Today’s page is a little unappetizing, the primary subject being wart removal on Shabbat. Why not wait until Sunday, you ask? If you are a priest serving in the Temple, a wart would render you unfit for service, so you might be in a hurry to quickly remove the disqualifying blemish and get on with God’s work.
Since the Talmud was written some 1,500 years ago, the kind of wart removal we’re talking about is neither sterile cryotherapy nor cautery and curettage performed in a well-lit physician’s office. Rather (with apologies to the squeamish) the question is whether one is permitted to rip or slice the wart off on the day of rest. But while the content of the argument is somewhat icky, the form is classically talmudic.
The mishnah teaches:
One may remove a wart by hand in the Temple. However, he may not in the rest of the country. And if he seeks to cut off the wart with an instrument, it is prohibited in both places.
In general, warts cannot be removed on Shabbat. An exception is made for priests serving in the Temple because, as mentioned above, a priest might need to become blemish-free in a hurry in order to perform his Temple duties. But, the mishnah cautions, the priest can only perform this little procedure without the aid of an instrument. Using a knife to remove the wart is forbidden on Shabbat.
Now the Gemara raises a problem: There is another mishnah which apparently contradicts this one. Since these two teachings are equally authoritative, the Gemara feels compelled to resolve the apparent contradiction.
The second mishnah reads as follows:
When Passover eve occurs on Shabbat, carrying a Paschal lamb on one’s shoulders, bringing it to the Temple from outside the Shabbat boundary, and cutting off its wart to render it fit for the altar, do not override the prohibitions of Shabbat.
Rabbi Eliezer says: They override the Shabbat prohibitions.
This tractate will end in just two more pages and then we’ll get on to Tractate Pesachim, which is all about Passover, so this mishnah is a nice warm-up. Back when Jews had a Temple, every Passover they would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where, on the eve of the holiday, they took a lamb to the Temple to be slaughtered. Afterward, the carcass was hauled back home, roasted and enjoyed after sundown. In this second mishnah, it is not the person but the lamb that has a disqualifying wart. If the wart is not removed, the lamb cannot become a Paschal offering.
On this particular occasion, the eve of Passover is also Shabbat, which creates a parallel dilemma. Namely, can the odious ovine wart be removed on the day of rest? According to the sages, it cannot. Rabbi Eliezer, however, permits the procedure.
So now we have a problem. The first mishnah permits wart removal on Shabbat (but only for priests in the Temple, and only by hand), the second does not (at least, if one follows the majority opinion). How do we reconcile the two?
The rabbis spend most of today’s page working on that problem. Maybe the two mishnahs are talking about different kinds of warts, dry warts versus wet warts (don’t ask me the difference). Or maybe the difference is whether or not one can remove the wart with a knife or must remove it without the aid of a sharp instrument. Or maybe the answer is that in the second mishnah we go with the minority opinion and rule like Rabbi Eliezer, who permits wart removal from both priests and Paschal lambs.
In the end, the Gemara leans toward the last solution, perhaps because it resolves the apparent contradiction and makes life a bit easier for Sabbath observers. However, the Gemara stresses, if one decides to remove a wart on Shabbat, one should at least alter the method so that it is different from ordinary, weekday method of wart removal by — I swear I’m not making this up — having a friend bite it off.
It occurs to me that folks must have been really close in antiquity.