Our Gemara on Amud Beis records a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua about the correct manner in which to celebrate Yom Tov:

⁦As it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: A person has no way of fulfilling the mitzva of a Festival correctly apart from either eating and drinking, thereby fulfilling the mitzva of joy in a completely physical manner, or sitting and studying Torah, thereby emphasizing only the spiritual; and those who did not engage in Torah study to the fullest extent acted inappropriately. Rabbi Yehoshua says: There is no need for such a dichotomy; rather, simply divide it: Half to God, Torah study, and half to yourselves, engaging in eating, drinking, and other pleasurable activities.

Ben Yehoyada asks the obvious question. What is Rabbi Eliezer really driving at? It sounds almost sarcastic; either you “man up” and just study Torah or just blow the time away eating and drinking. How does this make sense? What is the problem with trying a little of both?

Ben Yehoyada explains it actually in the opposite form. One who is on the highest level can achieve the fullest joy of Yom Tov through physical indulgence. It is not a second choice, and actually the ideal. BUT the caveat is that he must be able to experience these joys in a sincere way of honoring the Yom Tov, without it being sullied by his own personal desires.

This echoes a sentiment expressed in the final chapter of Mesilas Yesharim:

The food and drink which the holy man eats elevates that food or drink as if it had actually been offered on the altar.

Mesilas Yesharim cautions that no one can reach that level of purity without much preparation, zeal and conscious abstention. Additionally, he says there is a final part to this level of attainment that cannot be humanly accomplished without a special divine grace that is given to the person. To be clear, the ability to elevate and enjoy physicality in a purely spiritual devotional manner can only come about by God granting a supernatural ability.

An additional idea can be gleaned from Rabbi Eliezer’s position, if read on a simple level. There is no halfway point in the devotional realm of Yom Tov. Either one tries to make it utterly spiritual with prayer and study or one tries to fulfill the obligations of honoring Yom Tov by physical pleasures and rejoicing. The point being, according to Rabbi Eliezer, trying to do half of each and compromising, achieves nothing in terms of spirituality, nor in terms of physical rejoicing. Sometimes in life, you cannot have your cake and eat it too, and must take a position as to where you are holding on the spiritual continuum, and follow that path. 

However, it is notable that we do not pasken according to Rabbi Eliezer because though he may be expressing some kind of pure ideal, perhaps it’s not actually a good idea practically. And quite the contrary, people should try to achieve balance and compromise.

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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria