by R. Gil Student
I. Thirty Days Before A Holiday
Holidays are much like other things in life in the sense that the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. We are instructed to study the laws of a holiday thirty days in advance. The Gemara (Pesachim 6a-b) learns this from Moshe, who taught the laws of Pesach Sheini on Pesach Rishon. If we examine the precise reason for this rule, we can see important practical ramifications for today.
Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (Ran, 14th cen., Spain; Commentary to Rif, Megillah 2b s.v. Moshe) points out that the Gemara (Megillah 4a) seems to disagree with the thirty day rule. It says that Moshe issued an enactment that we should learn the laws of a holiday on the day of the holiday. Ran explains that on the holiday itself we must speak about and learn the laws. Thirty days in advance, the rabbis must be prepared to answer any questions people might have. According to Ran, a regular Jew does not have to start reviewing the laws of a holiday thirty days in advance.
However, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Poland; Mishnah Berurah, Bi’ur Halakhah s.v. sho’alin) argues that the vast majority of Medieval authorities disagree with Ran and believe that there are two obligations — to study the laws beginning thirty days in advance on the holiday and to study them on the holiday itself (for example, see Tosafos, Megillah 4a s.v. mai).
Ran’s argument seems to be that it would be redundant to have two obligations to study the laws of a holiday. If you review the laws thirty days in advance, you should know them very well by the time the holiday arrives. What would Tosafos and the other authorities answer to this question?
II. Why Study In Advance?
We can ask what the nature is of this obligation to study the laws thirty days in advance. Is the base obligation to prepare for the holiday? You need to be able to enter the holiday fully ready to observe all its practices. Study in advance enables this. In this view, studying the laws is a hekhsher mitzvah, preparation to fulfill a mitzvah. Or is it a universal obligation to study the laws before the holiday? By enforcing a standard period of study, we will all be prepared for the holiday and we enter the holiday spiritually prepared for it because we have been thinking about it for a full thirty days. In this view, studying the laws is a mitzvah in itself, a taste of the holiday before it arrives. Tosafos (Bekhoros 57b s.v. bi-fros) say that we need thirty days to learn the laws of the holiday sacrifices. However, even today when we have no sacrifices, we still must learn the laws of the holiday.
One of the practical differences that emerges from these two views is if you already know the laws intimately. If the obligation is to prepare then if you already know the laws, you do not need to study them. But if the obligation is to study the laws before the holiday, then whether you already know them or not you must study them.
It seems that Ran believes that the obligation is to know the laws, not necessarily to study them. Therefore, the rabbis need to answer holiday-related questions thirty days in advance if anyone is uncertain about the details. Otherwise, there is no independent obligation to study what you already know. The majority view seems to accept that the obligation is to study the laws every year beginning thirty days before the holiday.
III. How Much Advance Study?
According to Ran, for thirty days scholars are available to help you but on the holiday itself, you have to study. Some people might need more time and help. They have thirty days. But everyone needs one day of review and that is on the holiday itself. According to others, what is the point of studying the laws on the holiday when you just spent thirty days reviewing those laws? We must say that the study of the laws on the holiday itself is not a preparation but a fulfillment of the holiday itself. Part of a holiday’s practices is study of the holiday. This study facilitates a deeper understanding of the day you are celebrating. Holidays should not be days merely of celebration but also of contemplation, of intellectual discussion about the holiday.
If the obligation is to study in advance of a holiday, then this might apply only to Pesach (which is the view of Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel) Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 429). There seems to be a run-up to the holiday of Pesach. We see a suggestion in the Haggadah that we might have thought that we could recite the story of the Exodus in advance of the holiday, perhaps even on Rosh Chodesh. We cannot do so but even the suggestion makes the point that the weeks before Pesach have a connection to the holiday. Maybe learning the laws is also part of this unique aspect of Pesach. But if, on the other hand, this study is just preparation for practicing the rituals of the holiday, it should apply to any holiday that has complicated laws, including Sukkos and Purim and really all of them (Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland), Magen Avraham, 429:1 approvingly quotes authorities who say that the obligation applies to all holidays).
If the obligation is specifically to study the laws beginning thirty days before the holiday, then the time period falls exactly on thirty days before the holiday (as cited in Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 429:1). However, if the obligation is to prepare for the holiday, then the time period is less important than the result — people must be fully prepared when the holiday begins. Magen Avraham (ibid.) says that the custom in his day (and today) is to give a practical sermon on Shabbos Ha-Gadol and Shabbos Shuvah, the Shabbos before Pesach and before Yom Kippur, to fulfill this obligation of studying before the holiday. Magen Avraham explains, “the main point is to instruct the people of God in the ways of God, to teach the practice that they should do.” Mishnah Berurah (429:1) says that for Pesach we need thirty days because the laws are so complex but other holidays require fewer days of study. He also seems to hold that the main point is preparation for the holiday. Similarly, Rambam (12th cen., Egypt; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ishus 8:5) says that the custom in his time was to teach publicly the basics of the holiday laws close to the holiday so everyone would be proficient in them. It seems that even those who disagree with Ran agree with him that the thirty day period is for preparing for the holiday.