Beitzah 34

SAT prep.

If you took the SAT prior to 2005, you’re familiar with the analogy section. These were questions designed to test your ability to identify the relationship between two concepts, an ability long considered key to making viable logical inferences. Their removal was bemoaned in some quarters as the harbinger of a society unable to distinguish true analogies from false ones and thus susceptible to all sorts of overheated comparisons. 

The rabbis of the Talmud may well have agreed. On today’s daf, the Gemara cites a teaching that, on first glance, bears no connection to the larger topic under discussion in this tractate. 

Jewish law states that if an animal is to be slaughtered for food, it cannot have certain defects or serious injuries. Such an animal is known as a tereifa. But a mishnah in Chullin 52a states that if a person trampled a bird, or threw it against a wall, or crushed it so that it cannot stand, the bird can still be slaughtered for food if it survives for 24 hours. A second opinion, attributed to Rabbi Elazar bar Yannai in the name of Rabbi Elazar bar Antigonus, says the bird is only kosher if it is also inspected after the slaughter to ensure it has no further defects.

The Gemara then records a question that brings this teaching home for the purposes of the larger topic addressed in our tractate:

Rabbi Yirmeya inquired of Rabbi Zeira: What is the halakhah with regard to slaughtering it on a festival? Do we assume on a festival that it has a flaw or not? 

Rabbi Yirmeya wants to know what happens if the 24-hour waiting period expires on a festival. Can one assume, as the first opinion suggests, that a bird that survives that long after suffering one of those three injuries is fit to eat? If so, there should be no issue slaughtering it on a festival. But if there’s concern the bird might be discovered to have a defect after the fact, then maybe slaughtering it on a festival should be prohibited, since slaughtering a bird that cannot be eaten would constitute an act of forbidden labor. 

To answer this question, the Gemara tries to make an analogy between the suspect bird and a teaching in the last mishnah that barred the “whitening” — i.e. heating with white-hot heat — of tiles on a festival. On first glance, this law doesn’t make sense. Cooking is permitted on a festival, so what’s the problem with heating tiles that would then be used as a cooking surface?

On yesterday’s daf, the rabbis gave the answer: The mishnah is referring only to new tiles. What’s the issue with new tiles? There are two possibilities. One is that new tiles haven’t been tested yet and we don’t know if they’re sturdy enough to withstand the heat. If they’re not, and they break, a prohibited action was performed. Alternatively, new tiles have to be hardened at high heat before use, and that act of preparing a vessel for use on a festival isn’t allowed. 

In attempting to answer Rabbi Yirmeya’s query, Rabbi Zeira makes an analogy between the suspect tiles and the suspect bird. Since we don’t allow burning of new tiles on a festival because we’re unsure if they are going to break, we also shouldn’t take a chance and slaughter an injured bird on a festival that might turn out to be unkosher. 

Sounds like some sound logic. Except Rabbi Zeira’s position is only viable if we follow the first reason for why whitening tiles is barred on a festival. If it’s because they have to be hardened first, then there’s no basis from that teaching to prohibit slaughtering the suspected tereifa on a festival. 

We’ve seen digressions of this sort again and again in the Talmud — and in secular law too, for that matter. Analogizing between different bits of law isn’t a simple matter, and often involves answering a host of possible objections to ensure the comparison is a valid one. 

The rabbis are masters at this type of thinking, even if their logic and finely grained distinctions can be dizzying at times. (There’s a reason “talmudic” has a dictionary entry.) Their commitment to deriving the proper conclusions, as we know, ran deep. And getting their conclusions right required, among other logical tools, making finely tuned analogies. Without that, the whole talmudic enterprise collapses. 

Critics of the SAT change made much the same argument about societal discourse. They would likely have found a receptive audience for their claims among the ancient rabbis — if not among SAT test takers of the future. 

Read all of Beitzah 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 4th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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