1) HALACHAH: HOW TO RECITE THE FIRST BLESSING OVER THE READING OF THE TORAH
OPINIONS: The Gemara records a dispute between Rebbi Meir and Rebbi Yehudah about how exactly one should recite the blessing before he (or the designated reader) reads from the Sefer Torah. Rebbi Meir maintains that one first rolls the Sefer Torah closed after he looks at the place from which the reader will read, and then he recites the blessing. Rebbi Yehudah maintains that one may leave the Sefer Torah open when he recites the blessing.
The Gemara explains that the reason why Rebbi Meir requires one to close the Sefer Torah before he recites the blessing is so that onlookers will not think that the blessings are written inside the Sefer Torah. Rebbi Yehudah maintains that no one would make such a mistake, and therefore he permits one to leave the Sefer Torah open when he recites the blessing.
The Gemara concludes that the Halachah follows the view of Rebbi Yehudah.
Rebbi Yehudah's opinion is not entirely clear from the Gemara. Although Rebbi Yehudah says that one may recite the blessing with the Sefer Torah open, does he mean that one specifically should not close it, or that one is not required to close it, but he may do so if he chooses? How should one conduct himself in practice?
(a) The BEIS YOSEF (OC 139) cites RABEINU SA'ADYAH who says that one should specifically leave the Sefer Torah open and not close it when he recites the blessing. His source is apparently the Yerushalmi (Megilah 3:7) which derives from a verse in Nechemyah (8:5-6) that one should recite the blessing while the Sefer Torah is open. The PRI MEGADIM (Mishbetzos Zahav 139:4) explains that the reason for this is in order to enable the reader to begin reading right away and to minimize the pause between the blessing and the reading. In addition, whenever one recites a blessing over a certain object, he should have the object (in this case, the Sefer Torah) open and ready in front of him at the time of the blessing.
(b) TOSFOS (DH Golelo) writes that l'Chatchilah one should close the Sefer Torah before he recites the blessing so that onlookers will not think that the blessings are written in it. Nevertheless, b'Di'eved, one who recites the blessing with the Sefer Torah open has not acted inappropriately because today it is very rare that an Am ha'Aretz will think that the blessings are written in the Sefer Torah.
Why does Tosfos rule that one should recite the blessing with the Sefer Torah closed, as Rebbi Meir says? The Gemara itself says that the Halachah follows the opinion of Rebbi Yehudah!
The BACH explains that according to Tosfos, when Rebbi Yehudah says that one should leave the Sefer Torah open when he recites the blessing, he means that one is not required to close it or to open it, but he is allowed to open it. Tosfos means that even Rebbi Yehudah agrees that it is better to close it, and therefore Tosfos rules accordingly.
The MAHARSHA questions the Bach's understanding of Tosfos. Tosfos says that nowadays it is rare that Amei ha'Aretz should be so ignorant as to think that the blessings are written in the Sefer Torah, and therefore one who recites the blessing while the Sefer Torah is open does not act improperly. This implies that in the times of the Gemara, such Amei ha'Aretz were common, and thus one was required to close the Sefer Torah when he recited the blessing. However, that was the practice of Rebbi Meir and not Rebbi Yehudah! According to the Bach's explanation, Tosfos effectively rules like Rebbi Meir, contrary to the Gemara's conclusion.
The TAZ (OC 139:4) explains that when Tosfos says "nowadays, such Amei ha'Aretz are not common," he does not mean to imply that in the times of the Gemara they were common. Rather, Tosfos implies that after the times of the Gemara such Amei ha'Aretz proliferated and thus it became necessary to be stringent like Rebbi Meir and close the Sefer Torah when reciting the blessing. In the times of Tosfos, such Amei ha'Aretz became less common, and thus Tosfos says that b'Di'eved one may keep the Sefer Torah open. According to Tosfos, during the times of the Gemara the common practice (and the Halachah) was in accordance with the view of Rebbi Yehudah, who did not require one to close the Sefer Torah, but who certainly allowed one to close it.
HALACHAH: The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 139:4) cites the opinion of Rebbi Yehudah and says that one recites the blessing over the Torah with the Sefer Torah open. The REMA says that one should look to the side, away from the Sefer Torah (so that Amei ha'Aretz should not think that the blessing is written in the Sefer Torah). The MISHNAH BERURAH cites the CHAYEI ADAM who says that instead of looking to the side, one should close his eyes so that he not appear to be looking away from the Sefer Torah and making a blessing on something else.
The BI'UR HALACHAH writes that some Poskim rule like Tosfos who says that one should close the Sefer Torah when he recites the blessing. He concludes that both practices are acceptable and that each synagogue may follows its own custom.
With regard to the blessing recited after the Torah reading, the RAMBAM writes that one should close the Sefer Torah before he recites the blessing. (The source for this practice is Maseches Sofrim 13:8. This practice is also mentioned in the Beraisa quoted here, according to the text of the DIKDUKEI SOFRIM. Tosfos apparently had that text as well.) As the MAGID MISHNEH explains, since the Sefer Torah anyway must be closed after one reads from it, one should close it before he recites the blessing (lest Amei ha'Aretz think that the blessing is written in the Sefer Torah).
(Rebbi Yehudah's opinion that one keep the Sefer Torah open while he recites the blessing applies only before the Torah reading, because if one were to close the Sefer Torah for the blessing he would have to open it again immediately in order to read from it, and this would entail an unnecessary delay for the Tzibur. The reason suggested by the Pri Megadim (see above) for leaving the Sefer Torah open during the blessing applies only to the blessing said before the Torah reading but not to the blessing after the Torah reading.)
2) HALACHAH: "SHO'ALIN V'DORSHIN" -- LEARNING THE HALACHOS BEFORE THE FESTIVAL
QUESTION: The Maseches concludes by teaching that Moshe Rabeinu "enacted for Yisrael that they expound upon the subject of the day, the laws of Pesach on Pesach, the laws of Shavuos on Shavuos, and the laws of Sukos on Sukos."
The requirement to expound upon the Halachos of the festival specifically on the day of the festival contradicts the ruling of the Gemara earlier. The Gemara earlier (29b, and Pesachim 6a) rules that we are to expound upon the Halachos thirty days before the festival. How is this contradiction to be reconciled? (See also Insights to Bechoros 58:1.)
(a) The RAN, RITVA (4a), and RASHBA answer that these are two separate enactments. The enactment to learn the Halachos of the festival on the day of the festival refers to the obligation of the Rav to expound upon the Halachos of the festival in his public lecture on the festival. The enactment to learn (or, literally, to "inquire" about -- "Sho'alin") the Halachos thirty days before the festival refers only to the student's right to ask the Rav a question about the festival within thirty days before the festival. Within thirty days before the festival, his question is considered relevant to the subject matter being studied. (One student's question takes precedence over another student's question only when it is relevant to the subject being studied; see SHULCHAN ARUCH YD 246:14.)
According to the Ran, there is no inherent obligation to study the Halachos of the festival thirty days before the festival.
(b) Many Rishonim, such as the BEHAG and the SHE'ILTOS, disagree with the Ran and assert that there is an obligation to learn the Halachos of the festival thirty days before the festival (see also TOSFOS to 4a, DH Mai). This is also the implication of the Gemara in Sanhedrin (12b).
What, then, does the Gemara here mean when it says that one must learn the Halachos of the festival on the day of the festival?
The MISHNAH BERURAH (OC 429:1) gives a straightforward answer based on the view of the BEIS YOSEF. The Beis Yosef explains that wherever the Gemara says that we expound the Halachos of the festival thirty days before the festival, it refers only to Pesach and not to the other festivals. When the Gemara here says that we expound the Halachos of the festival on the day of the festival, it refers to all of the festivals.
The Chachamim instituted that we study the Halachos of Pesach thirty days before the festival because the Halachos relevant to Pesach are so abundant and complex (such as the Halachos of making Matzos, kashering the vessels, destroying Chametz), and they have such severe consequences (the punishment of Kares for transgressing the prohibition against eating Chametz). Moreover, many of the Halachos of Pesach are relevant before Pesach, such as how to kasher vessels, how to bake Matzah, and how to get rid of Chametz. In contrast, the Halachos of the other festivals can be mastered in just a few days, or on Yom Tov itself, as Moshe Rabeinu instituted.
The BACH makes a similar distinction between Pesach and the other festivals.
(c) A number of Rishonim, however, seem to rule that the thirty-day obligation applies to all three festivals and not just to Pesach (see SHA'AR HA'TZIYUN 429:2; see also RASHI to Sukah 9a, DH Beis Shamai and MAHARSHA there).
The VILNA GA'ON (Bi'ur ha'Gra) explains that when the Gemara here says that Moshe Rabeinu enacted that we expound upon the Halachos of the festival on the festival, it does not mean only on the day of the festival. Rather, it means during the season of the festival -- thirty days before the festival.
(d) The PRI MEGADIM, PRI CHADASH, and CHOK YAKOV (as cited by the BI'UR HALACHAH OC 429:1) answer based on the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 1:1) and Tosefta in Megilah which teach that the obligation to learn the Halachos on the festival itself applies to every individual, while the obligation to study the Halachos thirty days before the festival applies to the groups of people who gather together in the study halls to learn. The Gemara here refers to the enactment made for individuals, while the Gemara earlier refers to groups of people who learn together in the study hall. (This seems to be the opposite of the first answer cited above.)
The ELIYAH RABAH refutes this explanation. He contends that every time the Gemara (Bavli) mentions this Halachah, it does not differentiate between an individual who learns by himself in his home and a group of people who learn together in the study hall. Similarly, the BACH writes that "every person is obligated to study the Halachos of Pesach on Purim (thirty days before Pesach)." This is also clear from the words of the BEHAG.
HALACHAH: The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 429:1) quotes the words of the Gemara earlier which says, "We expound (Sho'alin) the Halachos of Pesach thirty days before Pesach." The BI'UR HALACHAH there points out the apparent contradiction between the two statements in the Gemara. He concludes that although it is preferable for every person to study the Halachos thirty days before the Yom Tov, at least the public study groups should make it their practice to do so, in order to fulfill the ruling of the Yerushalmi (in (d) above).