Nazir 36

Mix and measure.

We’ve all had moments of forgetfulness in the kitchen: How many cups of flour did I just measure? Did I season with salt already? But in those situations, the worst outcome is a ruined meal. The stakes are much higher when the kitchen is being used to prepare sacred food. On today’s daf, we read the following question in a beraita:

What happens when there are two spice mortars, one used for terumah spices and one used for non-sacred spices, before which were two pots, one of terumah produce and the other one of non-sacred produce, and the contents of these mortars fell into these pots? 

Imagine a kitchen in which two versions of the same meal are being prepared. The first is made from terumah produce, which is sacred and reserved for priests. The second is made from non-sacred ingredients, which everyone can eat. For efficiency, the cook is preparing them side by side. After dumping the ground spices into the pots, the cook realizes that while they remember grinding the terumah spices with the terumah mortar and non-sacred spices with the non-sacred mortar, they have no memory of which spices they poured into which pot.

Uh oh. If the spices got mixed up, both pots now contain some terumah, whether it’s the stew itself or the spices. As a result, it might now be the case that both dishes are forbidden to non-priests. Does this moment of uncertainty require that the chef prepare a new meal for ordinary dinner guests?

As it turns out, the beraita rules that the contents of both pots are permitted, meaning that the contents of the terumah pot are permitted to priests and the contents of the non-sacred dish are permitted to all. Why?

This is because I say that the non-sacred spices fell into the non-sacred produce and the terumah spices fell into the terumah.

Sometimes, in moments of uncertainty, the rabbis choose to rule strictly. Better safe than sorry. But in this case they rule leniently and permit the pot originally designated for non-priests to be eaten by all. Why? Because we can assume the chef didn’t get mixed up, that the mortar to the left was used for the pot on the left as intended, and the spices ground by the mortar on the right also went into the pot on the right. 

Notice that the rabbis don’t choose the path of absolute certainty — instead, to make people’s lives easier, they opt to rule leniently because they think it is likely the terumah spices have not been mixed into the wrong stew. The halakhah balances a desire for perfect compliance with the laws of terumah and a need not to drive distracted cooks completely crazy.

Gotta run, I think I might have forgotten to season the soup. 

Read all of Nazir 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 28th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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