Talmud pages

Beitzah 19

Run, don't walk!

The late great Jeopardy host Alex Trebek said, “Don’t tell me what you believe in. I’ll observe how you behave and I will make my own determination.” He was pointing out that our actions, more than our words, tell the world who we are.

Trebek might have been surprised to learn that today’s daf agrees with him. But the context is one that even the quiz master of obscure trivia likely never thought of — a discussion about whether or not one can immerse an impure vessel at twilight. 

If a vessel becomes ritually impure (through contact with a ritually impure person or object or a creepy crawly), it needs two things to become pure again: a ritual immersion and a sunset. So if you immerse your ritually impure item at noon, it doesn’t become pure again until the sun has set. So far so good. But what if you immerse it at twilight, in that time when the sun is in the process of setting but hasn’t actually fully set yet? In this case, there might be some doubt about whether you have completed the immersion before the sun set.

The sages taught: With regard to a vessel that became ritually impure on the eve of a festival, one may not immerse it during twilight.

Rabbi Shimon Shezuri says: Even on a weekday one may not immerse an impure vessel during twilight because the vessel requires sunset.

The medieval commentator Rashi helps us understand this debate. The sages assume that people know a vessel immersed at the eleventh hour, as the sun is sinking below the horizon, is of doubtful purity and will therefore wait another 24 hours for the next sunset before they use it. But they are concerned that on the eve of a festival, a person might be immersing the vessel for festival use and therefore be tempted to call it “good enough” — and in the process, accidentally spread impurity everywhere. Better to be safe than sorry and not immerse a vessel at twilight on the eve of a festival.

Rabbi Shimon Shezuri is more strict: He thinks that one should just avoid immersing a vessel at twilight on any day — the temptation to use it immediately, when its purity is still doubtful, is just too great!

So, knowing all this: If we see someone running to the mikveh to immerse a vessel at twilight, and the sun might set before they complete the immersion, should we worry that they will immediately use it? Should we interfere? What do the two authorities quoted above think?

The rabbis hold that the fact that he is running along indicates that he knows that the vessel requires sunset.

The fact that the person is running to immerse their vessel suggests that they are aware of the law and sensitive to the issue of timing. The rabbis, therefore, feel confident that he will not use the vessel too early and so he is permitted to immerse it on a weekday. But since, if he immersed it on the festival, he couldn’t use it until after the festival, and one is not permitted to prepare for after the festival on the festival, he is not permitted to immerse it at twilight on the eve of a festival, in case the sun has already set at the moment of immersion.

And this sage (Rabbi Shimon Shezuri) holds that perhaps he is running due to his work.

This may come as a shock to some, but not every runner is running because they are worried about violating the halakhah. Sometimes people run because they stayed at work too late and need to get home, or for some other mundane reason. In this case, our runner might genuinely not know that the vessel immersed as twilight will require another sunset, use it too soon, and unthinkingly spread ritual impurity all over the place. Yikes! Because of this possibility, Rabbi Shimon Shezuri insists that we should not permit people to immerse vessels at twilight any day of the week.

Just how much can we infer from the fact that someone is running to immerse their vessel? The rabbis offer this theoretical framing:

Rava said: I found the sages of the school of Rav sitting and saying that they disagree about whether or not to accept the principle that one’s intention is evident from his actions…

The rabbis are more confident than Rabbi Shimon Shezuri that the answer is yes. And, they win:

With regard to the principle that one’s intention is evident from his actions, everyone agrees.

In general, we can assume that someone running to immerse a vessel will be doing so because they are committed to the laws of ritual purity, and we can feel confident they have a baseline knowledge of what those are.What we do in the world tells others who we are, what we believe in, and what we understand about the world and our traditions. And, not only that, but the rabbis want us to read those actions with a charitable eye. 

Read all of Beitzah 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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