The Mishna (Beitzah 5:2) in today’s daf (Beitzah 36b) lists a variety of activities which our Sages forbade on Shabbat and Yom Tov for fear of what they may lead to. This includes לא מטפחין ולא מספקים ולא מרקדין – ‘we do not clap nor to we slap our hand to our thighs nor do we dance’ against which a decree was established because, as the Gemara then proceeds to explain, שמא יתקן כלי שיר – ‘perhaps one may come to fix a musical instrument’.
Significantly, this prohibition is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 339:3). However, the Rema then adds two fascinating statements relating to the prevalence of this practice that our Sages forbade. Firstly, “[the reason why] nowadays people clap and dance and we do not publicly object to them doing so is because it is better that they sin unintentionally [than do so knowingly]”. This approach informs us that notwithstanding the fact that the prohibition exists, rabbinic policy is not to object to those who are unaware of the prohibition.
But then, the Rema adds a second perspective (based on Tosfot on Beitzah 30a): “and there are also those who say that, nowadays, everything is permitted because we are not proficient in the fixing of musical instruments, so there is no reason to decree [‘perhaps one may come to fix a musical instrument’] since this is a concern relating to something that is unlikely to occur. And it is likely that based on this, the practice has emerged to be lenient on everything.”
The problem – as noted by Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa Minchat Asher Vol. 3 No. 24) who has written a fascinating responsum on the subject – about the Rema’s second remark is that it implies that once the reason why a rabbinic decree was established has since diminished, the decree no longer applies. Yet, this is not the case (on this point see, for example, Beitzah 5a).
As R’ Weiss then proceeds to explain, the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 339:8-9) already raised this concern and presents a fascinating proposition that the original prohibition only related to clapping, slapping thighs and dancing in accompaniment of instrumental music which is why, absent of musical accompaniment, clapping etc. is permitted. But as R’ Weiss explains, this approach does not seem to align with the obvious meaning of the Gemara and Rishonim. Similarly, Rav Weiss also rejects the theory posited by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (see Shulchan Shlomo on OC 339) that since only a small minority of people play instruments today, this decree no longer applies.
Given all this, Rav Weiss claims that the original decree was made on the playing of musical instruments (and thus the concern ‘perhaps one may come to fix a musical instrument’), which was then extended to include clapping, slapping thighs and dancing. However, ‘where the original reason for the decree no longer applies (while, it should be noted, the decree itself still applies – JS), in such a situation we do not maintain the secondary decree which was only established because of the existence of the original decree. As such, since the reason of the original decree does not apply in our time, we can be lenient with [the activities included in the] extension to that decree’.
Having explained this, Rav Weiss then proceeds to explain that the permission granted to dance on Simchat Torah (see Magen Avraham on OC 669 and Mishna Berura on OC 339) is not just localised to that day but also applies to other clapping and dancing on Shabbat and Yom Tov for the purpose of bringing joy and inspiration to themselves and others because, based on his theory, the decree against clapping etc. is only an extension of a decree.
Today, there are those who maintain the view that the decree against ‘we do not clap nor to we slap our hand to our thighs nor do we dance’ still exists but who, for reasons of rabbinic policy, generally don’t object to the practice. Then there are those who claim that it no longer applies and who proactively clap and dance on Shabbat and Yom Tov for the purpose of bringing joy and inspiration to themselves and others. And then there are those who aren’t sure but, like Rav Weiss, believe that there is a halachic justification for this prevalent Jewish practice.
As someone who believes in the authority of the Shulchan Aruch, I am sensitive to this rule. But as someone who believes in the value of fostering spiritual joy and inspiration, I am also sensitive to the spiritual needs of me and those around me. In terms of what this means in practice – I’m happy to share with those who are interested. But suffice to say that the above-mentioned responsum is one of a myriad of reasons why I invest considerable time in the study of responsa, and especially those penned by Rav Asher Weiss.