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When Talmud Is the Focus of Jewish Observance, Theology Comes to Life

Instead of asking us to passively agree with the rabbis, oral law engages the intellect in concrete problems of logic and interpretation

Adam Kirsch
September 10, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

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

As we moved into chapter 7 of Tractate Pesachim, in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the rabbis continued their analysis of the laws governing the Pesach sacrifice, which in Temple times was the centerpiece of the Passover holiday. It felt a little strange to be so focused on Passover during the week of Rosh Hashanah; but as I enter my second year of reading the Talmud, I have gotten used to the disjunction between the Daf Yomi calendar and the Jewish calendar.

In fact, I find something liberating about making Talmud, rather than prayer, the main focus of my Jewish observance. As an adult, I have never been a regular synagogue-goer, and as Abigail Pogrebin noted recently in Tablet, the High Holidays are a time when the problems with the Jewish prayer service are especially acute. Most of us don’t really understand the Hebrew words we’re saying, and if we do understand them, we probably don’t believe them. Reading Talmud, on the other hand, engages all the parts of the intellect that services leave dormant. Instead of asking us to passively agree with problematic theological ideas—for instance, the belief that during these 10 days God is deciding who will live and die over the next year—the Talmud actively engages the intellect in concrete problems of logic and interpretation.

Take, for instance, the biblical commandment about the proper way to cook the Passover sacrifice. In chapter 12 of Exodus, as God prepares to smite the Egyptians’ first-born and finally release the children of Israel from slavery, he commands the people to prepare a lamb or kid for slaughter: “They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted—head, legs, and entrails—over the fire. You shall not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it.”

This was the first Passover sacrifice, and it served as a prototype for those brought to the Temple for centuries afterward. But as always, the rabbis of the Talmud were faced with the problem of interpreting God’s terse commands so that they can be put into practice. The verse makes it quite clear, for instance, that the meat is to be roasted, not boiled or baked or cooked in any other fashion. Ordinarily, you would roast a lamb or kid by putting it on a metal spit. But then the metal would get hot, and its heat would be transferred to the inside of the lamb, so that the inside would effectively be cooked, not directly roasted by flame. Does this indirect kind of cooking count as cooking in the sense of the commandment?

In Pesachim 74a, the Gemara explains that it does: “With regard to a metal utensil, once part of it is hot, it is all hot, and the meat is roasted due to the heat of the spit. And the Merciful One states in the Torah that the lamb must be roasted in fire and not roasted through something else.” As so often in the Talmud, what is at stake here is the definition of a substance. Is a lamb one thing, or is it made up of parts—the meat outside and the guts inside—each of which must be roasted by fire? In the Mishnah, we hear two opinions on this point. Rabbi Yosei HaGelili believes that the legs and innards should be roasted inside the lamb, while Rabbi Akiva believes that they are separate items and so must be roasted separately, side by side on the same spit: “One suspends the legs and entrails from the spit about the animal’s head outside it.” (This reminds me of the debate, in Tractate Shabbat, about whether the saliva in one’s mouth is a separate substance from your body, in which case walking with a wet mouth would be a kind of carrying.)

If you cannot use a metal spit to cook the Passover offering, it follows that you must use a wooden spit instead. But, naturally, this raises its own set of problems. The Mishnah specifies that the stake must be made of “pomegranate wood,” “thrust into the mouth of the lamb until it reaches its anus.” Why, the Gemara asks, must we use pomegranate wood? Why not the wood of a fig tree or a palm? The answer is that these woods contain moisture, in the form of sap, and so if you heated them, a small amount of steam would escape. That steam would boil the part of the innards next to the wooden spit; and as we know, boiling is strictly forbidden when it comes to the Passover sacrifice—even the infinitesimal amount of boiling that this would involve.

At this point, the Gemara digresses into a broader discussion of cooking techniques, which has implications not just for Passover but for kashrut in general. Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, as we saw, instructed that a lamb’s legs be roasted inside its body. This leads the Amoraim to question the legality of cooking meat stuffed inside other meat. Ordinarily, to be kosher, meat must be salted in order to drain its blood, since the consumption of blood is strictly forbidden. But does this also apply to meat cooked inside another piece of meat? Do we worry that the blood from the inside meat will seep out and contaminate the outside meat?

Abaye suggests that it will, but Rabba disagrees: “As it absorbs it, so it emits it,” he rules. That is, any blood that seeps into the outside meat will then seep out again and be burned in the fire. The same principle applies to an animal’s heart. The heart is supposed to be cut open and drained of blood before it is cooked; but if we forget and cook it anyway, it may still be eaten, because during cooking the blood has been absorbed by the surrounding meat and then “emitted.”

Is the aroma of a food part of the food?

All this may be enough to make a squeamish reader decide to become a vegetarian. But if you are still eating meat, you can turn to Pesachim 76a, where the Gemara takes up the question of what happens when a piece of meat falls into a bowl of milk. Could you simply take the meat out and rinse the milk off of it and then eat it? Or do we consider that the meat has absorbed the milk and so become unkosher? The answer, it turns out, depends on whether the meat and the milk are hot or cold. If both are hot, then “all agree the foods become forbidden”: The heat makes the milk and the meat absorb one another, and both are contaminated. On the other hand, if both are cold, then no contamination occurs, and the meat can be rinsed off and eaten.

The tricky question arises when the meat is hot and the milk is cold, or the meat is cold and the milk is hot. In these cases, the determining factor is which item fell into which—in the Talmud’s language, which is “the upper one” and which “the lower one.” According to Rav, “the upper one prevails”: If a hot piece of meat fell into a cold glass of milk, the heat from the “upper” food would spread into the “lower” food and contaminate them both. Shmuel, however, rules the contrary, that “the lower one prevails,” and the law follows his view. As the notes to the Koren Talmud point out, this is consistent with physics, which teaches that heat rises: If you dropped a cold piece of meat into a warm glass of milk, the heat from the milk below would rise and warm up the meat above.

Finally, the Talmud turns to yet another question: Is the aroma of a food part of the food? If so, it would be forbidden to cook a kosher animal and a non-kosher one in the same oven, because some of the scent of the latter would inevitably get into the former, rendering it trayf. The halakhah is that this is indeed the case; but Levi disagrees, holding that “it is merely an aroma, and an aroma is nothing.” And he acted on this principle: The Gemara says that he once roasted a kid and a pig together in the same oven. In this way, the most abstract questions of substance and definition are translated, in the Talmud, into the most concrete matters of smell and taste, meat and blood.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.