HERE

Coming Close To God: A Reflection on Pesachim 98

A version of this piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s daf yomi page of the day Talmud project.

 

On today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a continuing discussion about when, how and by whom the Passover sacrifice must be brought. What happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for sacrifices, but can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice? We learn in a Mishnah the following:

“In the case of a Paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings, such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was separated for which offering, all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice, meaning that he must purchase one of each type of sacrifice that was intermingled at the value of the most expensive animal in the group. And he loses the difference from his own pocket. Not all the offerings were as expensive as the most valuable animal in the group, yet he must purchase an animal for each type of offering for the value of the most expensive animal in the group.”

Written centuries after the destruction of the Temple, which was the focal point for animal sacrifice, the rabbis in our Mishnah and the Gemara which follows it are very committed to understanding and living out, in a limited fashion, the sacrificial system. Why? To this day in traditional daily morning liturgy, one can find a series of Biblical and Talmudic references to the sacrifices offered daily and on holidays. Though none of us are making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, we learn and study the sacrifices and their surrounding laws as a remembrance of what once was. For those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of studying the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable. Wasn’t the entire point of the Talmud that the rabbis wanted to radically remake and reshape Torah law for an entirely new, portable, diasporic context, decentering the Temple entirely? And what are we to make of the passage which immediately follows our Mishnah?

“If a Paschal lamb was intermingled with firstborn animals, Rabbi Shimon says: If those whose offerings became mixed together were groups of priests, they may eat all of the animals on Passover night. This is because priests are permitted to eat the meat of a firstborn animal, and the slaughter and other services for a firstborn animal are the same as those for a Paschal lamb. The attending priests should state that they intend to sacrifice as a Paschal lamb whichever animal is the Paschal lamb and to sacrifice as a firstborn animal whichever animal is a firstborn.”

The rabbis here are quite careful to make determinations about how to designate and consume various mixed or intermingled animal sacrifices. Though there is not a consensus on this point—Rabbi Shimon disagrees with the Gemara’s reasoning—it is clear that the rabbis are taking great pains to preserve the memory of a system which, though not present for them in any sense, would one day be restored.

At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation which concludes traditionally with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days.

The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet, the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call Rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old.

We, too, are living at a time of tremendous global and communal change. COVID has forced us to ask questions we may never have imagined. Can ten Jews constitute a minyan on Zoom? What about fulfilling mitzvot like hearing the Megillah on Purim which we just observed yesterday? What will remain with us when we return, bimheirah b’yameinu—speedily and in our days—to in-person Jewish life and what will be dropped? What might we study and preserve for future generations? Are their pieces of how we used to pray and practice that may never return?

As we continue to navigate our new normal, remembering and studying the old as we embrace the new, may we take inspiration from our rabbis’ careful study, explication and questioning of what was and is no longer.






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rabbi.lauren.tuchman@gmail.com
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