In Temple times, people would follow strict and highly complex laws of purity. It's hard to overstate how onerous these restrictions could be, requiring not just careful adherence but great knowledge and attention to details. Those who were lacking in knowledge (let us call them “uninformed”) could not be assumed to be scrupulous in their application of these laws, and foods or objects they came in contact with had to be suspected of being impure. The rabbis therefore made a blanket rule that their utensils and food would be automatically regarded as impure. Only one known to be knowledgeable and pious (called a chaver, which means “peer” or “fellow”) could be relied upon to keep all his property in a state of purity.1

There was, however, one major exception to this rule: the pilgrimage festivals. Based on the Talmud,2 Maimonides states:

The normal impurity attributed to the uninformed is regarded as “pure” during the major festivals. During this time, they are regarded as a chaverim. All their utensils, as well as their food and drink, is viewed as pure during the festival. Therefore, they are regarded as trustworthy throughout the days of the festival . . . Once the festival is over, everything goes back to being impure.3

Why? “Because everyone is in the habit of cleansing themselves for the festival when the populace ascends to Jerusalem.”4

This is akin to another occasion when the uninformed are trusted: during the wine and oil pressing season. The logic, according to Maimonides, is that during this season, everyone involved understands the importance of providing clean produce and all are especially conscientious.

There remains something quite astonishing in all of this. Maimonides states that immediately after the festival ends, everything touched by the uninformed suddenly turns impure. In case this is confusing, Maimonides spells it out clearly: “A person who opens a barrel during the festival . . . once the festival is over, that barrel now is assumed to be impure, even though it was only touched during the festival when all are treated as having the status of chaverim and are regarded as trustworthy.”5

This seems impossible to grasp. How does the wine miraculously become impure simply because night has fallen? When the wine was touched, there was an assumption of compliance to purity regulations, and nothing untoward has happened since—so on what basis would we suddenly call the wine into question? It defies logic.

Now, Rashi6 has a different explanation as to why we treat the uninformed as chaverim on the festivals. He does not attribute to them some kind of transformation on account of the festival, but argues that the rabbis understood that “discriminating” against some would go against the spirit of the holidays. In Rashi’s terms, the rabbis did not want to cause embarrassment to the uninformed and thus spoil their festivities. This would explain how, as soon as the festivals ended, anything they touched would be regarded as impure, given that the exemption they received was a matter of courtesy.

But how does this reconcile with Maimonides’ reasoning that the uninformed are assumed to be pious during the holiday?

Some have claimed that Maimonides really means that we do not actually trust the uninformed on the festival, but act as if we do, to avoid conflict and discord. However, the simple fact is that Maimonides does not as much as hint in that direction. He is quite clear in his view—and it is this we are struggling to understand. Some dramatic shift in our perception is needed if we are going to find a resolution.

The Rebbe supplies that new perspective by drawing our attention to a perplexing story. According to the Talmud,7the special status of the uninformed on the festivals is based on the most unlikely of sources—the infamous incident of “the concubine of Givah.”8 Without going into too much detail, for completely obscene reasons, a man from the tribe of Benjamin saw fit to murder his concubine, dismember her body, and courier the various parts to the other Israelite tribes. The outrage that resulted led to a war against the Benjaminites and ended in the near annihilation of the tribe. The awfulness of the initial act, and the brutality of the reaction, are so severe and terrible that no event in Jewish history can truly compare.

It just so happens that as part of that story, Scripture says that “all the people gathered there as chaverim.” The Talmud deduces from this that when people gather (as on a festival when people gather in Jerusalem), everyone is termed a chaver. That is the source. Considering the most horrific nature of the event in question, it seems quite bizarre that this would be the basis for an inclusive ruling about how the uninformed should be treated during festivals. Surely this can be no coincidence and demands an explanation.

The Rebbe shines a light on this conundrum: Regardless of circumstances, when large numbers of people gather, we stop assessing each person individually, and begin looking at them as part of a group. That is the enduring lesson of the story of “the concubine of Givah.” If it applies there, surely it applies in far more benign circumstances, such as the happy gathering of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Holy Temple.

With this insight, Maimonides’s position becomes clear. It matters little whether the uninformed had truly mended their ways during the festivals. Probably some did and some did not. What matters is that all became part of this new entity: Am Yisrael. As this was a festival and most people were scrupulous, those who were perhaps less so were treated as chaverim, peers and colleagues, and took on the same status as the majority. It is perfectly understandable that immediately after the festival ended and the group disbanded, whatever status they held as part of the group would no longer be relevant going forward.

Aside from the profound insight that helps us understand Maimonides’ ruling, this is a teaching for the ages. There are times when we must rise above our individualism and identify as a group. There is a part of us that is so uniquely interconnected that when the flame of unity is ignited, our individual imperfections are swept away and the greater glory of the whole takes over.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 37, Shemini I (pg. 20-26)