Tractate Yom Tov, better known as Beitza after its first word, deals with the general halakhot of Festivals – joyous days. Whereas other tractates in Seder Mo’ed address the laws of Shabbat and the mitzvot that are specific to each of the major Festivals, this tractate deals with the laws common to all Festivals. These halakhot include the commandment to rest from work, in the form of positive and negative mitzvot that apply to all Festivals. They are derived from the verses: “It shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of shofarot, a sacred convocation,” (Vayikra 23:24) and, “You shall do no manner of servile work,” (Vayikra 23:7-8).
There is no difference between Shabbat and Festivals with regard to the basic definition of prohibited labor. On Festivals, as on Shabbat, the definition of labor is any action that entails creative work, performed intentionally. The details of the halakhot of prohibited labor on Festivals, and the decrees and enactments of the Sages to safeguard people from transgression and to emphasize the sanctity of the day, are very similar to the halakhot and enactments for the mitzva of rest and the prohibition against labor on Shabbat. Therefore, the main topics in this tractate can also be found in the tractates that deal with the laws of Shabbat, i.e. Massekhet Shabbat and Massekhet Eiruvin. Indeed, in terms of structure and content, Massekhet Beitza can be seen as a kind of addendum to Massekhet Shabbat, not only in terms of the fundamental concepts but also with regard to the details of its halakhot. Consequently, this tractate addresses neither the sources of its halakhot nor the basic definitions of prohibited labor and the mitzva of rest. Its main focus is the elucidation of the differences between Shabbat and Festivals.
The first distinction concerns the severity of the sin. The prohibition against performing labor on Shabbat is one of the most severe transgressions in the Torah. Conversely, the prohibition against performing labor on a Festival is not as severe; rather, it is a regular negative commandment, punishable by lashes. Furthermore, the scope of the prohibition is different. All labor is prohibited on Shabbat; on Festivals, the prohibition is limited to servile labor. On Festivals the Torah permits labor that is for the purpose of sustenance. The central topic of Tractate Beitza is the elaboration and explication of this more limited prohibition against performing labor.
It was clear to the Sages that not all acts of labor involved in the preparation of food are included in this leniency. The early authorities debate whether the exclusion of certain labors is a rabbinic decree to safeguard the Festival, or if its source is from the Torah itself. There is a fundamental distinction between labors that merely prepare items that can be processed into food, for example: hunting, harvesting, and similar actions; and labors that actually prepare food for eating, such as cooking and baking.
Although the Torah permitted labor for the purpose of sustenance on Festivals, the Sages deemed it necessary to create limits and restrictions on this halakha, both so that the sanctity of the Festivals would be preserved and to prevent a Festival from turning into a regular workday, albeit with a few restrictions. The concerns that led the Sages to limit the scope of permitted actions on a Festival, however, are counterbalanced by another consideration: On Festivals there is a special mitzva to be joyful, as stated in the Torah –
This joy, as evident from the context of this passage and its interpretation by the Sages, is expressed and actualized by means of eating, drinking, and wearing beautiful clothing, among other activities. Therefore, one must ensure that the restrictions on labor are not so great that they negate the joy of the Festival.
The relationship between Shabbat and Festivals concerns not only the halakhic comparisons between them but also the problems that arrive when a Festival immediately follows or, especially, precedes Shabbat. Another issue that is specific to the halakhot of Festivals is the ancient enactment that people living outside Eretz Yisrael must observe the second Festival day of the Diaspora, in addition to the single day observed in Eretz Yisrael. This is a practice that began at a time when the difficulties of communication led to a situation in which many communities were not certain of the correct day of the holiday. The tradition is kept to this day for a variety of reasons discussed in our Gemara.