Talmudic pages

Pesachim 10

Controlling the uncontrollable.

Today’s daf continues to struggle with the challenges of trying to systematically rid one’s home of hametz before Passover begins. The rabbis acknowledge that it is difficult to control and contain food in a world where little rodents move things around, babies drop crumbs and grown-ups just plain forget where they left things. Arguably, in our day the invention of Tupperware has made this easier — but many of us are still overwhelmed by the task of ridding our house of leaven in time for Passover. There is always a nagging uncertainty that leaven lurks somewhere. It is a real comfort that numerous times on our page the rabbis end a short discussion with “teiko” — let Elijah the Prophet come and answer our questions, because we certainly can’t.

Here is an example of one such quandary the rabbis tackle on today’s page:

In a case where there is one pile of leavened bread in front of two houses that were already searched, and a mouse came and took a morsel from the pile, and we do not know if it entered this house or if it entered that house, this is akin to the case of two paths, as we learned in a mishnah: There were two paths, one of which was ritually impure due to a corpse buried there, and one of which was ritually pure, and he walked on one of them but does not know which…

In this scenario, two households have already cleaned for Passover, but there is a pile of leaven outside in front of them. Someone sees a mouse grab some leaven from that pile, and then it is thought to have entered one of the houses, but we do not know which. What do we do? Do we assume the houses are clean? Do we search one? Both?

To answer this question, the Gemara brings an analogous case — of a person who may have walked on a path that imparts impurity, but is uncertain whether they in fact took a different route. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have a parallel case which helps us resolve our problem of a mouse, a pile of hametz and two already-searched homes. On the other hand, it is somewhat jarring to mix up the joyous holiday of Passover with concerns about a path that might happen to have a corpse lying on it. But that’s the rabbis — eager to resolve our dilemma with whatever it takes. 

The challenging scenarios keep coming. What if we see a mouse snatch some leaven but we don’t know if it has entered a clean house? What if we saw a mouse carrying leaven enter a house, but then we subsequently can’t find any leaven in that house? What if we see the mouse carry leaven into the house, and then we find some leaven in the house, but we’re not sure if it is the same leaven that the mouse was carrying? What if a mouse enters with a full loaf of bread in its mouth (a strong mouse!) but later only crumbs are found? What if a child enters with a loaf, and later we see crumbs? What if we see a mouse bring a loaf of bread into the house, and then we see a marten leaving the same house with a loaf of bread in its mouth? On it goes…

Despite careful discussion and clever halakhic parallels for each scenario, our confidence in solving each cases diminishes as the daf continues, until finally things feel completely out of control as we contemplate a white mouse entering the house with a chunk of hametz and a black mouse leaving the house, or worse, a mouse entering the house with hametz and a marten leaving the house with a mouse in its mouth and the hametz is either still in the mouse’s mouth or in the marten’s mouth as well. And if a snake is holding hametz in its mouth, do you have to hire a snake charmer to get it out? Teiko! Don’t worry about it — and wait for Elijah who will answer all these questions! 

Passover is in many ways a holiday which asks us to control a great deal: our eating, our cooking, even what is in our homes. But the real world is also chaotic and difficult. Our rabbis understood this and accepted it.

Read all of Pesachim 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 31, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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