Pesachim 16

Sages duke it out.

Boxing matches are often about much more than the two individuals who enter the ring. Opponents might fight to establish the superiority of the country they represent, the supremacy of the boxing techniques they use, or the primacy of their particular training center. More is at stake than just a bloody nose.

When the sages debate in the Talmud, often more at stake than academic opinion. Like boxers, individual sages can become symbols for the values they represent.

We can see this in action on today’s page. On the surface, we see a debate over the ritual purity of liquids. But underneath, there is a deep struggle over the status of the priestly cult in the Temple and all associated with it — a struggle between the hereditary elitism of the priestly class in Jerusalem versus the legitimacy of the scholarly institutions in Babylonia.

In the first “corner,” we have the 2nd c. BCE Hasmonean Yosei ben Yo’ezer. A descendant of the priestly line, Yosei ben Yo’ezer was strongly against the forces of Hellenization and once even decreed impurity on the lands of the nations outside the land of Israel.

In the second “corner,” we have the 2nd c CE Babylonian Shmuel. A descendant of the rabbinic line, he embraced scientific study and loved Babylonia so much that he even decreed that it was forbidden to migrate away from it.

First, Yosei ben Yo’ezer argues for the absolute purity of the liquids inside the slaughterhouse of the Temple. He said: Liquids in the slaughterhouse in the Temple are ritually pure. This teaching is brought to bolster an argument that liquids do not transmit ritual impurity according to Torah law, only according to rabbinic law.

But Shmuel, scholar of the Babylonian city of Nehardea (in central present-day Iraq) does not let that stand; the elitist priestly cult could not get away with asserting this point of ritual slaughter to be pure by Torah law. He counter-argues that:

The term “ritually pure” means that they do not transmit impurity to other items; however, they themselves can become impure.

Essentially, Yosei ben Yo’ezer is saying that liquids in the slaughterhouse of the Temple cannot become impure, while Shmuel is saying that they can. This debate is superficially about the liquids in the Temple, but on a deeper level it is also about the purity of the priestly cult in Jerusalem versus the rabbinic way of life in the diaspora.

So, who won? The rest of the page and into the next features hard hits by scholars on both sides. There is no clear TKO (total knockout) one way or another. Instead we get nine more rounds of debate which begin “come and hear.” In this showdown between the rabbis and the priestly cult, the Talmud doesn’t anoint a final winner. Ultimately, it is the Jewish people who have won — as long as these debates continue to be shared and passed down from one generation to the next.


Read all of Pesachim 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 7, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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