Continuing yesterday’s discussion of different areas that were known for their pure lineage, and those that were not, today’s daf directly pits the land of Israel against Babylonia: Which is more “pure” and which more “muddled”? (A less pure region is deemed dough, in the Gemara’s parlance — a mixture of ingredients that can no longer be distinguished.)
Why does this matter? Legally, if a community can establish an overall presumption of purity then there would be no need to investigate the background of a given family before marriage. But it is clear that this is also a debate about the pride and standing of the two major rabbinic Jewish communities. It turned out to be so controversial that disagreements became dangerous:
In the days of Rabbi Pinhas, they sought to establish the lineage of Babylonia as muddled relative to that of the land of Israel. He said to his servants: “When I have said two statements in the house of study, pick me up on a stretcher and run.”
When he entered the house of study he said: “Kosher slaughter of a bird is not required by Torah law.” And while they were sitting and scrutinizing this, he said to them: “The lineage of residents of all lands is muddled compared to that of the land of Israel, and the lineage of residents of the land of Israel is muddled compared to that of Babylonia.” His servants picked him up on a stretcher and ran. Those that were in the house of study pursued him but could not catch him.
They sat and examined (the lineage of various families) until they came to danger, and they withdrew from their inspections.
Rabbi Pinhas held the unpopular opinion (in the land of Israel, anyway) that Jews from Babylonia had purer lineages. Worried about the reaction he would face, he carefully choreographed his pronouncement, burying the lede under another controversial opinion, that chicken doesn’t require kosher slaughter, according to the Torah. While this preoccupied the assembled scholars, he announced the controversial opinion, that the land of Israel was muddled like dough compared to Babylonia — then he split in the ancient equivalent of a getaway car.
Hoping to prove Rabbi Pinhas wrong, the rabbis from the land of Israel continued their investigation, but the (Babylonian) Gemara tells us they stopped when they reached “danger.” One possibility is that they realized they were likely to overturn the very presumption of purity that they had set out to prove. Rashi suggests they discovered blemishes in the families of powerful people who might even kill to keep their reputation intact — meaning the danger was literal.
Here and throughout the chapter, we see the rabbis’ ambivalence about the goal of preserving and publicizing lineage. On the one hand, it was a great mark of distinction that was given weight both socially and legally, but on the other hand it was quite hard to establish and quite problematic to overturn people’s longstanding reputation. Rabbi Yohanan laments:
By the Sanctuary! It is in our power (to reveal the identity of a family that has a flawed lineage), but what can I do, as the greatest of the generation are assimilated into it?
Sometimes it is best to leave buried history under the carpet.
Later in the Gemara, it says that in the messianic era it will be Elijah’s job to reveal the truth about families who were misrepresented as pure or impure. But for now, in our imperfect world, it’s best not to dig too much.
A fitting closure for this obsession with pure lineage is found at the end of the daf, which transports us from the land of Israel to Babylonia where we find that Rav Yehuda is paralyzed by worries about safeguarding his pure Babylonian lineage — so much so that he has prevented his adult son from marrying, lest his bride be found to have flawed lineage. (Another story that warns, in its own way, about the dangers of obsessing over bloodline.) Perhaps for the sake of the latter’s son, Ulla reasons with Rav Yehuda:
Is that to say we know where we come from? Perhaps we come from those about whom it is written: “They have ravished the women of Zion, the maidens in the city of Judah.” (Lamentations 5:11)
Even the greatest rabbis of Babylonia, Ulla notes, don’t know all the details of their past, especially after violent episodes that led to the brutalization of its women by foreign conquerors. Rather than verifying a pure heritage, says Ulla, find a quiet, agreeable family for your son to marry into. That in itself is a sign of good lineage — or just good values.