Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Pesachim 42a, b

The first section of daf 42a concludes Perek II, which focused upon when we should not derive benefit from chametz, on ingredients fit for matzah, and on ingredients fit for bitter herbs.  Perek II ends with reminders about ensuring that no foods will be allowed to rise: bakers and women making matzah must take care with the water they use to rinse their hands.  Women must cool their hands while kneading dough for matzah by immersing them in cool water.  Interestingly, we are told about women preparing matzah in today's daf when earlier we were informed that 'sons' were making matzah.  Was this a task done by women and men? or were there other differences that might designate whether a woman or a man would make the matzah?

Perek III begins with a new mishna.  It names items not to be used on Pesach, including kutah (a mouldy dip), Median beer (with barley), Egyptian zitom (beer with barley), Edomite vinegar (due to barley), dyer's broth, well-worked dough, and kolan, a glue used in bookmaking.  Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that this applies to women's cosmetics that contain leaven as well.  The principle is defined: any item that comes fro a type of grain that becomes leavened must not be seen or found on Pesach.  The punishment of karet, however, does not apply..

The Gemara offers some reasons beyond Torah law behind the prohibitions on some foods.  Kutah will block our hearts (whey), cause blindness (salt), and weaken our bodies (mould).  Bread from coarse flour will increase our waste, new beer will lower our stature, and raw vegetables will take one five-hundredth of our vision if eaten regularly.  However, bread from fine flour will decrease our waste, fatty meat (ie. from birds or lambs not yet with babies) will straighten our stature, and aged wine (3 or more years) will improve our vision.  

A general principle is stated: any food that will heal one ailment will cause problems in another part of the body and vice versa. The exceptions to this rule are moist ginger, long peppers, bread of refined flour, fatty meat and aged wine.  All of these foods are healthy for all parts of the body.  The rabbis quote Ezekiel 26:2 and Genesis 2:5 as proof texts.  In both, we are told that as one part of the whole achieves power or success, another part will fall.

The Gemara continues to explain in more detail some of these permitted and forbidden substances.  One particularly interesting explanations concerns Egyptian zitom, which is a mixture of soaked, roasted and ground salt, safflower and barley (or wheat). It is used to regulate the digestive system - something that might be useful over Pesach.  

Another interesting note regards kolan, glue.  The rabbis argue that kolan might not be glue, though -- it may be a depilatory paste used by wealthy women to remove unwanted hair.  The kolan is then shared with poorer women.  It is hard to imagine actually making use of someone else's used depilatory paste.  Would it not be a paste already filled with hair?  The imperative to remove hair continues to cause women to do things we might not otherwise do (spend lots of money to rip out our hair, for example, or make use of someone else's used depilatory paste).

This will be discussed further in tomorrow's daf.  Today's learning was another opportunity to peek into the daily lives of our ancestors through this amazingly detailed text.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Pesachim 41a, b

The rabbis examine the requisite roasting of the Paschal lamb.  We are commanded "... [not to] eat it partially roasted, nor boiled in any way in water, but roasted with fire; its head with its legs, and with the innards in it" (Exodus 12:9)  The rabbis wonder about the role of water in the roasting process and outside of that process.  What constitutes boiling, which is strictly prohibited?  How does that compare with soaking or dipping in water or another liquid?  Are we permitted to roast the Paschal lamb in a pot?  Are we permitted to eat the Paschal lamb while it is still raw?  What about if it has been roasted until it burns? And how does intention change the punishment met on a transgressor?

Rav Chisda mentions that people are permitted to cook food in the hot springs of Tiberias on Shabbat; however, the Paschal lamb cannot be boiled in this manner.  Why are we allowed to cook using that natural source of heat on Shabbat?  Steinsaltz explains that the heat of the springs originates in heat from the core of the earth rather than from fire.  It is the lighting of fire that we are to avoid on Shabbat, and thus cooking in the hot springs is permitted.

The rabbis debate on how many sets of lashes people should receive if they transgress the mitzvah of "You shall eat it ... roasted with fire".  If s/he eats the Paschal lamb when it is partially roasted and then boiled, s/he may receive three sets of lashes: one for eating it partially rather than fully roasted, one for eating it boiled, and one for NOT eating it fully roasted.  

Likely Abaye argues against this ruling; he says that we should not punish the transgression of a prohibition that was stated in general terms.  As well, we should not punish with lashes for boiling the lamb.  Instead, we should punish with lashes only for not roasting it "with fire".   

This example is contrasted with an example regarding a Nazirite who eats a grape - how many sets of lashes should s/he receive as punishment?  The prohibition is "nothing that is made of the grapevine", and thus s/he could receive lashes for eating the grape skin, the grape pit, and something made of the grapevine (in general).

The rabbis use this opportunity to explain their process; to discuss the principles of halachic decision-making.  The 'general versus specific' principal is highligted by the case of muzzling.  In Deuteronomy, laws regarding lashes are juxtaposed with the halacha prohibiting muzzling: "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the corn" (Deuteronomy 25:4).  The rabbis understand this juxtapositioning as proof that we are to evaluate punishments given general and specific terms.  In this example, we will receive lashes for breaking prohibitions that are similar to muzzling -- and we will not receive lashes for breaking prohibitions that are dissimilar to muzzling.  

A note by Steinsaltz teaches that prohibitions stated in general terms come in three forms.  The first is when one negative statement includes more than one prohibition.  The second involves a particular prohibition and a general prohibition.  The third refers to general prohibitions stated without details in the Torah; the Sages step in to provide the particulars.

We learn that a person who eats from a Paschal lamb belongs to a 'group', and may or may not be allowed to eat from the Paschal lamb of another 'group'.   What are these groups, I wonder, and who determines their composition?  Who monitors membership?  Are these family clans or groups of men or something else entirely... and why have I never heard of this before??

The rabbis spend some time attempting to understand why the text uses the term "bashel mevushal", when both words signify the act of 'boiling'.

At the very end of today's daf, the rabbis wonder about when the Paschal lamb must be eaten.  Exodus 12:8 tells us "And they shall eat the meat on that night, roasted with fire, and matzot; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it."  All agree that we should eat this at night.  However, what if one transgresses this mitzvah and eats the Paschal lamb during the day?  The rabbis teach another principle: when a prohibition comes from an inference based on a positive mitzvah, it is considered to be a transgression of a positive mitzvah (rather than having transgressed a prohibition, which involves different consequences).

This self-reflexive, post-modern and yet ancient text continues to amaze.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Pesachim 40a, b

Daf 40 focuses on preventing grains from leavening.  The rabbis consider

  • whether or not fruit juice can leaven grains, 
  • whether vinegar or brine will cause grains to split/rise or contract, 
  • what are the differences between grains of wheat and grains of barley, 
  • from when grains should be guarded,** and
  • whether flour can be added to a soup or stew
and other similarly disparate questions.  

One particular example described a load of wheat that fell into the river on route to be sold.  The rabbis debate: what should be done with this wheat?  It could begin the process of leavening immediately and thus be disqualified for use on Pesach.  If the wheat is sold only to Gentiles, who is to say that those Gentiles would not resell the wheat back to Jews, who might use it on Pesach?  If the wheat is sold in small bundles, can we be assured that those small bundles would be used before the start of the chag?  The rabbis agree that full disclosure should be made regarding the status of the wheat upon its sale. Jews will then use the wheat before the start of the holiday.

Interesting that a tighter fence is not drawn regarding this wheat.  After all, the rabbis trust Jews to 'do the right thing' in this circumstance, when we are not afforded that degree of trust in other circumstances.  Is the threat of financial loss usually powerful enough to risk breaching a halacha?  Perhaps something else is being protected... a rabbi whose family business in bringing wheat across the river?  A friend who might lose his livelihood if he could not sell the waterlogged stalks?  Or as unlikely as it seems, might this be a common occurrence -- the soaking of wheat in the river before it is sold?

Another side note: Rabbi Yehuda is identified as the rabbi referred to as "some say".  To be quoted in the Talmud at all is a significant achievement.  Thought it sounds like it could be a disrespectful moniker, "some say" denotes deference and respect in this ancient context.

A new mishna ends daf 40.  Flour may not be added to mustard or charoset; if this happens, they must be consumed immediately.  Rabbi Meir says that they should not be consumed at all but burned.  The Pascal lamb must be roasted and not boiled in fruit juices; basting is fine and dipping in its juices on consumption is fine, too.  The Gemara begins with Rav Kahana's understanding that prohibited foods like those mentioned in the mishna must be burned.

I wonder how my Pesach traditions may or may not change next spring.  My learning about the meanings behind the traditions is both inspiring and discouraging regarding the actual practice of halachot.

** The mother of Mar (an Exilarch?), son of Ravina, guarded wheat in a trough from when they were pulled from their roots to ensure that the wheat would not have opportunity to rise.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Pesachim 39a, b

Today we move solidly into familiar territory for me: what we are commanded to eat on Pesach.  We begin with a mishna that tells us which vegetables can represent the maror, the bitter herbs, that we are to eat.  Chazeret, romain lettuce, is followed by a number of other options.  We are then instructed that the food can be dry or fresh but it must not be pickled, boiled, or 'over-boiled' (blanched?).

The Gemara discusses these possibilities.  Maror seems to be understood as a category of food: those which are bitter (we are speaking about bitter herbs and not bitter herb, after all).  The rabbis debate whether or not the mishna is encouraging us to find the most bitter of bitter foods.   A number of different vegetables are considered in detail as the rabbis hope to find vegetables that will suit the role of 'bitter herbs' in different climates.  The rabbis concur that chazeret is listed first and thus it is our preferred option. 

Another reason is more poetic: chazeret is soft at first and bitter at the end (from the bottom to the top of the plant) just as we were 'embittered' by the Egyptians who were soft at first (settling us in the best land with Joseph) but then became bitter with our enslavement. 

One interesting interchange describes Abaye answering Rav Rechumi's questions about bitter herbs: Why a vegetable and not a fish? Why a vegetable and not an oleander bush?  Why not the vegetable harzipu (which poisons animals)?   The answers are interesting.  Apparently bitter herbs are similar to matzah, which originates in the ground, and thus the bitter herbs must grow from the ground.  Just as matzah comes from a type of plant but not a tree, so too the bitter herbs should come from plants and not the oleander bush. Just as matzah comes from plants fit for consumption; just as matzah can be purchased with second-tithe funds, so too must our bitter herbs meet these criteria.

The rabbis discuss similarities and differences among these vegetables.  They argue about whether or not the vegetables might be allowed to be planted together in a small (6 handbreadths squared) garden.  Perhaps they are, in fact, diverse kinds.  And then the rabbis debate about the leaves verses the stems, about 'dry' and 'fresh' and even 'withered' bitter herbs, and about the possible limitations on second-tithe produce.

At the end of the daf a new mishna is introduced.  As it opens our view of our ancestors' daily lives, this mishna is particularly interesting to me.  We are told that one may not soak coarse bran for feeding chickens but we may briefly pour boiling water over the bran.  Secondly, a woman may not bring coarse bran to the bathhouse, but she may use it to rub into her dry skin.  Third, a person may not chew wheat to attend to a wound on Pesach for fear that the wheat may leaven.

So we learn that people used boiling water to soften grains like bran to better their animals' feed.  We learn that coarse grains like bran were used to soften dry skin - both in the bathhouse, as a cleanser, and at the home on moistened but otherwise dry skin.  Finally, grains like wheat were used medicinally to treat wounds.  Wheat was first softened and moistened through chewing.  

Although the mishna was very clear about women's use of coarse bran, we are told by a note (Steinsaltz) that the rabbis proceed to disallow any softening of the skin in this way.  The Gemara moves us into a conversation about when and how to avoiding leavening.  It builds fences around the words of this mishna to best ensure that no grain can rise.

I can imagine that the rabbis might fear a person ingesting leavened wheat if that person is chewing the wheat.  It might be a stretch to call that wheat leavened, but their logic is reasonable.  But to use bran as a body wash or a skin softener?  Are they fearful that a woman might inadvertently (or purposefully) ingest the bran that has 'leavened' through its contact with water on her skin?  If a person wished to eat leaven, I imagine that she would be able to find less creative ways of achieving her goal.  And to accidentally eat this bran would be highly unlikely - and punishable as an inadvertent transgression.  So why the fence around this particular rule?  Why create halacha in opposition to the relative leniency of the mishna? Is this about sexism - a distrust of women's abilities to follow halacha when it comes to 'beauty' - or is it simple another example of building a fence?

Pesachim 38a, b

More debate today about matzah.  Without including the scope of conversation, some of their basic questions and ideas follow:

  • Can matzah made of second-tithe produce be used over the start of Pesach?  
  • How does this practice compare with the practice of using a second-tithe etrog on Sukkot? 
  • When is it required to separate challah from matzah? 
  • How might ritual impurity change the rules?  
  • What does it mean to 'guard' the matzot (Exodus 12:17)?  
  • Is this commandment connected with protecting matzah made for Pesach from other matzot, like Nazirite wafers for sacrifice?  
  • Does "Seven days you sahll eat matzot" (Exodus 12:15) include the nights? 
  • Matzah ashira is 'enhanced matzah', perhaps including any ingredient beyond water and flour
  • Is matzah for the start of Pesach allowed to be made with nullified (tiny amounts) of oil?
  • Small, personal altars allowing limited sacrifices were used in the times of the Judges (Steinsaltz)
  • Nov and Givon housed large, communal altars to be used when the Temple was not yet built (ibid)

Even when these ideas were discussed, many of the questions of the rabbis were theoretical.  They wanted to understand which animals could be sacrificed in times past.  Not to assist them in their decisions regarding 'today', however.  

Was Talmudic thought an exercise in logic first and foremost, before it was a creator of halacha and legal structures?  Sometimes it seems that the rabbis are arguing for the sake of bettering their skill at argument.  And if that is correct, why would someone like me - someone who does not take for granted that G-d is directly behind these words and the words of the Torah - continue to struggle with their arguments?  Perhaps it is that logical structure that holds my interest.  As much as I want to understand past societies, halachic origins, etc., I may wish to understand the internal logic of Talmudic thought.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Pesachim 36a, b

The rabbis begin with a discussion of redundant prohibitions - for example, we are not to eat leavened bread AND we are not to eat untithed produce, thus untithed leaven is prohibited on two grounds.  They continue with a conversation about the bread of affliction, lechem oni.  Are we talking about the bread of affliction, of pain and suffering, or the bread of the poor (oni spelled with an ayin), as Rabbi Akiva asserts.  Can we eat this bread when we are in acute mourning?  For we are supposed to eat in a state of joy (Deuteronomy 26:14).

The rabbis continue this discussion through an examination of how matzah is made.  When the dough has been kneaded with wine, oil or honey, can it be lechem oni?  The rabbis debate the meaning of the word 'oni' further, mentioning the vocalization of the letter ayin.  And perhaps it is permissible to spread wine, oil or honey on the dough after it has been kneaded?  What about using warm water to prepare matzah? What about using milk in its preparation?  What if the matzah is in an unusual shape, like the shape of an ox's eye, to designate its status as dairy?

The rabbis agree that matzah that fulfills the commitment of "and you will eat it" on the first night of Pesach truly must be lechem oni, the bread of affliction/of the poor, without the enhancement of any ingredients.  As well, proper supervision of the preparation of matzah must be observed.  Perhaps, however, following the first night of Pesach, it is permissible to eat matzah that has been flavoured in some way.

Of note is Rabbi Yehoshua, who instructed his sons regarding adding milk to the dough kneaded for matzah following the first night of Pesach.  His sons, and not his daughters.  His sons and not his wife.  His sons and not his servants.  There is no commentary offered in the Koren edition to help explain this instruction.  It would seem that sons were the cooks -- at least with regard to ritual food items.  Though Rabbi Yehoshua was instructing them regarding food preparation beyond the commanded matzot.  When did baking become understood as the work of women?

The rabbis speak further about making matzah, including boiling, soaking and using first fruits in its preparation.  They think about the verses that state "matzot, matzot" (Deuteronomy 16:3, 8) and "in all of your habitations you shall eat matzot" (Exodus 12:20).  Why these words that are repeated; what is excluded when mentioning 'your habitations'?  To explain these curiosities, the rabbis make connections between the idea that any matzot might be acceptable and the rituals regarding bringing first fruits/second tithe to Jerusalem.  They continue to debate possible connections between offerings and making/eating matzot.

In a note, Steinsaltz mentions the manner in which the priest would offer 'a handful'.  Three middle fingers would be used to scoop, and the thumb and baby finger would carefully brush away the excess flour.  The exact amount of a handful was taken very seriously.  I wonder how the priests accounted for different sized hands and fingers; for sweaty hands in the desert; for those who accidentally dropped flour on route to the sacred vessel in the Temple.  A punishment for the latter, but what of a priest with very small hands?  Was the 'handful' understood to be accurate as long as it followed the measurement of each priest's hands?

We are taught about asheisha, which is either dough prepared with oil and honey or a very large matzah. Either way, an asheisha would not have the appearance/taste of lechem oni.  However, perhaps an asheisha is in fact a measurement, or a jug of wine, or cake made from 1/6 an eipha of flour.  The rabbis move immediately from this conversation in the Beit Shammai's assertion that we are not to eat thick bread on Pesach.

I love when my learning actually informs my previous practice.  Today I learned about why it must be plain matzah on the seder table while other matzot can be used throughout the holiday.  I learned why matzot are considered to be kosher for Pesach without meeting the requirements of every commandment regarding matzah.  It is so much more satisfying to read the arguments themselves than simply to learn the rules.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pesachim 35a, b

We turn to something with which I am familiar: matzah.  Daf (a) looks at types of grains eaten to fulfill the mitzvah "And you shall eat no leavened bread with it... for seven days you shall eat it with matzah, the bread of affliction" (Deuteronomy 16:3).  Daf (b) examines when we can consume matzah with regard to separating a portion of the produce for the Levites, the Kohaim, Jerusalem, and the poor.

Before introducing a new mishna, daf (a) reminds us of the higher standard that is put in place regarding the use/consumption of consecrated items.

Our new mishna tells that five grains can create the matzah that we are commanded to eat on the first night of Pesach: wheat, spelt, oats, barley, and rye.  Priests are allowed to eat matzah made of challah or terumah.  We fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah when it is made from: 

  • doubtfully tithed produce 
  • first tithe produce where terumah was already taken
  • second tithe produce that has been redeemed
  • consecrated food that has been redeemed 

However, we do not fulfill the mitzvah if we eat matzah made from

  • untithed produce
  • first tithe produce where terumah was not taken
  • second tithe produce not yet redeemed
  • consecrated food not yet redeemed
The mishna continues with other foods that do and do not fulfill this mitzvah.

To begin, the Gemara discusses definitions of and categories of grains.  There is some discussion throughout daf (a) of whether or not we understand the proper translations of these and other grains.  Interestingly, rice and millet are specifically excluded because they are understood as being incapable of rising when sitting in water.  That natural 'leavening process' seems to be critical in our Sages considerations.

The rabbis discuss what rises and what is prohibited to us.  One amusing story tells of rabbis debating about fruit juices mixed with grain: would the resulting matzah fulfill our mitzvah?  Might it be prohibited?  Rav Idi bar Avin is dozing while the rabbis argue.  Suddenly he awakens and offers an answer.  Why was this detail - the dozing and awakening - included in the recording of this argument?  The dense, sometimes dry material of this text welcomes any drop of colour or drops of dew to enliven the narrative.

The daf continues with a somewhat confusing discussion.  When is the production of matzah kosher for a priest?  The timing of tithing, second tithing, separating challah, terumah, etc. etc. are all considered.  I am still getting my head around the systems of tithing to begin with.

Here is what I understand regarding produce in the fields/trees:

  • From 100 items gleaned, some portion is given to the Kohanim: terumah
  • From the remaining items, 10 are given to the Levites: a tithe, ma'aser rishon
  • From those 10 items, the Levites give 1 to the Kohanim: terumah ma'aser
  • From the remaining items, the farmer offers 10 for Jerusalem/the poor: ma'aser sheni/ma'aser ani
I am not quite clear how terumah gedolah fits into this picture - perhaps my picture is wrong.

Regardless, the rabbis argue about when the matzah eaten by a priest might not fulfill the mitzvah "and you shall eat..." when the tithing is not done to perfection.  I wonder about how much of the tithing processes were in fact monitored.  Was everyone honest about how much they were giving?  Or perhaps there were people like in my city, Toronto, who said things like, "why should I give the priests my hard earned produce?  Let them find a way to grow it for themselves, lazy priests."  Amazing if a people living together could actually take care of each

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Pesachim 34a, b

We stretch today, just a bit, from yesterday's discussion regarding the uses of impure terumah.  Today's conversation does not even pretend to be about Pesach. Daf (a) looks at what qualifies as terumah and as impure terumah over time/generations.  Daf (b) looks at the disqualification of terumah in greater detail.

Beyond the arguments, here are some of the points that stand out:

  • an animal sacrifice that has a "disqualification of the body" (does this mean 'less than perfect'?) is burned immediately upon arriving at the temple
  • piggul is an offering that is not valid because the owner has inappropriate intention
  • disqualifications other than "disqualification of the body" are set aside one day until "the form has decayed" and then is burned
  • one must pay close attention to terumah at all times to ensure that it has not been in contact with impurity
  • ritual impurity comes in two forms: it imparts impurity to other objects or it invalidates other objects but does not impart impurity
  • Rabbi Yirmeya was an amora from Babylonia who studied in Israel under Rabbi Yochanan's students Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abbahu.  He was punished and removed from the study hall due to his "sharp tongue", saying things like "foolish Babylonians".  He is the often the unnamed amora referred to as, "They say in the West" (Steinsaltz)
  • In determining ritual purity, it is significant when/in which order the blood was sprinkled, when/in which order the object was ritually immersed/consecrated, (in which order, in planting, impure water contacted the ritual bath and then was consecrated), and whether/when the object was consecrated in speech.
  • when a corpse touches a vessel (1st degree ritual impurity and the vessel touches grapes (2nd degree ritual impurity) and the grapes produce liquid (3rd degree ritual impurity), that liquid is deemed ritually impure by rabbinic decree
  • when that vessel touches something other than the grapes (2nd degree impurity) and that item touches the grapes (3rd degree impurity) the liquid produced by the grapes is ritually pure
  • spring water that is used for purification offering are considered to be physically connected to the spring
Again, today's daf was one that introduced me to a number of issues I have never considered.  As well, it succeed in proving my lack of background and understanding of many underlying concepts.

I find that sometimes learning Talmud leaves me feeling bright, like I have exercised my brain.  Other times it leaves me feeling dull, as though I might never scratch the surface of this text.  So I tell myself, on both days, "let's see what tomorrow brings".

Monday, 22 July 2013

Pesachim 33a, b

At the start of today's daf, the rabbis move into a conversation about how much terumah must be misused for that use to be a sin.  Is an olive-bulk enough? Too much?  How do we determine the monetary value of an olive-bulk of terumah, particularly when that terumah is leaven eaten on Pesach, when leaven is forbidden on Pesach?  Shouldn't that leaven be worthless?  And can terumah ever be worthless?  (Perhaps, instead, it could be 'disqualified'?)

The rabbis use an example of "cutting something that is attached to the ground" on Shabbat.  I am not clear about the origin of this halacha, nor do I understand the full context of the halacha.  Through this example, the rabbis move into a conversation about intention (which I wrote about at greater length in Pesachim 32).  The rabbis wonder how leavened bread came to be ritually impure; without ever having a period of fitness, even on Pesach.  They understand that this could only have happened if the food became leaven while it was still attached to the ground.  The rabbis argue.  Rav Nachman bar Ytizchak tells us that indeed this is confusing, but "The matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the sentence by the word of the sacred ones" (Daniel 4:14) As they are compared favourably with angels, the Sages agree with this statement and teach his opinion.  

What is consecrated and what is excluded from consecration?  The rabbis discuss grapes: if they have become ritually impure, they should be tread upon them "less than an egg-bulk at a time".  This small amount of juice cannot transfer ritual impurity -- the grape skin carried the original impurity.   The flesh would carry second-degree impurity, but only if a larger amount of juice.  

The Gemara answers that perhaps even the exactly an egg-bulk of grape juice can be considered pure in this situation.   This disagreement must be because the first ruling was made after the fact, but the second ruling was made ab initio.  Rabbinic decree again builds a fence around the 'as long as it's smaller than an egg-bulk' prohibition to ensure that we do not err on the side of 'too much juice'.  

The conversation continues with comparisons to other terumah that becomes ritually impure, like this leavened bread on Pesach, which cannot be eaten nor burned.  The rabbis go to great lengths to ensure that these items will not be eaten unintentionally.  We are told in a note by Steinsaltz that wheat is to be boiled and then stored in a filthy vessel until it can be burned.  Oil must be stored in a disgusting vessel until ready to be used for lighting.  Terumah bread should be placed with firewood until it is burned.  The rabbis debate how we can best help people from encountering a stumbling block, "liday takalah"; how we can ensure that they do not eat these forbidden foods.  'Are we being stringent enough?', they wonder.

This "stumbling block", one small line in the Torah, has been used to define a huge number of halachot, practices, and deeply held beliefs.  Of course, we do not wish to inadvertently (or even purposefully) make it difficult for others to fulfill the mitzvot.  But how much should we police our own practice and behaviour?  Particularly when we are examining rulings like these, which may not even enhance other peoples' practice of mitzvot?  In fact, needless stringency creates fertile ground for OCD, negative associations with Jewish practice, and a huge amount of daily energy spent not contributing to the world in any number of other ways.  I do recognize that the rabbis were concerned about needless stringencies, as well.  However, today's daf reminded me of the importance of re-examining this idea continually.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pesachim 32a, b

We continue the rabbis' debates about whether we are permitted secondary gain from leavened bread on Pesach.  Today the rabbis focus on the repayment of terumah that has been consumed by a non-priest.  If that terumah is leavened bread, and leavened bread is worthless on Pesach, how must one repay the cost of that item?

Some of their conversation points:

  • thieves pay for the stolen item at its value when stolen
  • when paying for stolen terumah figs, one is blessed for paying back the same weight in dates which are of higher value
  • how do we value terumah leaven that is eaten during Pesach when leaven is worthless?
  • do we pay back for stolen/wrongly eaten items by their monetary value, their measure, or some other rate?
  • when a non-priest intentionally eats terumah leaven on Pesach, how do we repay its monetary value (ie. nothing) in firewood, as is otherwise customary?
  • can we learn anything from practices of repayment on Shabbat or Yom Kippur?
  • what benefit can we derive from eating ritually impure terumah on other days of the year?
  • when can priests burn or feed to their dogs ritually impure terumah, and how does this help us to understand today's dilemma?
Daf (b) focuses on an intricate argument involving the voices of Abaye, Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya'akov, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, Abba Shaul, Rav Pappa, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak and Rav Chiyya bar Avin.  

Their argument regards details concerning three statements: it is forbidden to derive benefit from leavened bread during Passover; one pays according to the monetary value (thus no repayment is made for the worthless leaven of Pesach), and one pays according to the measure of terumah that has been consumed (thus repayment must be made for leaven consumed even during Pesach).

The rabbis use many different proof texts to back up their arguments regarding these statements.  One of the points they reiterate at the conclusion of today's daf regards karet as a punishment.  Which is stronger, the punishment of karet or the punishment of death at the hand of Heaven?  Karet means to be 'cut off'.  This could amount to many different realities: spiritual exclusion, physical exclusion, a death penalty, etc.  We learn today that Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak tells Rav Chiyya bar Avin that punishment at the had of Heaven is the stronger of these punishments.  They continue to discuss this idea.

The notion of punishment - especially for failure to comply with the mitzvot - is a pivotal issue in Jewish thought today.  A vast majority of Jews do not worry about  death at the hand of Heaven for our transgressions.  Further, we do not belong to a communities that will institute karet and thus bring meaning to that consequence.  How can we practice the mitzvot when we do not believe that there is a real consequence - karet - for our failures?  Often I hear Liberal Judaism criticized for 'picking and choosing' our observance.  I won't steal, for example, but I might drive a car on Shabbat. Is there any way to encourage compliance with the practice of mitzvot without instilling fear of punishment?

Beyond this argument lies perhaps a more important question: as Liberal Jews, should we be striving to observe the mitzvot at all?  Is there an inherent value in observing the mitzvot for their own sake, without believing that they are tied to a larger, overriding truth?  One that is systematized through the promise of reward and punishment? 

I practice Judaism selfishly.  I do pick and choose the mitzvot that I keep.  And I do this to inspire a connection with my idea of G-d, with my community, and to better my mental health through conscious, traditional ritual.  I do not believe that I will be or should be punished for the mitzvot I observe erroneously or for those I do not observe at all.  But I do find meaning in the mitzvot that I observe.  And I am part of a large community that practices similarly.  

So should I be striving to observe 'better'?  Who might be served by that phoney practice?  Certainly not that G-d that I know and believe in and pray to.  Do I somehow wrong the orthodox community when I practice in this way?  Even though I could not stomach practising rituals that carry no (or very negative) meaning to me? I would continually make errors and not care to fix my practice for I do not believe that G-d might punish me for those errors.  Would that forced compliance be better than my 'picking and choosing'?

Larger questions inspired by a very small passage in this very large sea of Talmud.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Pesachim 31a, b

A mishna was introduced at the end of daf 29.  That mishna states that there may be a situation where a Gentile has lent money to a Jew with leavened bread as collateral. If the agreement is that the leavened bread will be transferred to the Gentile  from the time of the loan - and then the Jew does not pay the loan back on time - the Gentile is understood as the owner of the leaven from the time of the loan and thus the Jew does not transgress the commandment: "it shall not be seen".

All of daf (a) and much of daf (b) are devoted to a discussion of this mishna.  The rabbis begin with the  significance of exactly when the leaven transfers ownership.  Then they teach about debtors and creditors in other situation, including when Reuven sold a field to Shimon with the promise that the sale would be treated as a loan should the field be repossessed.  When Reuven died, his creditors repossessed the field.  If Reuven had sons, those orphans could claim the field as their own, for orphans have rights to 'movable property' without having to pay that to their deceased father's creditors.  The rabbis continue with this line of thought, looking to maximize Shimon's financial interests.

We learn that when A lends to B and B lends to C, C can repay directly back to A without using B as a 'middleman'.  This is based on Numbers 5:7, "And he shall give it to him whom he has wronged".  The ultimate creditor is the person who is owed payment.

The rabbis continue their debate about the use of leavened bread as collateral.  Steinsaltz's notes tell us that the halacha is that the Jew may derive benefit from the leaven after Pesach in the case of our mishna above.  However, if a Jew lends money to a Gentile with leavened bread as a collateral and similar conditions, the Jew cannot derive benefit from that leaven after Pesach.  The key point seems to be whether or not we can prove that the Jew was ever in ownership of leaven over Pesach, which of course is forbidden.

Daf (b) begins with the consideration of repayment of loans.  In Deuteronomy 24:13, we learn that "You shall surely return the pledge to him when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and it shall be a righteousness for you before the Lord your G-d".  I love this particular verse, which reminds us of the importance of returning things promptly as we do not know how those things might be needed/used.  Collateral, however, complicates the understanding of this passage as there is not a clear transfer of anything, and thus "...where is the righteousness?"  The rabbis continue to debate this and related arguments.

The rabbis teach us that when a store is owned by a Jew and the workers are Gentiles, any leavened found after Pesach is forbidden.  However, in the reverse circumstance, the leaven is permitted.  Why?  The owner of the store is to be responsible for the leaven, thus the leaven found in a Jew's store likely belonged to the Jew over Pesach.  The Gentile's leaven would never have belonged to the Jewish workers.  One question, however - was it permitted to eat the leaven of a Gentile at any time?  The text states that we are allowed to eat this bread, and "needless to say, it is permitted to derive benefit from this leavened bread."

Another mishna: Leavened bread that has fallen under a rockslide is considered to be destroyed and we don't have to dig it up and burn it.  Rabban Shimon be Geamliel tells us that we do not need to search for leaven that cannot be found by a dog.  The rabbis clarify: dogs will dig for food and not for money. Dogs dig up to 3 handbreadths.  We must nullify this leaven in our hearts alone.  Rafram bar Pappa from Sikhra tells us that we bury money at one handbreadth below the surface of the ground, just out of view.  I think that instead of trusting the big banks, we may want to reconsider this method of storing our cash.

Finally, another mishna: If a person eats terumah unknowingly on Pesach, we must pay the principal plus 1/5 of the actual worth of the bread (not its value on Pesach, which is nothing).  A note tells us that there is some debate regarding whether we should pay this money to the priest himself or to the priests together.  If a person eats this terumah intentionally during Pesach, s/he is liable for karet.  Karet is a serious punishment that trumps the repayment of the terumah, and thus no recompense is required. 

Today's daf was slightly easier for me to follow than the past few dapim.  However, the system of loans, debts, collateral - all of these were challenging to understand.  That makes sense, I suppose, when I find those concepts quite bizarre in our own times.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Pesachim 29a, b

A new mishna in yesterday's daf stated that Jews can benefit from chametz made by a Gentile during Pesach onece Pesach has ended.  We cannot benefit from chametz made by a Jew over that time period, however, due to Exodus 13:7, which states that "... neither shall there be leaven see with you, in all your borders."  Pesachim 28b was devoted to proving that this mishna was not in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon, or Rabbi Yose HaGelili.  Today's daf is devoted to proving that in fact this mishna could indeed be attributed to any one of these rabbis.

Rav Acha bar Ya'akov argues that Rabbi Yehuda could have been the author of the mishna at hand.  The idea that chametz may not be seen can infer that we cannot see chametz belonging to ourselves or other Jews.  Further, Jews can both use and eat chametz made by a Gentile over Pesach after the chag has concluded based on extending a logical argument.  'Permitted' should have meant 'permitted to both Jews and Gentiles during Pesach'.  

Rava argues that Rabbi Shimon could hold the argument of this mishna though he expressed earlier that  Jews could not derive benefit from chametz made by other Jews during Pesach after Pesach had ended. Rava aruges that Rabbi Shimon knew that this directive was based on Torah law.  Thus a person who intentionally breaks the law is subject to a fine.

Rava and Rav Acha bar Ya'akov continue to debate the finer points of these arguments.  One of their key points is whether or not a consecrated item can be redeemed to feed it to dogs, to Jewish people, or not at all.  Through Steinsaltz's notes, I have learned a number of laws related to the rabbi's arugment:

  • consecrated items can only be redeemed if they are fit for human consumption. They cannot be fed to dogs.  Instead they can be left untouched or they can be burned.
  • one who commits multiple crimes is punished only for the most severe crime.
  • one who commits multiple crimes and is given the death penalty does not have to pay damages.
The rabbis discuss whether chametz has monetary value.  If it is worth anything after Pesach, should it not be protected during Pesach?  What if the leavened bread is made of a mix of types of flour - matzah and another flour - should that affect its permissibility after Pesach?  The basic rule is that the non-permitted food cannot be more than 1/60th of the mixture.  There is a note regarding having a non-Jewish cook taste the food to ensure that the non-Kosher item cannot be detected.

It feels as though we have tried to become more and more exacting about the meanings and practice of halachot over time.  If some chametz flour Kosher-for-Pesach soup of an orthodox person, would s/he ensure that it was less than 1/60th of the entire mixture?  Or would s/he throw out the soup, just to be safe?  I could be wrong, but my sense is that there are rewards within the community for behaviour that is more 'letter-of-the-law-observant'.  Learning Talmud also opens up their social world around eating, drinking, food-preparation, and other norms of social etiquette.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Pesachim 28a, b

We continue to follow the rabbi's conversation about whether or not we can benefit from leaven which is forbidden over the Pesach chag.  A new argument is introduced by Rabbi Yehuda regarding how we might benefit from leftover leaven.  He suggests that leftover sacrificial meat is burned and thus the same may be true for leftover leaven.  The rabbis counter Rabbi Yehuda, reminding him that the leftovers of an uncertain guilt-offering and a bird used as a sin-offering are not burned but buried.  These two offerings are also subject to the prohibition of "and you shall not leave over".  Rabbi Yehuda is silenced by this counter-argument.

Disturbing accounts of the rabbis teasing Rabbi Yehuda for his flawed argument are recorded: Rav Yosef, Abaye and Rava cite examples of circumstances where one creates the tool that ultimately harms himself.  Was this done in friendly, spirited and compassionate camaraderie?  Or was this an opportunity for Rabbi Yehuda's rivals to knock him down and flaunt their knowledge of clever truisms?

The rabbis discuss whether or not idols AND chametz must be ground up before throwing them into the wind and/or the sea.  Their arguments are varied and interesting.  We know that the halacha regarding chametz is that it may be crumbled and thrown into the wind, thrown into the sea, or burned.  

At the end of daf (a) introduces a new mishna.  It states that after Pesach concludes, it is permitted for a Jew to derive benefit from chametz made by a Gentile over Pesach (perhaps not to eat that bread, but to derive secondary benefit from it).  However, a Jew cannot benefit from chametz made by another Jew over Pesach.**  The Gemara begins with a question about who might have written this mishna, as the mishna goes against previous understandings of the prohibitions on chametz.

Daf (b) is devoted to understanding which of Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon or Rabbi Yosei HaGelili might have authored this mishna.

The Gemara reminds us that the baraita is clear: we cannot benefit from leavened bread from  mid-day of the 14th of Nisan until after Peach has ended.  Rabbi Yehuda has taught that eating leavened bread during Pesach is transgressing a negative mitzvah and thus liable for karet.  Rabbi Shimon believes that we cannot benefit at all from leaven made during Pesach, period.  Rabbi Yosei HaGelili believes that of course, we must benefit from leaven over the chag of Pesach: "How can it be prohibited to derive benefit from leavened bread for all seven days?"

The rabbis continue to argue this point.  They use three verses that prohibit eating leavened bread to prove their points.  "Leavened bread shall not be eaten" (Exodus 13:3), "and all that which is leavned you shall not eat" (Exodus 12:20), and "You shall eat no leavened bread with it" (Deuteronomy 16:3).  Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yosei HaGelili each use these commandments to prove their points.  Their arguments are truly opposed, but each rabbi is able to provide proof-texts for his argument using these (and other) mitzvot.

At the end of daf (b), we do not know if there is a 'winner' in this argument.  We watch the fancy footwork of our rabbis.  We experience their brilliance through the scope of their knowledge, their creative interpretations, their internal consistency.  Today's daf showed the best and the worst of the Talmud narrative as a human process.  When Rabbi Yehuda stated a flawed argument, he was publicly mocked. However, when the Gemara set out to understand the source of an argument, equal voice was given to the dissenting opinions of at least three rabbis - and one of those rabbis was Rabbi Yehuda.

If our ancestors were able to accept different interpretations of the Torah, why can we not do the same?  I understand that their practice was different.  But they held the same fears regarding Jewish continuity.  They wanted to ensure a singular ritual for people to hang on to.  Yet they could tolerate differences in practice.  We have much to learn from our Sages.

** Were some Jews not observant?  Did Jews actually bake chametz on Pesach and remain part of the community?  We are led to believe that the only option for Jews in antiquity (and for most of the next 2000 years) was to be observant of Jewish laws.  How could it be that a Jew would bake chametz on Pesach?  Or perhaps this is one of our Sages theoretical constructs to further the argument at hand.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Pesachim 27a, b

Daf 27 continues the discussion of when we might 'derive benefit' (hana'ah) from an item that is otherwise prohibited.  Like in other recent dapim, this discussion is helping our rabbis understand whether chametz, leaven, can be used for purposes other than eating over the chag of Pesach.  We know that eating chametz is forbidden.  However, might we derive benefit from chametz in any other way?

Daf (a) is devoted to the use of asheira, wood from a tree that is prohibited to Jews because others may use that tree in their idolatrous practices.  Idolatry is one of the two negative mitzvot that must not be transgressed, even for medical, healing purposes (the other is forbidden sexual relations).  The rabbis look at different utensils made from an asheira, baking that has used kindling made of asheira wood (rather than dim coals or glowing coals), and what to do with kosher bread that is mixed together with bread that is made with asheira wood as the fuel.  

This last point holds particular interest for me.  Among other options, the rabbis suggest that we might use the bread, but pay the amount of money that it cost to make the bread baked with asheira wood fuel.  But whom do we pay?  Not the priest, not the poor.  Instead, we throw that money into the dead sea.  Why?  The rabbis believed that the dead sea could not support fish nor fishermen who might take the money; the dead sea would corrode the coins.  All of the to ensure that no-one is allowed any secondary benefit from that money, which originated in the use of a prohibited tree.

The rabbis compare the secondary use of asheira wood in comparison with orla wood. Orla wood is taken from a tree that is less than three years old; we are forbidden to make use of that tree's fruits until it has reached maturity.  The rabbis argue that there can be no comparison; the prohibition against orla wood can be nullified if the wood is 1/200 of its group.  The prohibition against using asheira wood is never nullified.  Thus this cannot be a reasoned argument.

Finally, we learn about consecrated wood that has been put aside for a peace-offering and becomes disqualified.  We learn about fires that destroy consecrated wood and create ash that is not supposed to be used in any way.  

When the Talmud was codified, choices were made.  Do we keep this conversation, that argument?  Do we keep every word?  Which versions of the words?  In my mind there must be great reason to have chosen to keep this significant debate regarding secondary benefits of leaven.  In the past number of dapim, we have learned about much, much more than simple halachot about chametz on Pesach.  I know that I am not learned enough to appreciate the larger reasons behind these arguments.  At the same time, I believe that I am learning to follow the process of the argument -- the use of logic and proof-texts to better co-create a shared meaning.  What a privilege to have access to this truly traditional Jewish thinking.

Pesachim 26a, b

Today is Tisha B'Av.  Traditionally we remember the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.  Coincidentally, daf 26a focuses on Temple practices as examples of when we are allowed to 'derive benefit' from something that is ordinarily prohibited.  This is a continuation of the rabbis' attempts to understand when and where and why we might be allowed to benefit from chametz during (or close to the start of) Pesach, when chametz is otherwise prohibited.

Some of these examples include using the shade of the Temple to conduct lectures on mitzvot, smelling the sanctified incense prepared only for the Temple, how to use the ashes and the priestly garments left behind at the Temple, and how to use the heifer whose neck is broken or the red heifer (both of which are designated only for a specific purpose and specifically not for other purposes).  Each of these examples is discussed at some length.

As an aside, a principle is defined in daf a.  When two statements regarding exclusion are written in the same sentence, we do not generalize that halacha.  Instead, we apply the halacha only to those statements.  Words like "it" and "the" as in "the red heifer" help us to know that we are learning only about that one red heifer and not about heifers or birds or even red heifers in general.

Daf b introduces a number of new examples regarding how we might derive benefit from an item otherwise prohibited.  One example is the use of a found blanket being used to keep guests warm.  Another is selling or even carrying garments made of 'diverse kinds' (the fabric of two different crops, for example wool and linen, are not to be sewn together) (Deuteronomy 22:11).  And yet another example still current today is whether and how an oven may be used after it has been heated or strengthened by a prohibited item.  

While our circumstances are generally very different from those of our Sages, these conversations are not.  Many streams of Jewish tradition continue to value learning, searching, discussing and interpreting.  As we mourn the loss of our Temples, we can be grateful for the continued opportunities to debate our traditions and interpretations of those traditions.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Pesachim 25a, b

Today we move even more deeply into the rabbis' discussions regarding deriving benefit from prohibited items.  

One of their arguments regards punishment.  If one is punished for deriving benefit from one prohibited item, for example, we should assume that they should be punished for deriving benefit from another prohibited item.  The rabbis use grammatical differences to justify - and dispute - this notion. 

We are reminded of the halachot regarding diverse seeds or any seeds at all planted in a vineyard.  Not only are all of the produce of this vineyard prohibited, we cannot derive benefit from any of this produce, either.  The text seems to be saying one of two things: once the seed grows 1/200th of its size, or once the seed grows to 1/200th the size of the crop, it prohibits benefit from all of that crop.

The rabbis consider the case of an asheirawood of a tree that may have been used for idolatry.  That wood cannot be used in any way at all.  The rabbis argue about when we might use otherwise forbidden objects.  Is it alright to use the wood of an asheira for medical purposes if a life is in danger? 

Furthering this argument, Eliezer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5: "(you should love the Lord your G-d with) all your heart,... soul,... might."  "Your soul" refers to people who value their bodies more that their possessions.  These people should know that they should sacrifice their bodies to G-d if required.  "Your might" refers to those who value their property more than their bodies.  These people should know that they should sacrifice their possessions if necessary to honour G-d's commandments.  However, the rabbis note that "you shall live through them [the mitzvot]" Leviticus 18:5, meaning that we should live and not die for the sake of mitzvot.  All of this to teach us about when we should derive benefit from prohibitions, whether those are trees our (sacred and not-to-be-otherwise-harmed) bodies, or our possessions.

The rabbis then choose to discuss other examples of this concept of 'deriving benefit' from prohibited items.  They compare the rape of a betrothed young woman to a murder.  Not in a satisfactory way (for me), however.  Instead they debate about whether one should do everything in one's power to prevent certain halachot from being broken.  So a woman should allow herself to be killed rather than allow the laws of sexual relations to be prohibited.  And if asked to murder someone or be killed, we should allow ourselves to be killed as "(his) blood may be redder than (ours)".  We are told that this refers to the idea that a person kept alive may be able to do many, many mitzvot.  But we never know who will do those mitzvot - we should not assume that we will do more mitzvot than another person.

Finally the rabbis look at the laws of orla, fruit less than 3 years old, which are not to be eaten - or used in any other way, ie. deriving benefit from orla.  A story of Ravina rubbing his daughter's feverish body with orla olives for medicinal purposes teaches that the unusual use of orla fruit is permitted.  She was not dying, and so his actions were prohibited according to that line of reasoning.  The rabbis are struggling with how to apply the concept of 'deriving benefit' from otherwise prohibited items.

The end of daf b is quite complex.  Steinsaltz provides a very useful chart to help us understand the arguments of the rabbis.  Suffice it to say that Abaye and Rava debate and then Rav Yehuda and Rav Shimon debate about a four-part argument.  Each rabbi rules on whether the 'derived benefit' is prohibited or permitted depending on the following circumstances:

  • it is possible to use another item;
  • it is impossible to use another item;
  • the defendant intends to derive benefit from the prohibited item;
  • the defendant does not intend to derive benefit from the prohibited item.

Clear rulings are given by Abaye and Rava regarding two categories.  If the defendant does not intend to use the prohibited item and it is impossible to use another item, they agree that the item is permitted.  Likewise, if the defendant intends to use the prohibited item and it is possible to use another item in place of the prohibited item, it is prohibited.   The other rulings are much more complicated.

Today's daf examines how we might derive benefit from things (including concepts) that are prohibited to us.  It is clear that using things in unusual ways is met with leniency.  However, even medical issues are deliberated with stringency when prohibitions regarding idolatry, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed are at hand.  When looking at the rape of a young woman - likely a very young teenager - the rabbis again speak without thought of the trauma induced by this experience.  At times the internal logic of the Talmud is beautiful and comforting; at other times it is brutal and without compassion.  Today's daf included all of these things.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Pesachim 24a, b

We continue with yesterday's discussion of deriving benefit from something otherwise prohibited.  Ultimately this regards the use of leaven just before and during Pesach, as leaven is forbidden to be eaten - at the very least.

The rabbis discuss the command that "it shall not be eaten", lo yeachel (Leviticus 7:19), and how that is interpreted in different situations.  For example, they examine the role of burning offerings in the sacred places of the Temple.  They also look at impure items that have been burned.  The rabbis note that no one was to eat either of those items; not even the food left over after being burned.  This would indicate that one is not to derive ulterior benefit from these offerings.

On a side conversation we are introduced to a different interpretation of "it shall not be eaten".  Instead of teaching us about deriving benefit, these words may be used to teach us how to punish those who eat forbidden items such as putitas (small water creatures), ants or hornets.  Punishments include flogging with four, five or six sets of lashes as determined by how many commandments were broken in the act of eating that forbidden 'food'.

Daf b introduces a number of situations and examples to further explain when we might derive benefit from an action otherwise forbidden.  We look at using the fat of an ox that has been stoned, mixing diverse seeds in a field, and the laws agains mixing meat and milk.  The rabbis note examples of people breaking negative mitzvot, who may have been consequenced more leniently than those breaking positive mitzvot.  

It is interesting to me that dapim like today's daf - so simple at first glance - can be quite difficult for me to get through.  Similarly, dapim that are more obviously complex are often easier for me to grasp and wrangle with. I have not quite figured out what this pattern means, if anything.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pesachim 23a, b

Let's begin with a few important facts:

  • an orla fruit is one that comes from a tree in Israel that is intended to be a fruit tree and is less than 3 years old.  We are not permitted to eat orla fruits.
  • we can establish an eiruv with wine for a nazirite even though the s/he cannot drink it
  • we can establish an eiruv for an Israelite with terumah even thought s/he cannot consume it
Today's daf moves us deep into an argument between Chiskiya and Rabbi Abbahu.  They agree that we cannot benefit from leavened bread on Pesach.  They disagree about why.  Chiskiya believes that the instruction "it shall not be eaten" refers to both eating and deriving benefit from any part of the food in question.   Rabbi Abbahu believes that the prohibition comes from the Torah's specific permission given to derive benefit from an animal carcass.

The rabbis use many examples to explore this argument.  In addition to the first three examples above, they discuss whether/when non-kosher animals can be sold (ie. we can derive benefit from them) to Gentiles; whether or not we can use (and thus derive benefit) from the fat of animals which have been killed in non-kosher ways.  This discussion goes into great detail.

This argument continues to be relevant today.  Today's daf tells us that one can sell a non-kosher animal killed by accident a fortiori (after the fact).  However, one should not be in that position with any frequency, and thus we cannot for example be a pig farm developer.  I don't know if that is in fact a job, but it certainly isn't an appropriate career path for observant Jews. 

This begs many questions: can I sell leather shoes if those shoes are not products of 'kosher' production?  Can I hire non-Jews to keep my business open on Shabbat?  In Israel today there are shops that are forced to close on Shabbat for fear that they will lose their standing as 'kosher' restaurants.  

When we avoid any benefit from things not explicitly 'kosher' (in the broad sense of the word), our worlds become very small.  Movies, books, conversations -- many of the freedoms enjoyed in the Western world would be (and are) off-limits for some Jews.  Even in antiquity, our Sages interacted with ideas that were not only Jewish.  Many of the terms that I am reading in the Talmud are originally Greek words that have been adapted to Hebrew and/or Aramaic.  Thus our rabbis were exposed to Greek culture - their societies, their laws, likely their religious beliefs.

Again we are introduced to a concept that can encourage extremist behaviour and thought if taken to its edge.  How important it is to talk with each other and to realize that our religions are more similar that they are different.  Yes, Judaism is special. And it is important to delve into that world of thought if we are Jews. But it is also important to know that we are not the only ones who love our traditions, who feel special and chosen, and who enjoy these particular benefits of our religious traditions.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pesachim 21a, b

The beginning of daf 21 is part of Perek I.  The rabbis consider whether or not it is reasonable to assume that the baraita was recorded incorrectly.  It would be logical that the baraita reversed the names of the rabbis in question; however, what does it mean if we give ourselves the choice of whether or not to change a baraita?  We continue to struggle with these issues today, particularly with reference to Torah critique.  As a feminist, I continually reinterpret meaning, assuming that "they must have meant x, not y".  Although this luxury allows me entrance into the texts, am I fundamentally changing the meanings when I reinterpret?  Does that matter?

And, as well, today we begin Perek II.  A new mishna tells us about what we can do with leaven: can we feed it to our pets or to our livestock?  can we burn it? can we sell it to gentiles?  can we light an flame with it?  can we crumble it and throw it into the sea?  

The rabbis discuss and debate each point.  Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argue their points as expected, where Beit Shammai tend toward stringency regarding selling leaven to a gentile and Beit Hillel lean toward leniency.  The rabbis mention the bread (or hard kernels of wheat) used in betrothal, noting that the betrothal would not be affected because an item of value must be exchanged.  As the leaven cannot provide any benefit to its owner at this point in time (just as leaven is removed), it cannot be a symbol of betrothal.

We are then exposed to an examination of 'providing benefit', isoor hana'ah.  What does it mean that leaven cannot provide benefit?  In Exodus 13:3, we are reminded that G-d tells us "Leavened bread shall not be eaten", lo yeachel chametz.  That passive voice tells the rabbis that there should be no consumption of leaven at all.  'At all' would include the exchange of coins or food for leaven, which might provide some benefit to the seller.  The rabbis argue that if an active voice had been used in 13:3: "You shall not eat leaven", the halacha would include only eating leaven.  Benefitting otherwise from leaven would have been allowed.

Finally, the rabbis tell us that we should sell our leaven to gentiles, but first we should offer the leaven as a gift to resident aliens.  Why would we make this distinction?  Resident aliens are community members who are not Jewish.  What makes them so different from other gentiles?  

We are reminded that we are obligated to care for the resident aliens among us, but we are not commanded to care for gentiles outside of our community.  That is why we should give our leaven to resident aliens: they should benefit from our food without paying for that benefit. 

Obviously this last point opens a door to many, many questions.  Those questions regard the religious- and socioeconomic-based structures of societies in antiquity.  How much was Judaism a construction of closed, cloistered religious communities at that time?  And how much did Judaism contribute to that exclusionary template?  The idea of 'caring for the stranger among us' sounds lovely, and is critically important in our own times.  However, what was its meaning in the time of the Talmud?  Was it a progressive concept or a token kindness?  And does that concept excuse us from building trusting relationships with 'the other' who lives outside of our communities?  More thinking on this topic could be useful in our neighbourhood conversations and in our most static political blocks.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Pesachim 20a, b

Perek II begins with tomorrow's daf.  Today's daf includes new conversation and a review - something that I have not seen before.

We begin with the notion of uncertainty.  Apparently all cases of uncertainty with regard to ritual impurity are decided upon based on the halachot of the sota.  A sota is a woman accused of having sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband.1   According to Steinsaltz, the halachot regarding whether or not a sota is ritually pure are Torah-based.  Thus we are told to be stringent in cases where we are uncertain of ritual purity - we are always stringent in halachot based directly on Torah law. Interestingly, Sota also provides us with precident to be lenient in cases of impurity, for the act would have happened in a private domain where no one else was present, leading to less certainty.  In addition, a sota can answer the question "did you commit adultery?", unlike an inanimate object (in the latter case there is uncertainty by definition).  

We are reminded that food is susceptible to ritual impurity only by liquid, and the liquid itself should not be terribly thick.  The rabbis tell us about "the esteem for sacred objects", chibat hakodesh, where sanctified objects are more susceptible to ritual impurity.  Thus they can become impure at the third- (terumah) and fourth- (consecrated items) degree impurity.  Daf a ends with a debate regarding the degree of impurity in vessel that is in an oven that also contains the carcass of a creeping animal.  The rabbis share the lovely image of the oven as if filled with creeping animal carcasses, rendering either the oven itself or the vessel impure at the first-degree.

Daf b repeats many of the conversations between daf 14a and today's daf, Pesachim 20.  It took me a few paragraphs to figure out what was going on.  Haven't I read this before? Did I read this daf already?  On one hand, it was good to know that I've been paying attention.  On the other hand, the repeated arguments were just as difficult to follow.  I had thought that anything recorded in the Talmud had to be novel, however.  Why this repetition - why at this point in the masechet, in the larger scheme of the Talmud?  

At the very end of daf b, there is a statement that I've rarely - if ever - seen.  Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yossi says: Ani achriah, "I will decide (on this matter)".  I had hoped that "the matter" would be the larger question about purity and impurity; about whether or not we can burn terumah of second-degree impurity together with terumah with first-degree impurity.  Alas, he wished to decide on the matter of wine that is ritually impure.  And peeking on to daf 21a, I notice that his opinion is discounted immediately.  So there is no deciding after all.

Amazing that I crave the decisions, the decisive and directive halachot, when I do not believe that there is one answer to most problems.  It must be human nature (to some degree) to crave certainty: rules, laws, decisions.  But those decisions are limitations.  Relying on the inflexible ideal; the right and the wrong, is our downfall, I believe.  But I want to skip the conversation and move on to the 'answer', too.  Hopefully this process of daf yomi will help me with my tenacity; my ability to stay with and enjoy the process even when I have found no true answers.

1Masechet Sota will go into great detail about this process, no doubt.