Discussion on the Daf - Pesachim
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Post Mon, May 03 2021, 6:41 pm
Pes 93

Our daf attempts to answer that question when discussing Pesach Sheni, a second chance to bring the Passover offering for those who missed it on the 14th of Nisan due to corpse impurity or “a long journey” (Numbers 9:10-11).

The Mishnah cites two opinions as to what counts as “a long journey”: Rabbi Akiva holds that it is a distance of about twenty miles, while Rabbi Eliezer holds it is the distance from outside the threshold of the Temple courtyard to the center of the Temple. In other words, according to Rabbi Eliezer, anyone who is not in the Temple itself on Passover is eligible for a second chance due to being on a “long journey.”

In the course of examining Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, the Talmud mentions that one can walk five mil (10,000 cubits or about three miles) between dawn (when light first appears in the sky) and sunrise. Proof of this is taken from the story of Abraham’s nephew Lot’s flight from the doomed city of Sodom:

The story is one of misplaced good intentions. Lot was a good man living in a bad place — so bad, in fact, that God decided to destroy the city. Lot offers hospitality to the angels God sends to warn him of the upcoming destruction. When the townspeople demand Lot hand over his guests, Lot (with good though misguided intentions) offers his virgin daughters instead. When the angels tell Lot what is about to happen and that he and his family must flee, he hesitates to the point that the angels need to drag him along. He begs the angels to let him stop at a nearby town (called Zoar). There, he sees Sodom obliterated in fire and brimstone. Finally, when his daughters believe they are the last humans alive, they (again with good though misguided intentions) trick their father into committing incest in an attempt to sustain humanity.

On a simple level, the verse about Lot’s journey to Zoar, a three mile journey that begins at dawn and ends at sunrise, is quoted on our daf to indicate how far a person can travel in a particular amount of time. Taking into account the context of Lot’s story, however, the use of the verse also offers a subtle critique of those who miss Passover because of a long journey.

Pesach Sheni is introduced in Numbers in response to people who cannot offer the regular Passover offering because of corpse impurity. Their impurity is due to an event that cannot be planned for and that must be taken care of immediately. Then, the second chance is also offered to those who miss Passover because they are on a long journey. Though the Torah finds this a reasonable excuse, it seems the rabbis here would encourage people to plan their journeys around Passover.

Or perhaps, like the interpretation that a “long journey” simply means outside of the Temple courtyard, Lot’s hesitation stands in for an emotional or spiritual distance. Lot hesitated; he didn’t miss his deadline, but that is only because of divine intervention. Lot was meant to go further, but he lacked the energy and begged to stop at a nearby town. And perhaps it is this spiritual distance that needs to be overcome, according to the rabbis.

In what ways do our emotional and spiritual distances separate us from things that are important, and in what can we do to overcome those obstacles? While the Torah offers a second chance, recognizing that we cannot always do things perfectly or according to plan, the rabbis urge us to examine our motives, to understand what creates distance even as we work to minimize that distance with second chances.
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Post Tue, May 11 2021, 1:14 am
Pes 94

It is interesting to note that the rabbis begin this tour of the universe with Egypt — the land of Israelite suffering and slavery. In this teaching, Egypt is thought to be 400 parasangs, or about 900 miles across. This is not a terrible estimate. It’s difficult to say what boundaries the rabbis have in mind for Egypt — surely not precisely the contemporary boundaries of the modern state — but just for fun I plotted a trip on Google Maps from Alexandria, situated on the Mediterranean along the northern border of Egypt, down to Argeen, located on the edge of Lake Nubia right at the Sudanese border to the south. Traveling on existing roads, the distance is about 869 miles.

But Egypt, a land whose Hebrew name Mitzrayim means “narrow place” is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond Egypt is the land of Cush, usually identified with Ethiopia (perhaps here meaning the rest of the African continent) which is, in the rabbinic reckoning, 60 times the size of Egypt — about 54,000 miles! (Note: the earth is 25,000 miles in circumference.) Even if we extend that road trip from Alexandria all the way down to Cape Town, South Africa, the distance traveled is only about 6,400 miles. So now we’re off by an order of magnitude.

But the size of Cush pales in comparison to the Garden of Eden, the primordial paradise where God placed the first man and woman — until they disobeyed their one divinely-given commandment and found themselves expelled forever. This lush garden of heavily-laden fruit trees and all manner of earthly delights was, in the rabbinic reckoning, 60 times larger than Cush!

We don’t stop there! The Garden of Eden was a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the land of Eden. (Actually, this idiom is apt — the rabbis use the fraction 1/60th to mean basically that. And this suggests that taking these measurements too literally is a mistake.) This is one reason it would be pretty much impossible for a living person to find their way back there. And Eden itself was tiny compared to the vast stretches of Gehenna — of hell.

Wait a minute! Thought Jews don’t believe in hell? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Gehenna, also called Gehinom, takes its name from a valley just south of Jerusalem. The rabbis understood it as a place of punishment where souls went after death, though most did not remain there permanently. Your average imperfect soul wouldn’t need more than a year in Gehenna to be straightened out, as it were, and sent on its way to eternal life in the Garden of Eden. (This is why, to this day, Jews say Kaddish for loved ones for 11 months — to imply that they do not require a full year of reforming in the underworld.)

We might have expected the beraita to go on to speculate about the size of heaven, but it doesn’t. (This happens elsewhere in rabbinic literature, and the rabbis have even been known to speculate about the size of God!) Instead, however, we are given a vivid picture to sum up this “map”: Therefore, it is found that the entire world is like a pot cover to Gehenna. That’s right, according to this teaching, our world, including our corner that is so small when compared to Egypt, to Cush, to the Garden of Eden and to the land of Eden itself — all of this is but a lid on the incomparably large roiling, boiling pit of hell. And boy, some days that really feels like the truth.
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Post Mon, Jun 07 2021, 1:07 pm
Pes 95

What is the difference between the paschal lamb offered on the first Passover and the paschal lamb offered on the second Passover? On the first Passover, it is prohibited to own leavened bread due to the prohibitions: “it shall not be seen” (Deuteronomy 16:4) and, “it shall not be found” (Exodus 12:19). On the second Passover, one may have both leavened bread and unleavened bread with him

This mishnah outlines the differences between the paschal offering that is brought on time for the first Passover, e.g. on the 14th of Nisan, and the second Passover (Pesach Sheni) observed a month later on the 14th of Iyyar for those who missed the first due to impurity or being too far from Jerusalem to complete the pilgrimage. The second Passover, we find, is not a full repetition of the first. Certain elements, like the requirement to remove all leaven, are omitted.

Today, Pesach Sheni is a minor holiday for some who have the custom to eat matzah and to refrain from saying Tachanun (supplicatory prayers found in the weekday services but omitted on festivals). Some make the day more spiritually meaningful by talking about the importance of second chances.

A curious feature of this mishnah is that while both first and second paschal sacrifices require the recitation of Hallel — psalms of praise — as they are being slaughtered, one only recites Hallel while eating the first paschal sacrifice in Nisan. To this day, we recite Hallel at the seder. Part of it is recited prior to the meal and the majority of it is recited after Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal.

Hallel is one of my favorite Jewish liturgical and ritual moments — the epitome of communal singing. Though root for the word “Hallel” means “to praise,” the psalms that make up Hallel (Psalms 113-118) actually encapsulate a wide emotional spectrum.

It is something to imagine what it must have been like, experientially, to say Hallel as one was consuming the paschal sacrifice, as part of the larger project of reliving the liberation that came through the Exodus from Egypt. The emotional complexity of Hallel fits the moment: liberation came for the children of Israel when we left Egypt, yes, but we also then had to learn how to be in the world as free people, receiving a covenant that bound us to God and one another. No sooner did we leave Egypt, in fact, than we began to lose faith that that choice was a wise one. Praise and joy alone don’t capture the complexity of emotion for that moment.

The spiritual life is not merely about the joys and transcendent moments. For me, it is as much about the sorrows, sadness and rawness of being human. Perhaps that is why the rabbis instituted the recitation of Hallel twice for the first Passover but only once for the second. Those bringing the second Pesach already endured a sense of spiritual separation, making their praise even sweeter.
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Post Tue, Jun 08 2021, 4:16 pm
Pesahim 96

Rabbi Yehoshua said: I heard two rulings from my teachers: One ruling was that the substitute of a paschal lamb is sacrificed as a peace-offering after Passover, and another ruling was that the substitute of a paschal lamb is not sacrificed as a peace-offering after Passover; and I cannot explain these two rulings.

We haven’t talked much about sacrificial substitutions in this series so let me fill you in. Sometimes an animal designated to be a sacrifice (meaning it was declared sacred and earmarked as the sacrificial animal) got lost, so a new animal would be designated in its place. But if the original animal then turns up, what do you do with the replacement animal which is now also sacred?

In this mishnah, Rabbi Yehoshua remembers that sometimes an animal that was designated as a substitute for a lost paschal lamb (which was subsequently found) can be offered as a peace offering. He also knows that under different circumstances the substitute is not offered up as a peace offering but is instead left to graze until it becomes unfit for sacrifice (usually by virtue of becoming blemished) and then it is sold and the proceeds are used to purchase a different animal that will be sacrificed as a peace offering. But he can’t recall the details or explain the conditions that would require the former action (offer it as a peace offering) or the latter (put it out to pasture).

What a relief! If Rabbi Yehoshua, a leading teacher and scholar in his generation, is unable to recall the details of this ruling, kal va’chomer (all the more so), there will be instances where it will happen to me and to us. Especially those of us learning at the rapid clip of a page a day.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s admission also sheds light on the talmudic process itself. The rabbis inherited a wide range of statements about Jewish law. Some have been preserved in the Mishnah, others in the Tosefta, and still others in the Gemara. Like Rabbi Yehoshua, they memorized them and passed them on to their students. Some of the statements are clear; others require further explanation. More often than not, they are detached from the biblical verses from which they were derived and come without explanatory notes. In order to fully understand the Mishnah and to put it into practice, more is often required.

That’s what Gemara tries to do. Through logical argumentation and midrashic interpretation, the rabbis of the Gemara seek to reattach the Mishnah to the biblical text and to transform it into a text that can be put into practice.

In our mishnah, Rabbi Akiva explains what Rabbi Yehoshua cannot and then the rabbis of the Gemara continue the conversation and provide a number of understandings about when a substitute lamb is sacrificed and when it is left to wither. Check out today’s daf to learn about what they have to say.

As you do, the details of the conversation may be implanted in your brain. Or, they may not. If you have trouble recalling the specifics two weeks, two days or even two minutes from now, you will not be alone. You can always go back and read it again. Or, you can continue to read on and see what the next pages have to offer. What you find there may inspire you. All will contribute to your growing understanding of what the Talmud is all abouT
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Post Wed, Jun 09 2021, 6:02 pm
Pesahim 97

Rabbi Akiva said: I will explain: A paschal lamb (that is lost, leading the owner to separate another animal as its replacement) and is later found before the slaughter of the replacement paschal lamb, is left to graze until it becomes unfit. Then it is sold (and becomes unconsecrated) and the owner must bring a peace-offering with its proceeds. And likewise, its substitute.

This is the second half of the mishnah we read on yesterday’s daf — the one in which Rabbi Yehoshua got confused and Rabbi Akiva came to his aid. But this explanation can seem a bit opaque to those who aren’t familiar with these rabbinic discussions of sacrificial replacements and substitutions. As Rabbi Akiva explains, it could be a case that the initial paschal lamb (let’s call it Lamb A) designated for the ritual had gotten lost, and a replacement lamb (Lamb B) was designated in its stead. But then, either before or after the replacement was sacrificed, the first lamb was found again. Then, to make things even more complicated, someone decided to substitute a lamb (Lamb C) to stand in for Lamb A.

On today’s page, the rabbis ask: Can this substitute lamb, Lamb C, still be sacrificed for a regular, non-Passover purpose? Or is it essentially now invalid for any other sacrificial purposes, since even though it was never used and it wasn’t even the lamb originally meant to be used, it is nonetheless still marked with the sanctity of the fact that it is a substitute for a lamb that was once meant as a Passover sacrifice?

The rabbis agree that the answer to this question should hinge on when exactly Lamb A is found and when the substitution of Lamb C is made, but they debate exactly how that plays out. As often happens, the Babylonian rabbis Abbaye and Rava have conflicting opinions here. Rava believes that Lamb C can be sacrificed if Lamb A was found sometime before Lamb B was sacrificed, but was replaced with Lamb C after Lamb B was sacrificed

Abbaye does not think such a sacrifice of Lamb C would be valid, and he demonstrates his point with an interpretation of Leviticus 3:7: If he brings a lamb as his offering, he shall bring it before the Lord.

“If he brings a lamb”: why does scripture say this? In order to include the substitute lamb that was designated after Passover, which is offered as a peace offering. Could it be that even before Passover this is the case (I.e., such a sacrifice could be acceptable)? Scripture says “he”: “he,” the properly designated lamb, is offered as a sacrifice, but the substitute of the original lamb is not offered as a sacrifice.

According to Abbaye, the specific wording of the verse, and particularly the inclusion of the grammatically superfluous word “he,” proves that Lamb C can never be sacrificed under any circumstances if Lamb A was found before the Passover offering (Lamb B) was made. The Talmud considers this to be a conclusive refutation of Rava’s argument.

But why all this concern over Lamb C, the substitute of a lamb that had already replaced? Although we don’t have sacrifices anymore, we can perhaps think more generally about how we think about mishaps and substitutions in regards to Passover and other dearly held Jewish communal practices. What happens after, as in April of 2020 when a global pandemic forced the Jewish community (and, of course, the entire world) into totally uncharted territory? Plan A (say, large gatherings of loved ones) for seder is lost, and must be replaced with perhaps a less desirable Plan B (say, solo, household-only, or Zoom seders)? Do we hold onto Plan A as something to return to at a later point when Plan B is no longer necessary, or perhaps the replacement itself prompts us to think about a substitute Plan C instead? And if we do that, do we take Plan C just as seriously as we would have taken Plan A, or do we relate to it as somehow “lesser than”? Through this discussion of lambs, the Talmud encourages us to take seriously our expectations around this holiday, recognizing the possibility that they may be dashed by circumstances outside of our control, while also encouraging us to acknowledge the sanctity of what we choose to do instead.

And if you’re feeling extra tired by these dizzying discussions of sacrifice, fear not: the tenth and final chapter of Pesachim is on the horizon, and that’s when we will switch from discussing all these sacrificial details and get on to discussing the Passover meal (I.e. the seder). That chapter also has a few other surprises in store.
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Post Mon, Jun 14 2021, 7:29 pm
Pes 98

today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a discussion about what happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for different sacrifices, and then can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice. We learn in a mishnah:

If a paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings (such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was designated as which offering) all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice. And he loses the difference from his own pocket.

Intention, as always, matters for the rabbis. When you designate an animal to
be a peace offering, you cannot then offer it as a paschal offering even if, in theory, it would have made a valid paschal offering.

Rather than risk offering the wrong animal as a sacrifice, all the animals are put out to pasture until they develop blemishes and can no longer be sacrificed. Now they can be sold and the money used to purchase replacement sacrifices that are each equal in value to the most valuable among the lot (because, of course, the person does not know which sacrifice had the greatest value to begin with). This ends up costing the person a bit more money but in this way God gets the animals that are due and no mistakes are made.

Obviously, with the Temple now gone for nearly 2,000 years, Jews don’t put this into practice anymore. The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t either, and famously said that study and prayer are equally valid ways to serve God. And sometimes, they encourage us to study and pray specifically on sacrifice.

The traditional daily morning liturgy contains a series of biblical and talmudic references to the ancient sacrifices — a sort of combination of both study and prayer that meditates directly on the sacrificial cult in the Temple. But for those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of even studying or praying with the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable.

At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation that traditionally concludes with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple — speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days. We pray for this. And yet, do we really want it?

The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old. We may not wish to return to animal sacrifice (I don’t, anyway) but it is a blessing to have deep knowledge of where we have come from.
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