Which is more correct — to be right or to be practical?
A few days ago we saw a debate in the mishnah over whether one is required to burn leaven or whether one can dispose of it by other means: ripping it up and tossing it in the wind or water. The majority hold that many disposal mechanisms work, but Rabbi Yehuda maintains that leaven must be burned. His view is ultimately rejected, yet the Gemara expends a great deal of ink interrogating his reasoning. Here’s a snippet of the debate:
Logic dictates: Since leftovers from an offering (notar), which are not subject to the prohibitions “it shall not be seen” and “it shall not be found” require burning, we infer that leavened bread, which is subject to the prohibitions of “it shall not be seen” and “it shall not be found” all the more so requires burning.
Like hametz, notar — sacrificial leftovers that have not been eaten within the time allotted for their consumption (we discussed them here) — are items that may be eaten until a certain time, and then must be destroyed. So it makes sense to compare the two.
The Torah says that hametz “shall not be seen” (Exodus 13:7) and “shall not be found” (Exodus 12:19) on Passover. By contrast, the Torah does not say this explicitly about notar, only that it must be burned on the third day after the sacrifice is made. It seems, then, that the Torah’s restriction on notar is less stringent than its restriction on hametz. Nevertheless, we are required to burn notar (Leviticus 19:6). So, the Gemara infers, surely hametz, which is subject to the more stringent restrictions of being neither seen nor found, also requires this more stringent method of disposal. Burn, baby, burn!
But now the Gemara finds a problem:
The Rabbis said to him: Any logical derivation that you derive whose initial teaching is stringent but whose subsequent consequences are lenient is not a valid logical derivation. If one did not find wood to burn his leavened bread, must he sit idly and not remove it? And the Torah said: “You shall remove leaven from your houses” (Exodus 12:15), so it must be done in any manner in which you can remove it.
The earlier argument, from notar, is not wrong. But the Gemara is concerned that Rabbi Yehuda’s stringent position creates a practical problem. Fuel was expensive in the ancient world; not everyone would be able to procure wood to burn their hametz. Since Rabbi Yehuda does not allow removal by any other method, these people would be left with no way to rid themselves of it. If we rule like Rabbi Yehuda, we basically ensure that people will violate the more significant law against owning, seeing and finding leaven. Burning hametz may be the ideal, but it is also impractical to require it of everyone. The rabbis decide not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Rabbi Yehuda doesn’t give up on being right. The rabbis don’t give up on being pragmatic. The sugya continues down the page and into the next, with Rabbi Yehuda offering more proofs for his position, only to have each argument overturned. In the last case (on the top of page 28a) the rabbis use his own statements to prove him wrong and cap the whole thing off with a withering folk saying: The arrowmaker is slain by his own arrows.