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Daf Yomi: For the rabbis, trivial—even outdated or immaterial—problems can provide the best thought experiments
To understand what this means, it’s necessary to go into the question of degrees of tumah. An av hatumah—literally, a “father of tumah”—is anything that can impart contamination to other things and people: Examples include a corpse, an improperly slaughtered animal, a man who has had a seminal emission, and a menstruating woman. Any person or utensil that comes into contact with an av hatumah becomes tamei in the first degree—in Hebrew, rishon. Such a contaminated person or utensil cannot itself transmit tumah to other people or utensils. However, a rishon can transmit tumah to foods and beverages, because these are capable of contracting three further degrees of tumah—second (sheni), third (shelishi), and fourth (revi’i)—depending on their own degree of holiness. Thus, if I have things right, if a man touches a corpse and then touches a piece of meat, the meat is a sheni; if that meat then touches some terumah, the terumah becomes a shelishi.
Now back to Hanina’s point. He is talking about a situation in which one piece of meat was contaminated by an av hatumah—say, by touching a corpse—and a second piece of meat was contaminated in the second degree—say, by being cooked in an oven that had been used by a menstruating woman. The first piece of meat was rishon, the second sheni. Burning them together would presumably transfer the rishon’s degree of tumah to the sheni, thus making it more contaminated. Yet the priests didn’t seem to be bothered by this, since both pieces of meat were going to be destroyed anyway. Does this offer a precedent that can be used to decide the question of the terumah on Passover?
In the Gemara, the Amoraim debate this question fiercely and at length. Can a food, they ask, convey tumah to another food? If it can’t do so under biblical law, can it do so under rabbinic law? What about beverages and liquids—can they convey tumah to one another? Are you allowed to deliberately render a portion of wine tamei in order to preserve a much greater quantity that is tahor? More fundamentally, is Hanina’s example, in which two tamei things are burned together, really analogous to the Passover example, in which one thing is tamei and the other tahor?
Just as important as the answers to all these questions is the source of those answers. Much of these seven pages is devoted to figuring out which Tanna held which opinion and which later rabbi agreed with which earlier one. As always, I find this one of the hardest strands of the Talmud to keep straight. You would need to draw up a table of the kind used to solve logic problems to remember whether Elazar agreed with Yehoshua and which one Yose was challenging. Yet getting such matters right was essential to the rabbis, since they were transmitting a long oral tradition and couldn’t afford to lose track of the genealogy of each legal opinion.
The detail and precision of the arguments are even more impressive when you remember that the whole subject was doubly abstract. Not only was tumah an invisible, incorporeal status, a pure concept; it was a concept that applied only in the Temple, where it affected the status of the priests and the sacrifices. But by the time the Talmud was edited, around 500 C.E., the Temple had been gone for 400 years—as much time as separates us today from Shakespeare. For the Amoraim, there were no sacrifices to perform, and in Babylonia, where they lived, there was no requirement to tithe crops at all.
Yet the rabbis devoted as much intellectual force to getting tumah right as if it were still a matter of life and death, and they write about the sacrifices as if they might be called on to perform one tomorrow. The law, for them, existed in a virtual realm, immune from time and change. This devotion to Torah for its own sake is, for me, one of the most foreign things about the Talmud—and one of the most sublime.
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When I converted to Judaism, I found the ‘Jewish mother’ I never had—a woman who resembled my own mom in surprising ways