Doubt is an inescapable part of life, and it’s front and center on today’s daf.
At the core of our discussion is the concept of demai, a mishnaic term that literally means “doubtful” and refers to produce grown in the land of Israel about which it’s unclear if the proper tithing has been taken. Produce that has not been tithed cannot be eaten, and a whole tractate of the Mishnah is devoted to examining the nuances of how such situations are to be handled. But in short, demai fruit is subject to some, but not all, traditional tithes.
On today’s daf, we encounter a teaching about someone who was invited to gather an unspecified amount of figs from their friend’s orchard. If the figs are to be eaten at a regular meal, the gatherer is required to tithe them. Since the owner didn’t specify how many figs to take, we assume that they couldn’t have tithed them already and require the person doing the gathering to do so before eating them. Then we wade into a gray area:
However, if the owner of the fig tree said to him: Fill this basket for yourself with figs from my fig tree, he may eat from them casually without tithing, and before eating them as a regular meal, he must tithe them as demai, produce with regard to which we are unsure if the appropriate tithes have been separated. Since the owner of the tree knows how many figs the gatherer will take, it is possible that he has already separated tithes for these figs.
In this case, the owner specified how many figs to take — a basket-full — which means he could have tithed them already. But we can’t be sure. Since we are now in a situation of doubt as to whether tithes were taken, the rabbis require the gatherer to do the partial demai tithe. In other words, if you’re not sure, split the difference.
The problem of doubt in Jewish law also arises at the top of today’s daf with a discussion about the question of agency. As we saw yesterday, in some cases we are permitted to assume someone completed an action on our behalf even if we didn’t see them do it. But in some cases, we are not. The Talmud records a general rule about this:
Rav Naḥman said: With regard to Torah laws, we do not rely on the presumption that an agent fulfills his agency; rather, one must actually see the agent performing his mission.
However, with regard to rabbinic laws, we do rely on the presumption that an agent fulfills his agency. And Rav Sheshet disagreed and said: With regard to both this, Torah law, and that, rabbinic law, we rely on the presumption that an agent fulfills his agency.
Rav Nahman maintains that when it comes to the more serious matter of fulfilling a law that is explicit in the Torah, we should err on the side of caution and not presume an agent has performed the task on our behalf. Rav Sheshet disagrees, maintaining that in situations of both Torah law and rabbinic law, it’s acceptable to presume an agent has done what we have instructed.
As is often the case, the Talmud doesn’t clearly resolve this disagreement. But it’s noteworthy that it also doesn’t leave us in the lurch. When faced with ambiguity, the rabbis don’t flinch from reaching a conclusion. They sift through the facts available to them and draw the best conclusions they can.
Certainty is hard to come by in our ordinary lived experience of the world — a world of demai. All the same, doubt doesn’t excuse us from making a decision and taking action. Life demands that we choose from the options arrayed before us, even when the luxury of certainty isn’t available.
Read all of Eruvin 32 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 10, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.