Appreciating the Talmud’s Sublime Devotion to Torah for Its Own Sake
Daf Yomi: For the rabbis, trivial—even outdated or immaterial—problems can provide the best thought experiments
Science teaches us to see the world through inhuman eyes. From the strictly materialist point of view—the view you might get through an electron microscope—no particular place or substance differs essentially from any other. No matter where you look, you see atoms in motion. In the modern world, we have learned this way of seeing so successfully that we even call it natural.
But in historical or psychological terms, it is highly unnatural to look at the world and see uniform matter. On the contrary, the most basic human instinct is to differentiate, to separate, between places and times. One day is a workday, another a holiday; one mountain is just dirt and rocks, while another is the home of the gods; one man is an untouchable, another a high priest. For nearly all of human history, people have viewed the world in this symbolic, value-laden fashion.
Judaism, of course, offers plenty of examples of this kind of symbolic organization of the world. Six days a week you may work, but on the seventh you must rest. Jerusalem is holy, while Babylon is profane. Some animals are kosher, others trayf. It is tempting to dismiss such distinctions by saying that they don’t “really” exist; but they do exist, in the mind of the person who believes in them. (For the Jew who keeps kosher, it is a sin to eat pork, so much so that eating it might actually produce nausea.) Other religions have their own versions of these taboos—Hindus don’t eat beef; Muslims think Mecca is the holiest city—but one definition of a religion is that it structures the world for its believers, imparting values where there would otherwise merely be things.
The last two weeks’ Daf Yomi readings featured a spectacular example of this kind of religious interpretation—or, if you prefer, distortion—of reality. Starting with Pesachim 14a and continuing until the end of Chapter 1 seven pages later, the Talmud was taken up with a long digression known as the sugya of Rabbi Hanina Segan ha-Kohanim. This discussion is devoted to working out, in minute detail, the concept of tumah—the state of ritual contamination that renders a priest unfit for service in the temple, or food unfit for use as a sacrifice. Something that contracts tumah is known as tamei, unclean or impure; the opposite of tamei is tahor. These concepts have danced in and out of the Talmudic discussion ever since I began Daf Yomi, but now they take center stage. According to the Schottenstein Edition’s notes, the sugya of Rabbi Hanina is one of “the primary Talmudic sources for many of the laws” of tumah.
Those same notes define tumah as “a physically indiscernible ritual contamination that can affect persons, articles, foods, and beverages.” Tumah, one might say, is the ultimate example of the way Judaism shapes the world for the believing Jew. You can’t see, touch, or taste tumah; no microscope could ever locate it. Yet for the rabbis of the Talmud it is a crucial property of people and things—so crucial that they devote a great deal of intellectual energy to explaining just how it works. (I did my best to follow the discussion, though I’m sure many of the nuances have escaped me.)
The topic emerges, on Pesachim 14a, out of the ongoing discussion about how to dispose of chametz before Passover. In the Land of Israel, it was required since biblical times for every Jewish farmer to separate a portion of his produce to give to the kohanim, the priests. This offering was known as terumah, and it had to remain ritually pure for the priests to be able to eat it. Now, the rabbis wonder, say you had two portions of terumah grain, one tahor and good for the priests to eat, the other tamei and forbidden to eat. At midday on the 14th of Nissan, before Passover begins, it is required to destroy all the chametz in one’s possession. The question is: Can we burn the tahor chametz and the tamei chametz together, in the same fire? Is this forbidden, because by burning them together, the tahor would be contaminated by the tamei? Or does this not matter, because either way the grain is going to be destroyed, and so it won’t be eaten by the priests?
This is a seemingly minor question. The problem cannot have arisen all that often, and if there were any doubt, it wouldn’t have been hard to simply light two different fires. (Indeed, the rabbis go on to observe that this would be only a minimal hardship, costing only the price of a few sticks of wood.) We have often seen before, however, that trivial problems can provide the best thought experiments for the rabbis. And so it is here. From the initial question about burning chametz, the Talmud evolves a whole classification of five levels of tumah and various rules about what sorts of substances can contaminate one another.
Just to get the flavor of this long and involved discussion, let’s look at how the argument begins. To answer the question about tahor and tamei terumah, the Tannaim—the rabbis of the Mishnah—use one of their favorite techniques: drawing analogies from other areas of Jewish law. Rabbi Hanina Segan ha-Kohanim—the second two words are his title, indicating that he was deputy high priest—starts off by talking about sacrificial meat. “In all the days of the kohanim,” he says, “never did they refrain from burning meat that had been contaminated by a derived tumah together with meat that had been contaminated by an av hatumah, although by doing so they added tumah to its previous tumah.”
When I converted to Judaism, I found the ‘Jewish mother’ I never had—a woman who resembled my own mom in surprising ways