Massekhet Hagiga deals with the halakhot of the mitzva to ascend and appear in the Temple on the three pilgrimage Festivals – the three holidays (ḥagim, or chagim) of Pesaḥ, Shavuot and Sukkot. The analysis of these halakhot can be divided into two main categories: The offerings which the pilgrims must bring, and ritual purity and impurity, especially those aspects which are relevant to the Festivals.
The Torah’s commandment to every Jewish man to joyously visit the Temple three times a year has both a general focus and a specific one. To the general focus of the pilgrimage itself (see Shemot 23:17) the Torah adds a specific one – to be sure and not come empty-handed (Shemot 15). This is clearly interpreted by the Torah (see Devarim, chapter 12) to require the pilgrim to bring sacrifices – korban – over-and-above the communal korbanot required on the holiday.
Although the Torah does not specifically list the types of sacrifices that need to be brought, the Sages have a tradition that three types of korbanot are required:
- Olat re’iyah – the olah sacrifice that the pilgrim is obligated to bring
- Shalmei hagiga – shelamim sacrifices that are required in honor of the holiday
- Shalmei simha – other shelamim that are not specifically required, but are brought if there is a need for more meat to enhance the holiday meals.
There are a series of questions that arise from the obligation to bring holiday sacrifices. For example:
- Must these sacrifices be brought on Yom Tov or can they be brought on Hol HaMoed?
- If they are brought on Yom Tov, do the restrictions on activities on the holiday limit things that can be done with the korbanot?
The second issue that is dealt with in this Massekhet is tumah ve-taharah – ritual purity. Generally speaking, a person need not be concerned with these laws unless he is visiting the Temple or eating (or coming into contact with) teruma or kodashim. Nevertheless, during Temple times, there were groups of people who made sure that they only ate al taharat ha-kodesh – in a state of holiness similar to that required in the mikdash. There also were people who were not careful about these laws at all, and the Sages ruled that such people should always be treated as though they were tameh – in a state of impurity. Keeping a separation between these groups, however, was not possible on the holidays in the Temple when all Jews would be oleh la-regel together.
Two solutions for this problem were found. On the one hand, the Sages instituted a series of restrictive regulations limiting the possibility of any type of biblical tumah from entering the precincts of the Temple. On the other hand, the amei ha’aretz themselves, who were not concerned with these laws on a daily basis, had a tremendous sense of awe and respect for the mikdash and were doubly careful regarding the laws as they applied there. Thus, the Sages ruled that during the holiday period all Jews were considered trustworthy with regard to these laws.