Pesachim 3

Euphemisms and codes.

Yesterday we saw that after much argument the rabbis decided that the word or in our mishnah, which literally means “light,” refers (somewhat surprisingly) to nighttime. Today, the Gemara asks why:

What is the reason that he (i.e. the Mishnah) didn’t explicitly teach: The night of the fourteenth? 

Answer: He employed a euphemism. 

This is in accordance with a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who said: A person should never express a crude matter, as the formulation of a verse was distorted by the addition of eight letters rather than have it express a crude matter, as it is stated: “From the pure animals and from the animals that are not pure.” (Genesis 7:8)

Night was a dangerous and frightening time in antiquity. (Incidentally, this too is a theme we dealt with toward the beginning of tractate Berakhot.) Because of the real and perceived dangers of darkness, it was best not to name it explicitly.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi offers another example of euphemistic language, this one from the Torah. Rather than stating that Noah took both pure and impure animals into the ark, the text states that he took animals that are pure and those “that are not pure.” As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi points out, the word for “impure” has four letters while the expression “that are not pure” (asher einena tehora) has twelve, so this slight circumlocution costs the Torah an extra eight letters. Since the rabbis held firm to the idea of economy in the sacred language of the Torah, the longer phrasing must have had a specific purpose — to avoid the distasteful word “impure.”

Soon the Gemara is tackling other creative uses of language. In a story that returns us to the subject of Passover, we learn of a non-Jew who regularly went to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered a Paschal sacrifice. Under certain circumstances, a non-Jew sending a sacrifice to the Jewish Temple might be considered an honor (for example, the Roman emperor does this in Gittin 56a). But in this case, it is a desecration for two reasons. First, a foreigner is not permitted to penetrate that deeply into the Temple complex. And second, the Paschal sacrifice is for Jewish consumption only, as Exodus 12:43 states: no foreigner may eat of it. It becomes clear that this foreigner made no innocent mistake. The miscreant knew what he was doing, and went home to brag about having tricked the Jews and made a mockery of their sacred rites.

As in any good folk tale, boasting brings about the villain’s downfall. When the clever Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira hears of this interloper’s escapades, he takes action:

Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira said to him: Did they feed you from the fat tail of the lamb?

The gentile said to him: No.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira replied: If so, when you ascend next time, say to them: Feed me the fat tail.

The next year when he ascended, he said to them: Feed me from the fat tail.

They said to him: The fat tail is offered up to God. Who told you to ask for that portion?

He said to them: Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira.

They said: What is this? 

They investigated his background and found that he was a gentile, and they killed him. They sent a message to Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira: Peace unto you, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, as you are in Netzivin and your net is spread in Jerusalem.

In a familiar folkloric trope, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira tricks the villain by playing to his greed, suggesting that he ask for the tastier cut of meat. Since the villain is not familiar with the details of the ritual, he doesn’t realize that this part is not eaten at all (instead, it’s offered on the altar). His request for the sacred portion immediately raises suspicion and it’s soon discovered that he is not Jewish at all. His punishment is swift and severe.

The point here is not the disrespect and greed of the non-Jew who made a mockery of Jewish worship, nor the cartoonish punishment he receives, but the clever way that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira used carefully worded language to send a coded message through the bad guy himself. Such is the power of words.


Read all of Pesachim 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 24, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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