Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Much of Tractate Zevachim deals with the reasons why a Temple offering might become disqualified. As we have seen over the last months, there are many ways that the sacrificial process can go wrong: An animal offered with the wrong intention, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or by the wrong person is considered invalid. But it must have sometimes happened that such an invalid offering would nevertheless have ended up on the altar by mistake. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter nine of the tractate, the rabbis asked what should be done in such a situation. Once an invalid offering has “ascended the altar,” should it remain there and be burned, or should it be brought back down?

The mishna in Zevachim 83a begins by stating a general principle: “The altar sanctifies items that are suited to it.” In other words, only items that belong on the altar in the first place are made holy by ascending it; such items become what the rabbis call “bread of the altar,” that is, food for the flames. On the other hand, items that shouldn’t have been brought up to the altar do not gain holiness simply because they ascended. However, the tannaim offer several different interpretations of what this rule means in practice, depending on their definition of the phrase “suited to it.”

To Rabbi Yehoshua, it means “suited to the fire”: that is, the portions of the animal that are supposed to be burned. These portions should remain on the altar once brought there, even mistakenly: “If it ascended, it shall not descend.” Rabban Gamliel takes a broader view, defining “suited” as not just “suited to the fire” but as “suited to the altar.” The difference between them, the mishna explains, has to do with items that are brought onto the altar but are not burned there, such as blood, which is sprinkled around the corners of the altar. Since blood is not suited to the fire, Yehoshua would rule that blood which is mistakenly brought onto the altar should “descend” again, while Gamliel would rule that it should be sprinkled despite its deficiency. Meanwhile, other sages offer still different rationales.

The Gemara goes on to explain the scriptural and logical basis for this disagreement. The general hermeneutic principle of the Talmud is that every Torah verse comes to teach a point of law. Understanding the Torah requires parsing the verse very carefully, paying attention to each word and even to pronouns and articles. If two authorities disagree on the law, therefore, they also disagree on the interpretation of the Torah verse. In this case, Yehoshua cites Leviticus 6:2: “It is the burnt offering on the pyre upon the altar.” The pyre is where offerings are burned, and so Yehoshua concludes that what matters is whether an item is suitable for burning; if it is, it can’t descend from the altar once it has ascended.

If Gamliel disagrees, it must be because he reads this verse differently. “For Rabban Gamliel also, isn’t it written: ‘Burnt offering on the pyre?’” the Gemara demands. How does he interpret the text to come to a different conclusion from Yehoshua? The answer is that Gamliel learns another point of law from the verse: for him, “burnt offering on the pyre” comes to teach that if a part of the burnt offering fell off the pyre during burning, it should be restored to the pyre. This puts the ball back in Yehoshua’s court; for if Yehoshua agrees that the burnt offering must be restored to the pyre, he must find a different scriptural basis for this law. The same Torah verse can’t teach two different laws: If Leviticus 6:2 verse is “taken,” so to speak, because it teaches what Yehoshua needs it to teach, it can’t also teach what Gamliel needs it to teach.

How, then, does Yehoshua ground the law about returning fallen parts of the sacrifice to the pyre? For him, this law is found in the following Torah verse, Leviticus 6:3, which contains the phrase “that the fire has consumed of the burnt offering of the altar.” Yehoshua takes this verse to mean that a partially consumed offering should be restored to the fire if it is dislodged. The next question, then, is what law Gamliel derives from Leviticus 6:3, since he doesn’t need it to make the point Yehoshua finds in it. In this way, the Torah accumulates meanings: Each authority reads it as he needs to, in order to support his own interpretation of the law.

In the next mishna, in Zevachim 84a, we learn that the law about “ascending the altar” depends on the exact reason why an offering is unfit. The basic principle, stated by Rabbi Shimon, is that an offering “shall not descend [if] its disqualification occurred in sanctity.” In other words, a sacrifice that became disqualified because of some error in the sacrificial process may remain on the altar once it ascends. Such errors disqualify it as a valid sacrifice, but they do not render it unfit to be offered to God. This includes, for example, an animal that wandered outside the Temple courtyard before it was slaughtered, or one that was killed for a different sacrifice than the one it was actually used for, or one whose blood was collected and sprinkled by unfit priests. In these cases, the problem lay not with the animal, but with the way the sacrifice was conducted.

If, on the other hand, the animal itself was disqualified from being used as a sacrifice, then it must descend from the altar if it is mistakenly brought there. This includes animals that were used for bestiality or idol worship, or that were given as payment to a prostitute, or that are tereifa—that is, mortally wounded in such a way that they are sure to die within 12 months. (Today we call food that is unkosher for any reason treyf, but originally the term referred only to this specific cause.) The rabbis’ reasoning seems to be that such animals were never eligible as sacrifices in the first place, and so they do not belong on the altar at all.

In the course of discussing this point, the Gemara engages in a surprising discussion about the mechanics of bestiality. With large animals such as sheep or cows, the rule is that an animal becomes disqualified whether it plays the active or the passive role in copulation—that is, whether it penetrates or is penetrated. In Zevachim 85b, the rabbis of the Gemara ask whether the same principle applies to birds, which are also brought as sacrifices in the Temple. It is theoretically possible for a man to penetrate a bird; but it is not possible for a bird to penetrate a man or woman. Does this mean that birds are not covered by the same law of bestiality that applies to large animals? Fortunately, the rabbis quickly close this potential loophole: Birds are subject to the same prohibition as other animals, they decide. The matter-of-factness with which the rabbis address this issue, as with other sexual matters that arise in the Talmud, is striking. For them, sexual sins are just like any other kind of sin, and demand the same kind of rational analysis.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.