Just as the rabbis frequently reinterpret Torah in surprising ways, they sometimes do the same to their colleagues’ statements. Stick with me today, we’ll see a good example of the latter and learn something about the concept of terumah in the process.
Terumah is a portion of every harvest that the Israelites donated to sustain the priesthood. According to the Torah, accidentally consuming something that has been reserved as terumah incurs a 1/5th penalty — you must now replace the equivalent of what you ate plus 25% more for the priesthood. (Compensation is 25% of the total so that the penalty ends up being 1/5th of the total repaid, rather than 1/5th of the principle.)
Talking about terumah, Deuteronomy 18:4 reads as follows: The first fruits of your grain, your wine, your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give to him.
On today’s page, Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak steps in to interpret this verse:
Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said: The verse states “you shall give to him” — and not to his fire.
Rav Nachman understands the Hebrew word lo (“to him”) to mean that the terumah offering must directly feed the priest — and not his fire (that heats his home and cooks his food).
Or does he? The Gemara offers a different interpretation of Rav Nachman’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:4. Here’s how it works:
Compensating a priest for accidental consumption of terumah that happens to be leaven gets much more difficult to determine on Passover. Earlier, we learned that some rabbis hold that the 1/5th compensation is determined by the quantity of food that was eaten; that is, if you ate a pound of terumah, you have to give the priest 1.25 pounds. But others hold that compensation is based on monetary value, meaning that for every dollar’s worth of terumah that you ate, you owe the priest $1.25. This method of compensation becomes complicated on Passover when the value of leaven goes into freefall.
While some rabbis view leaven as completely worthless on Passover, because it can’t be eaten or used for any other benefit, Rabbi Yosi HaGelili actually permits deriving limited benefits from leaven on Passover — and so sets the value of leavened terumah on Passover according to its value as firewood.
The Gemara limits the disagreement between the sages and Rabbi Yosi HaGelili to cases when the produce was properly designated as terumah before Passover and subsequently became leavened on the holiday. However in cases where the leavened produce was designated as terumah on Passover, everyone agrees that the designation is not valid because terumah cannot be designated from produce that has no value. And how does the Gemara know this rule? From Rav Nachman:
From where are these matters derived, that a worthless item cannot be designated as terumah? Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said that the verse states: “you shall give to him” and not to his fire.
So, according to the Gemara, Rav Nachman taught that the verse says “to him” in order to teach us that produce that is fit to become terumah must usable to the priest himself, which thereby prohibits designating leaven as terumah on Passover, even according to the view of Rabbi Yosi HaGelili who permits the use of leaven as fuel. Phew.
Perhaps this was what Rav Nachman really intended by his statement. Or perhaps (and I believe this to be more likely) it is an example of the creativity of the redactors of the Talmud and how they utilize existing rabbinic statements to resolve talmudic disputes.
We can’t know Rav Nachman’s original intent for sure, but we may gain some insight from a parallel discussion that appears on Chullin 137:
One cannot say that oxen are subject to the mitzvah of first sheared wool, as the verse states with regard to this mitzvah: “Shall you give to him,” which indicates that the shearing is given to the priest himself, i.e., for him to wear, and not for use as his sack. The shearing of oxen is fit for use only as sackcloth, not as clothing.
Rav Nachman is not cited here but the Gemara’s argument looks very familiar: When the verse says “to him” it seems to be suggesting that the gift must be used directly for the priest’s own person. Fleece must be usable to make clothing (not baggage) and food must be for eating (not burning). This is basically what we intuited Rav Nachman’s position to be before the Gemara told us he meant something much less intuitive and much more specific — that produce with no value, including leavened bread on Passover, cannot be designated as terumah.
The rules of talmudic discourse, it is clear, allow for the radical recontextualization and reinterpretation of not only biblical verses, but also rabbinic statements.