Pesachim 17

Degrees of impurity.

Ritual purity and impurity is the subject of an entire order of the Talmud — one which comes at the end of the Daf Yomi cycle — but it is a concern that pervades the entire corpus. Today’s daf continues a detailed discussion started yesterday based on a verse in the book of Haggai that offers an occasion for the rabbis to discuss the nature of ritual impurity (and throw a few zingers at the Temple priesthood while they’re at it).

First, some background: Haggai is one of the twelve minor biblical prophets and he served in the period immediately after the Babylonian Exile. In 586 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed Solomon’s Temple and deported the Israelite elite to Babylonia. In 539 (some 50 years later) King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who had conquered Babylonia, permitted the Jewish deportees to return to the land of Israel and rebuild their Temple. But something strange happened — the Jewish returnees don’t immediately rebuild the Temple! So God sent word through Haggai that the Temple needed to be rebuilt for the well-being of the nation.

A quotation from Haggai is the subject of the Talmud’s discussion:

Come and hear that which was said to the prophet Haggai:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Ask now the priests with regard to the Torah, saying: If a person bears hallowed flesh in the corner of his garment, and with his garment he touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any food, shall it be sacred?

And the priests answered and said: No.

Haggai continues: If someone defiled by a corpse touches any of these, will it be defiled?

And the priests responded: Yes.

Thereupon Haggai said: That is how this people and this nation looks to Me, declares the LORD, and so too the work of their hands: Whatever they offer there is defiled. (Haggai 2:11-14)

Because the Jews have not rebuilt the Temple, everything they touch is made impure, unproductive and sickly.

In a nutshell, purity is not contagious. But impurity? Terribly so. The Gemara understands Haggai’s questions as being about whether a consecrated item can be made impure, and tries to understand whether the priests gave Haggai the correct answers based on the degree of ritual impurity that these situations describe. For context, according to the rabbis, anything that touches an impure thing (such as a dead body or a creepy crawly creature) becomes impure in the first degree, and anything that touches that becomes impure in the second degree, and anything that touches that becomes impure in the third degree, etc. But what degree of impurity is referenced in Haggai’s texts? And do the priests, who are in charge of rituals and function as ritual experts, know the correct answer?

The Gemara continues by citing a dispute between Rav and Shmuel. Rav understands Haggai’s question as being about impurity in the fourth degree, and thinks that the priests therefore gave the wrong answer — these items should be made impure. According to Rav, the priests did not have the ritual expertise they were supposed to have, and thus their entire Temple service is called into question. Shmuel believes that Haggai’s question is about impurity in the fifth degree, and thus the priests’ answer is correct — that kind of impurity does not spread to consecrated items.

But if the priests are in fact ritual experts and this impurity does not spread, then why would Haggai say that their offerings are impure? The Gemara explains:

Mar Zutra, and some say it was Rav Ashi, said: Since they corrupted their deeds by sinning in general, the verse ascribes to them wrongdoing as if they sacrificed offerings in a state of impurity.

According to these later rabbis, ritual expertise isn’t enough. Though the sacrifices might be technically pure, sinful acts are equivalent to offering impure sacrifices. Haggai emphasizes that such sacrifices were harmful to the relationship between the Jewish people and God. And Shmuel points out that even in time and place when sacrifices aren’t being offered, we have a responsibility to continue to sustain that relationship by rejecting wrongdoing more broadly.

Read all of Pesachim 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 8th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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