky qualifications—don’t do work, y’know, unless you really need to. It’s a broad, opaque system of qualification that has led even those most punctilious with Halacha to go on Chol Hamoed excursions to fun and decidedly nonsacred spaces like Six Flags, even if they would never think of riding the Jersey Devil Coaster on the formal yom tov. That, again, is because Chol Hamoed lies in that in-between space and deliberately so.

Why is Chol Hamoed even necessary? Why don’t we just we just have a weeklong formal yom tov, and just take the time to relax and rest for seven solid days? I think Jewish holidays were structured deliberately so because the feeling of being “in between” is a necessary bridge that allows people to better integrate the world they left and the world they are going toward. Without intermediate days, yom tov would feel more like a momentary disruption in our schedule. Without an in-between stage, we would never learn to integrate the ordinary with the holy. Intermediacy models an ambiguity of experience that beckons its participants to consider that if you can experience the holiness of Passover while braving the penguin exhibit, say, then perhaps that holiness can still be preserved even after the yom tov has ended. If the anticipatory excitement of vacation can already be felt in the hotel lobby, perhaps it can even be extended to when we return home. Intermediacy creates transformative experiences.

But don’t just take my word for it. In 1909, Arnold van Gennep, published his work The Rites of Passage, which explored these in-between stages. According to van Gennep, transformative experiences unfold in three stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Transformation begins with a withdrawal from the familiar (separation) and ends with the acquisition of a new identity. This, explains van Gennep, is the process of our lives. “For groups, as well as individuals,” he writes, “life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn.” It is the middle stage, which he termed liminality, meaning threshold, that has garnered increased attention from anthropologists, artists, poets and philosophers: Liminality, explains van Gennep, “is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.”

The anthropologist Victor Turner popularized the focus on that middle stage. In his 1974 essay “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage,” Turner explains that liminality prompts communities, rituals, and experiences that overturn hierarchy and power, erase social ranks, and break down familiar communal barriers. For brief periods of time, nobles may do the work of peasants, say, or children may be treated like elders. Overturning typical societal boundaries during periods of liminality creates a “mystical solidarity,” making the new transformed identity more durable. “The arcane knowledge or ‘gnosis’ obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state,” Turner writes. And this may be why Chol Hamoed has such indefinite halachic restrictions. Chol Hamoed is the liminal period that transforms yom tov from a day into an identity. And during those in-between days, we embrace the liminality in order to ensure that even when yom tov ends it can still be experienced.

Tractate Moed Katan, however is not just about Chol Hamoed. Buried within the third chapter of the tractate are all of the laws of mourning, known as aveilus. It’s a curious juxtaposition. Chol Hamoed reminds us of family outings, shopping bags full of treats, moments of prayers a few yards away from the gift shop. Aveilus feels like the opposite: torn shirts, low chairs, covered mirrors, whispered conversation. No one wants to think about mourning during Chol Hamoed, in fact mourning is not even observed during Chol Hamoed. No one, frankly, wants to think about mourning ever. Ernst Becker, in his classic work The Denial of Death, describes death as a terror—“the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.” Some, in fact, avoided studying Tractate Moed Katan all together in a futile attempt to avoid confronting death. In the 13th-century work Sefer Hasidim, Tractate Moed is described as a meis mitzvah, a neglected dead body, that no one wants to be involved with. We even try to escape the laws of death.

Why, then, does this confusing tractate make us think about both mourning and Chol Hamoed? Because they are both exercises in liminality. If Chol Hamoed is the liminal period that transitions our collective identity acquisition of yom tov, mourning is how we transition our individual identities following the loss of the presence of family.

Does this strike you as too vague? You’re not alone: Many criticize the very notion of liminality as somehow just too broad, a fair point that isn’t much helped by the idea that a simple Google search brings up anything from collections of liminal poetry to discussions of liminal spaces like hotel lobbies to elevators. To wit: A New York Times review of a new hipster liminal experience in Williamsburg, ends with this critique:

That’s also indicative of the larger problem of “Liminality”: It aims to tackle a concept so vast and multifaceted, it has no clear definition of its subject or focus for its intentions. A liminal space can be twilight or purgatory or the realm of dreams … “Liminality” is both too large and too narrow … Though that’s the problem with liminality, isn’t it? The innate paradox: It can be everything and nothing all at once.

To be everything and nothing, can indeed be either a twilight or a purgatory. Chol Hamoed is a twilight, sensitizing us for a life in between holiness and mundane. Mourning is a purgatory caught in the confrontation between silence and language, presence and absence.

Which begs a broader question: Why is mourning even necessary? If we know people are going to die, why do we always act so surprised and sad when it happens? Ramban asks this question in his introduction to Toras Adam, his treatise on mourning. Surprisingly, the Ramban explains, the human condition is essentially immortal. The divine spirit within human beings never fades away, so our confrontation with corporeal finality is unnatural, a product of our physicality and sins. In this sense, life itself is liminality—a separation from the divine, a temporal life on earth, and an ultimate return and reincorporation with The Eternal. And confronting this duality, the underlying liminality of life is what makes death so terrifying. It is the reminder that our lives are a product of the intermediacy between temporality and eternity.

In other words, life itself, as Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frumer explains, is one long Chol Hamoed. The admixture between the fleeting and the infinite, our deteriorating fading bodies and our everlasting souls. Like the moving lyrics of the haunting song “Bein Kodesh L’Chol” (trans. between the sacred and mundane) by the Israeli rock star Amir Dadon and his religious counterpart Shuli Rand:

I live between the sacred and the profane
With the truth that rages within me
With a thousand habits
With every scar on my face
I go out again to scatter the words
Between reality and madness, it’s all coming back to me
The place from whence I came has no peace in it
And this journey is heavy and a little too much for me
I need to grow out of it and that’s it

Mourning is upheaval, liminality, instability. Caught between worlds, mourners confront the ultimate absence and can’t help but feel a little less permanent. If a family is the vehicle through which we form our identity, who are we when they are gone? The very customs of mourning address this head-on: During a shiva call, there is a custom to say the Hebrew phrase “HaMakom Y’Nachem Eschem B’soch Shar Avalei Tzion V’Yerushalim,” or may God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. We slowly bring the mourner out from the silence of isolation into the communal comfort of language. God, in this passage, is referred to as HaMakom, literally meaning the place. We remind mourners that even within the instability of liminality, still the stability of place, identity, remain connected to the Eternal Place, God. I know it feels like you are no longer you without a loved one, we seem to be implicitly saying, but our collective identity is couched in something that can never be entirely lost.

And following the shiva period mourners say Kaddish. Yisgadel v’yiskadash shmei rabbah, May His name grow exalted and sanctified. Staring at the Chol Hamoed that is our lives, we insist that even gazing at our own fragility, our Chol, we can still grasp eternity, our Moed, from within our liminality.

“Through the Kaddish,” explains Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “we hurl defiance at death and its fiendish conspiracy against man.” Kaddish is the declaration that “no matter how powerful death is, notwithstanding the ugly end of man, however terrifying the grave is, however nonsensical and absurd everything appears, no matter how black one’s despair is and how nauseating an affair life is, we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we are not giving up, that we are not surrendering.” B’alma di v’ra chir’ute, in the world that God created, we will not go gently into the darkness of silence. V’yamlich malchutei b’hayeichon u-v’yomeichon, May God reign in our lifetimes and days—even in liminality we can still sense divinity. Uv’hayei d’chol beit yisrael, ba-agala u-vi-z’man kariv, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, we will always remain firmly rooted in the eternal. V’imru amen, now respond, Amen.

הדרן עלך מסכת מועד קטן והדרן 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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