Talmudic pages

Pesachim 120

Keep your eyes open.

I don’t know about your family’s seder, but my family’s seder can go very late. So late that it is not unheard of for someone to fall asleep before it is over. This is not a new problem, as we learn from the mishnah:

If some of the participants at the seder fell asleep, thereby interrupting their meal, they may eat from the paschal lamb when they awake. If the entire company fell asleep, they may not eat any more. 

According to the mishnah, as long as some participants stay awake, those who fall asleep can rejoin the meal when they awaken. But if everyone falls asleep, the meal is over. (It’s reminiscent of this teaching about jumping up from the table to greet a bride or groom.) The commentators suggest that this is because reconvening the meal after sleeping is like eating in a new place and the Passover offering must be eaten in a single location.

The mishnah continues with a teaching of Rabbi Yosei:

Rabbi Yosei says: If they dozed they may eat from the paschal lamb when they awake, but if they fell fast asleep they may not eat from it.

Rabbi Yosei distinguishes between dozing and sleeping. How exactly is dozing different from sleeping? The Gemara gives us this great description:

Rav Ashi said: One is asleep but not asleep, awake but not awake, when, if they call him, he will answer, but he is unable to provide a reasonable answer. And when they later inform him of what happened, he remembers it.

Now the question is: how do the two halves of this mishnah work together? How does Rabbi Yosei’s teaching about dozing and sleeping soundly inform the original teaching about some people falling asleep versus all people falling asleep? Is he talking about the first scenario, when just a few people fell asleep? Or the second, in which the whole party falls asleep? Take a minute and reread the two halves of the mishnah and see what you think.

Finished? Ok now take another look and see if it makes sense the other way. 

It turns out that it does.

Some commentators connect Rabbi Yosei’s comment to the first clause of the mishnah. Whereas the anonymous opinion in the mishnah allows individuals who fall asleep at the seder to return to the meal as long as someone else stays awake throughout, Rabbi Yosei seems to be saying that they can only return to the meal if they were dozing. If they fall asleep completely, they cannot return to the meal no matter what. 

Other commentators suggest that Rabbi Yosei’s statement refers to the second clause of the mishnah, and whereas the first opinion in the mishnah forbids further eating if the entire party fell asleep, Rabbi Yosei applies this rule only when they fell completely asleep. If they all merely dozed off, they can resume the meal.

It’s not totally clear what Rabbi Yosei meant because, well, the text is not fully clear. In fact, it’s even a possibility that Rabbi Yosei’s statement was taught independently from the other opinion until they were juxtaposed by the editors of the Mishnah. While the lack of clarity may be frustrating to some, it is the characteristic of the Mishnah that creates the opportunity for talmudic discourse — and for two millennia, students of the Talmud have taken the bait.

Just as some stay up into the wee hours of the night telling the story of our passage from slavery to freedom, others have burned the midnight oil in the beit midrash debating the merits of alternative readings of the Mishnah. Both endeavors have nurtured the Jewish people and brought us, albeit sleepy-eyed at times, to this day.

Read all of Pesachim 120 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 21st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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