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Which Came First 

The Hen or the Egg?

A Brief Gemara Shuir
Beitzah 2a and 2b (part)
by Neil Cohen
chicken or the egg
chicken or the egg
chicken or the egg
chicken or the egg

This shiur is dedicated to my dear friend and mechutan Jonathan Bernstein of Monsey, New York, with whom I have grown through our learning.  

The Tractate of Beitzah is the seventh Tractate of the twelve that form the Second Order of the Mishnah, called Moed. There are six Orders of the Mishnah, and sixty-three Tractates of the Talmud.

The Order of Moed deals with many and varied subjects, such as the thirty-nine prohibited melachos (activities) of shabbos, the Rosh Hashanah services and the reading of Megillas Esther.

The Tractate of Beitzah deals mainly with the differences between shabbos and yom tov. The first two Chapters are a collection of disagreements between the famous schools of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding yom tov.

The first Chapter, as I will explain in more detail, begins with the laws of an egg laid on yom tov, which is relevant to shabbos as well. Beitzah means egg, which is the first word of the Tractate.

The issue in the first part of our mishnah is whether such an egg is regarded as muktzeh with the result that according to Rabbinic decree, it cannot be touched or moved around on yom tov (or shabbos) since it is not set aside for use on those days (Shabbos 123b). One of the main reasons for this decree is that one might forget oneself and inadvertently perform a prohibited melachah on shabbos or yom tov. In essence, muktzeh puts a safety net around an aveira, a transgression. 

The rules of muktzeh are complex and are discussed by our Rabbis elsewhere. In broad terms, muktzeh is any item that was not prepared (muchan) for use before shabbos. There are several categories of muktzeh, but the one with which we are concerned this evening is called nolad, meaning “just born”. That is, any object which first achieves its useful state on shabbos or yom tov. Therefore, on the face of it, since it cannot have been muchan beforehand, it is muktzeh That is the starting off point, but as one might expect, many complexities arise out of this broad principle.

An egg laid on yom tov would appear to be nolad, since it was not in existence, at least not a separate existence, before the onset of shabbos or yom tov, since it was inside the hen. But on the basis that our Rabbis always attempt to allow rather than prohibit, Beitzah begins with a difference of opinion between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel as to whether such an egg is muktzeh.

So, let us begin.

In your source sheet, you will see the mishnah which will be elucidated by the subsequent gemara. We are concerned in tonight’s shiur with the first statement of the mishnah, which reads as follows:

ביצה שנולדה ביום טוב בית שמאי אומרים תאכל ובית הלל אומרים לא תאכל

The mishnah refers to an egg laid on yom tov. Beis Shammai permits to be eaten, but Beis Hillel prohibits it.

You will see in your source sheet that the gemara begins as follows:

גמ' במאי עסקינן אילימא בתרנגולת העומדת לאכילה מאי טעמייהו דבית הלל אוכלא דאפרת הוא אלא בתרנגולת העומדת לגדל ביצים מאי טעמייהו דבית שמאי מוקצה היא

The gemara begins by asking what kind of hen are we concerned with here: if it is a hen reared for consumption, why does Beis Hillel prohibit the egg from such a hen? After all, it is permitted to shect (ritually slaughter) such an animal to eat on yom tov and it is not muktzeh, in which case, since the egg is derived from it, surely it is therefore also permitted. Put another way, had you shechted the hen and discovered an egg inside it, you could have eaten the egg at that point. At the onset of yom tov, the hen would have designated as potentially edible, then on discovery of the egg, that would have been edible too.

On the other hand, if it is a hen designated for laying eggs, why does Beis Shammai permit it – surely it is muktzeh on the basis that it since it did not exist before yom tov, it cannot have been designated for use on yom tov; and nor can it be compared to an egg from a hen for consumption, because it cannot be food derived from permitted food and is therefore muktzeh.

The gemara seeks to resolve this difficulty by seeing whether the argument in the mishnah around the egg is illustrative of a broader position held by Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding muktzeh generally:

ומאי קושיא דלמא בית שמאי לית להו מוקצה

That is, maybe Beis Shammai does not subscribe to a broad definition of muktzeh and therefore does not prohibit? According to broad definition of muktzeh, an object is muktzeh unless one has specifically in mind that it could be used on yom tov. This results in a wide ranging prohibition.

The broad definition of muktzeh is according to R’ Yehuda and would therefore prohibit nolad objects since one cannot have it specifically in mind because it does not exist at the relevant time.

On the other hand, R’ Shimon maintains that a prior state of mind to use an object on yom tov is not necessary, hence there is no prohibition on nolad objects. It does not matter that the nolad object, in the case of our mishnah, the egg laid on yom tov, is not yet in existence at the onset of yom tov. Hence the gemara suggests that Beis Shammai might be aligned with R’ Shimon in permitting an egg from a hen designated for consumption.

However, the gemara rejects this explanation:

קא סלקא דעתין אפילו מאן דשרי במוקצה בנולד אסר מאי טעמייהו דבית שמאי

That is, the gemara’s rejection is on the basis that nolad objects represent a special, stringent category of muktzeh, such that even R’ Shimon – and therefore Beis Shammai - does not permit them.

The gemara now further explores the mishnah with a statement of Rav Nachman:

אמר רב נחמן לעולם בתרנגולת העומדת לגדל ביצים ודאית ליה מוקצה אית ליה נולד ודלית ליה מוקצה לית נולד בית שמאי כר' שמעון ובית הלל כר' יהודה

Rav Nachman simply states that the mishnah refers to a hen reared for laying eggs; and the dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel can be explained by the fact that R’ Shimon, with whom Beis Shammai is aligned, does not subscribe to the nolad prohibition; and the reverse applies to R’ Yehuda, with whom Beis Hillel is aligned, such that Beis Hillel prohibits the egg from such a hen.

However, the gemara now seeks to challenge Rav Nachman’s explanation by citing the following mishnah (Shabbos 143a) which appears to contradict the alignment of Beis Shammai explained above:

ומי אמר רב נחמן הכי והתנן בית שמאי אומרים מגביהין מעל השלחן עצמות וקליפין ובית הלל אומרים מסלק את הטבלא כולה ומנערה ואמר רב נחמן אנו אין לנו אלא בית שמאי כרבי יהודה ובית הלל כר"ש

That is, Beis Shammai states that one may remove bones and nutshells from the table on shabbos, but Beis Hillel maintains that one must lift off the whole table-top and shake it. Bones and nutshells are unfit for eating and can, according to R’ Shimon, be handled for use as animal fodder, and they are not muktzeh. But R’ Yehuda prohibits such items as muktzeh because they were not designated before shabbos as animal fodder.

However, Rav Nachman states elsewhere on this mishnah that the mishnah in the form just stated cannot be relied on because he had heard from his masters that Beis Shammai rules like R’ Yehuda, and prohibits; and Beis Hillel rules like R’ Shimon and permits. This contradicts what Rav Nachman explained above: that Beis Shammai rules like R’ Shimon and Beis Hillel rules like R’ Yehuda.

The gemara seeks to reconcile the above statements by Rav Nachman:

אמר לך רב נחמן גבי שבת דסתם לן תנא כרבי שמעון דתנן מחתכין את הדלועין לפני הבהמה ואת הנבלה לפני הכלבים מוקים לה לבית הלל כרבי שמעון

Rav Nachman answers that both of his statements are correct. The reason being that regarding shabbos, a stam (anonymous) mishnah elsewhere rules according to R’ Shimon. The stam mishnah states (Shabbos 156b) we may cut up gourds before an animal for it to eat on shabbos; and we may cut up a carcass before dogs for them to eat. Regarding both rulings, Rashi explains that they do not involve a muktzeh prohibition even though the animal may have died on shabbos and cutting up the gourds may involve significant effort. Since the halacha normally follows an stam mishnah; and since halacha also generally follows the opinion of Beis Hillel, we can, in this case, align Beis Hillel with R’ Shimon (and in our mishnah, as Rav Nachman has said, align Beis Hillel with R’ Yehuda).

Rav Nachman continues:

אבל גבי בי יום טוב דסתם לן תנא כרבי יהודה דתנן אין מבקעין עצים מן הקורות ולא מן הקורה שנשברה ביום טוב מוקים לה לב"ה כרבי יהודה

In this case we are dealing with yom tov, involving complex scenarios relating to cutting wood for firewood. Tosafos (medieval commentaries on the Talmud) and Rashi explain why the rulings do not involve a muktzeh prohibition, but this is not the main issue in the present context. What we are interested in is that once again, we have a stam mishnah so the halacha normally follows such a ruling; and rulings of Beis Hillel normally comprise halacha. In this case however, the mishnah is according to R’ Yehuda. Therefore, we can align Beis Hillel with R’ Yehuda regarding muktzeh law on yom tov (as Rav Nachman has said regarding our mishnah). It seems that in this case, Beis Hillel is uncharacteristically strict.

This conclusion, that we can align Beis Hillel with R’ Yehuda regarding muktzeh law on yom tov, feeds back into our mishnah. Remember that Rav Nachman states that the mishnah is discussing a hen reared for laying eggs. How did he arrive at this conclusion? Because, working backwards, Beis Hillel prohibits such an egg, and this can only be a logical ruling if Beis Hillel is aligned with R’ Yehuda, as has just been demonstrated regarding muktzeh law on yom tov. Put briefly, Beis Hillel prohibits, therefore it follows that we are dealing here with a hen reared for laying eggs.

Additionally, Rav Nachman’s statement above that Beis Shammai rules like R’ Yehuda and Beis Hillel rules like R’ Shimon can be reconciled. So far so good.

The gemara now explains why the halacha fluctuates between the opinions of R’ Shimon (who is lenient) and R’ Yehuda (who is stringent):

מכדי מאן סתמיה למתני' רבי מאי שנא בשבת דסתם לן כר' שמעון ומאי שנא ביו"ט דסתם לן כר' יהודה

The gemara notes that Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor and editor of the mishnah) formulated these stam mishnahs. As we have seen, the first stam mishnah deals with muktzeh on shabbos and rules leniently according to R’ Shimon; the second deals with muktzeh on yom tov, and rules strictly according to R’ Yehuda, and prohibits. Why is this? It seems counterintuitive – surely the muktzeh laws would be stricter on shabbos to keep us all in line?

The gemara answers with a thought process with which we can all identify:

אמרי שבת דחמירא ולא אתי לזלזולי בה סתם לן כרבי שמעון דמיקל יום טוב דקיל ואתי לזלזולי ביה סתם לן כרבי יהודה דמחמיר

That is, if we were to rule leniently regarding muktzeh on yom tov, when certain activities, such as food preparation, are allowed where they would not be allowed on shabbos, this may lead to a view that yom tov is not as serious and shabbos which in turn may lead to a lack of observance in other areas. But there is surely no such concern when it comes to shabbos, since many prohibitions are already in place.

The gemara hasn’t given up yet though, and challenges Rav Nachman’s explanation that we are concerned here with a hen reared for laying eggs.

במאי אוקימתא בתרנגולת העומדת לגדל ביצים ומשום מוקצה אי הכי אדמפלגי בביצה לפלגו בתרנגולת

This is where the hen and the egg comes in. The gemara asks whether Rav Nachman has indeed established the case of the mishnah, that is, it concerns a hen designated for laying eggs: and Beis Hillel prohibits because the egg is muktzeh. The gemara asks, in that case, why not instead discuss the opinions of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding the type of hen? This would better illustrate the basis of the argument between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, since the chicken comes before the egg!

The gemara seeks to justify why the mishnah talks about the egg, not the hen:

להודיעך כחן דב"ש דבנולד שרי

That is, the mishnah is framed in this way to explain the extent of Beis Shammai’s leniency: that even in the case of a nolad object, such as the egg in question, Beis Shammai allows.

But the gemara is not satisfied with this explanation:

ולפלוגי בתרנגולת להודיעך כחן דבית הלל דבמוקצה אסרי וכ"ת כח דהתירא עדיף ונפלוג בתרוייהו תרנגולת העומדת לגדל ביצים היא וביצתה ב"ש אומרים תאכל וב"ה אומרים לא תאכל

Essentially, what the gemara is saying here is that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel should argue in the mishnah about the hen to explain the extent of Beis Hillel’s stringency: that this is not about nolad, Beis Hillel would prohibit the egg according to the ordinary rules of muktzeh. If, as the gemara states above, the mishnah is framed in this way to explain the extent of Beis Shammai’s leniency, then to provide the full picture the mishnah should also explain the extent of Beis Hillel’s stringency. Indeed, the gemara points out that this can be done with a minimal addition of words in the mishnah to refer to the egg and the hen i.e. Beis Shammai would allow both and Beis Hillel would prohibit both. But the mishnah does not do this.

Therefore, Rav Nachman’s explanation that the battleground is about the type of hen does not hold up. Why? Because we can assume based on Rav Nachman’s explanation that kal vachomer (that in determining the halacha, what applies in a less important case (the egg in our case) will certainly apply in a more important one (the hen in our case)) Beis Shammai would allow the hen since he allows the egg from it. But what about Beis Hillel? Would he prohibit the hen on the basis that he prohibits the egg? We cannot say, unless the mishnah tells us so, which it does not since it merely mentions the egg.

This seriously compromises Rav Nachman’s interpretation of the battleground between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. It enables us to fully explain the extent of the reasoning of Beis Shammai, but not Beis Hillel. Therefore, the battleground must surely be elsewhere.

Accordingly, the gemara continues its search for the true battleground between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel with a second explanation of the mishnah, then a third and a fourth. But that must wait for another day.

What have we learned this evening?

We have explored a difference of opinion between the famous schools of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. We have touched on the complex halachos of muktzeh, in particular how those laws apply in the case of nolad, meaning any object which first achieves is useful state on shabbos or yom tov.

But principally, I hope we have gained a small insight into the workings of the mishnah and gemara which make up the Talmud.

I do hope you have found this brief shiur interesting, and I wish you all chag sameach and every success in your future Torah learning. Thank you.

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