Pesachim 19

Keeping Jerusalem holy.

Today’s daf discusses whether we can assume that people and objects are ritually pure if we don’t actually know their purity status:

Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Hanina.

One said: The sages did not issue a decree in the case of uncertainty with regard to the impurity of spittle that is found in Jerusalem.

And one said: The sages did not issue a decree in the case of uncertainty with regard to the impurity of vessels in Jerusalem.

According to this discussion, one rabbi states that any saliva found in Jerusalem can be assumed to have been spat by someone who is ritually pure. That means that if someone else comes into contact with it, though they might be grossed out, they aren’t made ritually impure by it. The other rabbi states that any vessels or utensils found in Jerusalem can be assumed to be pure — meaning that no impure people have touched them, and no impure things have been inside them. Of course, the flip side of these rulings is that saliva and utensils found outside of Jerusalem are assumed to be impure.

The operative logic behind these rulings is that people are more careful about matters of purity and impurity in the holy city of Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple, than they are elsewhere. So within the walls of the city, people more actively monitor the status of both their own bodies and their items.

On the one hand, it is awe-inspiring to contemplate Jerusalem as the rabbis did — not just a holy city but also one of heightened purity.

On the other hand, if you know enough about the Jewish ritual purity system as described by the rabbis, maintaining a state of purity all the time sounds pretty exhausting. Being constantly aware of what your body is secreting, touching and doing, and what everything around you is secreting, touching and doing — it takes a toll. At its most extreme, this kind of hyper-awareness sounds a lot like hypervigilance, a condition which often appears as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. And psychologists will tell you that hypervigilance is a stressor which can affect one’s physical and mental health.

So what are we to make of this rabbinic depiction of Jerusalem’s purity? The rabbis in the Talmud love Jerusalem, and discuss its beauty (Kiddushin 49b), and intimate connection to God (Bava Batra 75b). They discuss the power and profound splendor of going to Jerusalem for the shelosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals (Sukkot 51b). And yet, as they describe it, it seems like a very stressful place to actually live.

Let’s remember that the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud didn’t live in Jerusalem — many of them had never even been to the land of Israel! And the city stood in their imagination as a glorious ideal. Ideals are powerful things — they can inspire us, comfort us and make us proud to belong to a particular community. But they can also make us feel like we don’t measure up, or are somehow the only people who can’t measure up. Jerusalem did serve for the rabbis as an ideal, but as we can see, idealization has serious downsides. As the rabbis depict it, Jerusalem sounds like a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. But as the rabbis themselves insist, that’s ok. After all, we can always visit three times a year!

Read all of Pesachim 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 10th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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