The Talmud’s Abstractions Live in Concrete Examples About Candles and Weasels
Daf Yomi: In textual analysis, the rabbis found biblical bases for customs and rituals that lacked them
But we can also follow a textual route to the same conclusion, as Rav Chisda shows on Pesachim 7b. Exodus 12:19 states, “For a seven-day period leaven shall not be found in your homes.” Using the Talmudic technique that allows us to link different Bible verses if they use the same words, Rav Chisda follows this clue to Genesis 44:12, which reads, “He searched … and it was found.” “Searched,” in turn, leads us to Zephaniah 1:12: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with candles.” In this way, we learn that finding involves searching, and searching requires candles. To reason this way seems very foreign to the modern reader, but as a solution to the rabbis’ problem, it is quite ingenious: It provides a biblical basis for a custom that apparently lacked one. It also demonstrates how deeply familiar the rabbis were with the text of the Bible. Google couldn’t do a better job of linking words and verses.
Finally: those weasels. On Pesachim 9a, a mishnah tells us, “We are not concerned that a weasel may have dragged chametz from house to house or from place to place.” That is, once a place is searched for chametz, we don’t have to search it again for fear that an animal might have dragged chametz into it. If we did, the law continues, “there would be no end to the matter”: We would become obsessive-compulsives, constantly rechecking the same places.
That is all well and good, the Gemara agrees, if no one has actually seen a weasel carry chametz into a house. If no one sees it, we can assume it didn’t happen. But what if you actually do see a weasel carry chametz into your house? Do you have to search it again, or can you assume that, a weasel being what it is, it probably ate the chametz itself and so disposed of the problem?
Here the discussion takes a macabre turn. To resolve the question about Passover, the rabbis invoke the law on another subject—the ritual purity status of non-Jewish homes. All non-Jewish homes were off-limits for priests, we learn, because Gentiles in Talmudic times had the habit (or the rabbis believed they had the habit) of burying their stillborn children in their houses. This gave the house the status of a graveyard, which a Kohen is forbidden to enter, unless it was searched and found to be free of corpses.
There is, however, an exception to this rule: “Any place that a weasel or a pig are able to go does not require a search.” That is because we can assume that, if there had been a corpse present, it would have been eaten up by the carnivorous animal. The rabbis now ask whether this rule can be applied to the question of chametz. If a weasel would eat a dead baby, can we assume it would also eat bread? And remember, the Gemara says, that there is only a possibility there was a corpse in the Gentile’s house, whereas we are certain a weasel has brought chametz into the Jew’s house. How does that change our calculation?
Finally, the rabbis seem to settle on an answer. Even if we can’t be sure that the weasel has eaten the chametz, we can assume that it has at least dragged it away to its burrow for safekeeping and so removed it from the house that way. As often happens in the Talmud, a question about something abstract—probability and certainty—is posed in an extremely concrete fashion, as a problem involving animals and corpses. This combination, I find, is what makes reading the Talmud a continual surprise.
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Elijah Schulman’s family had roots in Selma, Ala. Now his mitzvah project will help maintain its century-old temple.