Tractate Zevachim, which Daf Yomi readers have been studying for the last three months, is a guide to the laws governing sacrificial offerings in the Temple. The men who performed those offerings were, of course, the priests, or kohanim, a hereditary caste descended from the original High Priest, Aaron. Much of the Torah is devoted to the duties and perquisites of the priesthood—so much so that modern scholarship believes that one of the Torah’s source documents was written by priests, at some later point in Jewish history, in order to authorize their status.
One of the advantages of that status is that the priests received the meat of sacrificed animals to eat, and the hides to turn into clothing. (They also received tithes of crops, known as terumah, which is one of the Talmud’s most frequent subjects.) This was an economic arrangement—the priests didn’t have time to farm their own land, so the people needed to provide for their upkeep—as well as a sacred one. By the time the Talmud was compiled, in the first centuries CE, these sacrifices were a thing of the distant past; they lapsed after the destruction of the Temple in 70. Yet the rabbis continued to pay a great deal of attention to priestly rites and privileges: Who is entitled to eat terumah, how tithes are properly separated, and of course how animals are to be sacrificed in the Temple.
Chapter Twelve of Zevachim, which Daf Yomi readers read last week, focuses on the right of priests to consume sacred meat. According to the Torah, the priest who actually performs a sacrifice is entitled to the meat and hide from that sacrifice. But as the Gemara notes in Zevachim 99a, in fact, all the priests serving in the Temple in a given week are fed on the meat of sacrifices, whether they personally performed the sacrifice or not. Evidently, then, the right to perform a sacrifice is not the same thing as the right to partake of the sacrifice. Is it possible for a priest to be disqualified from the former, but not the latter, or vice versa?
That is the issue raised in the mishna in Zevachim 98b, which addresses various causes of disqualification. A priest who is ritually impure—because he has touched an impure substance, for instance, or had a seminal emission—is required to immerse in a ritual bath; but it is not until sundown that he regains purity. What is his status during the period between immersion and sundown? He is certainly not allowed to officiate in a sacrifice; but is he entitled to receive meat from the sacrifice? After all, he would not be eating the meat until after sundown, when he was ritually pure again.
But no, the mishna says: A priest who is waiting to regain purity does not receive a share of sacrificial meat. Neither does an acute mourner—that is, someone whose close relative has just died—because he too is disqualified from performing sacrifices. “The principle is: Any priest who is unfit for the service that day does not receive a share of the sacrificial meat,” the mishna explains.
In the Talmud, however, every principle has its exceptions and special cases. For example, a priest who has a physical blemish—say, blindness or a broken limb—is not allowed to perform a sacrifice. But he is still able to partake of the sacrifice, which apparently contradicts the mishna’s principle. Why is this? According to the Gemara, “The Merciful One included a blemished priest as an exception”—perhaps because, if he were excluded from partaking in sacrifices, he would have no source of sustenance at all. How do we know about this exception? From Leviticus 6:22, which says, “Every male among the priests shall eat it”—“every male” serving to include even blemished priests.
Reish Lakish points out that there is a potential dilemma here. What if a priest is both blemished and impure? Does he partake of the sacrifice? The principle is that a priest only receives meat from the sacrifice if he was fit to perform it. If he was impure, he was unfit; but in this case, he was already unfit because he was blemished, and the rule is that blemished priests partake anyway. Perhaps the blemish provides a kind of cover for the impurity: It doesn’t matter if the priest becomes impure, because his blemish means he would never be called on to perform the sacrifice in the first place. But Rabba refutes this idea: Impurity makes a priest unfit to partake in the meat, regardless of whether he was fit to perform the sacrifice.
The Gemara then embarks on a discussion of how to treat a priest who is an acute mourner, which extends over four full pages. The problem has to do with the Passover sacrifice, which is one of the most important in the Jewish calendar. According to a mishna in Tractate Pesachim, the Passover sacrifice is so essential that even an acute mourner must partake of it: “An acute mourner immerses and partakes of the Passover offering in the evening, but he may not partake of other sacrificial meat.” Yet the mishna in this tractate says that an acute mourner does partake of other sacrificial meat, even though he does not receive a portion of his own—that is, he may share the meat of other priests. This appears to be a contradiction: Can an acute mourner eat sacrificial meat on the first night of Passover, or not?
Resolving this question turns out to be extraordinarily complicated, raising issues of mourning in the daytime versus mourning at night, Passover offerings versus other kinds of offerings, a priest’s duty to bury certain relatives even if it means contracting impurity, and more. Along the way, we learn about a ritual called “the day of the gathering of bones”: In ancient times, a dead body was buried in the ground only until its flesh disappeared. After a few years, the bones would be exhumed and then reinterred in a family burial cave.
There is also a discussion of the very first sacrifices offered to God in the Torah, during the inauguration of the Tabernacle. This was a joyful occasion that turned into a day of mourning when Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, were killed by God because they did not follow the ritual procedure correctly. This, of course, rendered Aaron an acute mourner, which meant that he was unable to partake of the sin offering—an important precedent for the Talmudic discussion. It also underscored the extreme importance of the priestly ritual. Any deviation was a potentially deadly sin. Many centuries later, even after the sacrifices had stopped, the rabbis continued to believe that nothing was more important than getting them right.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.