Pesachim 34

Focus.

Today’s page is all about focus — so pay attention!

A friend from New Orleans likes to remind me: The darker the roux, the closer to God. A lover of comfort food, two of my go-to dishes are a classic macaroni and cheese and a decadent brown-butter brownie. Both of them rely on the careful task of browning butter. Be vigilant, because it can go from tasty to trash in an instant. The line between rich caramel brown and inedible burnt black is a thin one, and a moment of inattention might just take you over it.

Much of the discussion on today’s page centers again on terumah (communal gifts given to sustain the priesthood who are too busy managing the Temple to have their own livelihoods). Terumah must be in a state of ritual purity when consumed by the priests, lest it render them impure and unable to perform the Temple service. For this reason, terumah is constantly guarded. But when the guard suffers a diversion of attention (hesech ha’da-at) the terumah is immediately rendered unfit. Why exactly? As today’s daf explains, there are two possibilities: 

According to the one who says that a diversion of attention constitutes an inherent disqualification, it works out well. But according to the one who says that a diversion of attention is a disqualification due to a concern about ritual impurity, what is there to say? 

There is one view, later identified with Rabbi Yohanan, that the terumah whose guard suffered a lapse of attention is rendered unfit because we are concerned that during the time the terumah was unwatched something happened to render it ritually impure. Since we now can no longer be certain it is pure, we assume the worst.

But the other view here, later identified with Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (a.k.a. Resh Lakish) is that the diversion of attention itself disqualifies the terumah. Even if we could somehow know that the terumah never contracted impurity while it was unguarded, it would still be considered unfit simply because it had not been continuously guarded. 

If you are finding this whole idea difficult to wrap your head around, the rabbis illustrate it by way of the prophet Elijah, who is not brought in for his connection to the larger subject at hand (Passover) but rather for his role in the Talmudic imagination as the ultimate problem-solver and someone who sees all from above. 

According to Rabbi Yohanan, who said it is a disqualification due to a concern about ritual impurity, if Elijah comes and renders it ritually pure then we will listen to him.

However, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, who said that it is an inherent disqualification, even if Elijah comes and renders it pure we will not listen to him.

Even though our guard suffered a lapse of attention and the terumah was left unwatched for a period of time, there is someone who knows for sure whether it came into contact with a source of ritual impurity — the prophet Elijah who never died but ascended to heaven and can see all that happens on earth. Elijah has the “right” answer here about whether the terumah has contracted impurity. If he says the unwatched terumah is pure, you can bet that it is. And for Rabbi Yohanan, that is good enough.

But for Resh Lakish, it is not good enough. For him, it doesn’t matter. Even if Elijah himself can guarantee the purity of the terumah, a lapse of attention itself is disqualifying, and that’s final.

What is the practical difference here? Either way, a lapse in attention leads to unfit terumah. But if you hold like Rabbi Yohanan, and the problem is that we cannot guarantee the terumah is still pure, then you have a ready-made solution for the lapse of attention: there is a mechanism to return the terumah to its pure state. If, however, it is the shift in focus that renders a status change, regardless of whether the terumah actually contracted impurity, then the lapse in attention has created a permanent change; the terumah is unfit in perpetuity.

But one thing is crystal clear: when you are responsible for maintaining holiness, you are also responsible for maintaining focus.

In this era of multi-tasking, of Tweeting and Snap-ing, TikTok-ing and doing it for the ‘Gram, I worry all the time that I — that we — are in danger of losing focus on what matters, of failing to be present and purposeful or finding, maintaining and celebrating the holiness inherent in our beings and our surroundings. And so, as I stir the butter carefully, I wonder if my friend’s statement — the darker the roux, the closer to God — is not just an aphorism, but a deeper truth and even a theological statement for our world today.

Read all of Pesachim 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 25th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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