Pesachim 38

No punctuation, no problem?

The Talmud has no commas, periods, semicolons, exclamation marks, or question marks. And, as we will see today, that is sometimes a problem.

Today’s daf continues discussing a mishnah that appeared back on Pesachim 35, which explained which types of unleavened bread do or don’t count for the purposes of Passover matzah. On that page, it was a question of which type of flour was used. On today’s daf, the rabbis are particularly concerned about a more archaic question: can bread that is intended to be used as part of a Temple sacrifice, such as wafers brought by a nazirite or loaves designated as a thanksgiving offering, serve as matzah on Passover? The mishnah rules that if one has prepared these unleavened breads for one’s own sacrificial use, they cannot count as matzah and will not fulfill the requirement to eat lechem oni (poor bread) on the first day of Passover. However, if these unleavened breads have been prepared for sale in the marketplace, they can be repurposed for use on Passover.

The rabbis spend much of today’s daf discussing different possible reasons why the mishnah might have ruled this way. After running through a litany of proposed and rejected explanations, the rabbis quote the following teaching of Rabbi Ilai:

I asked Rabbi Eliezer: Can a person fulfill the mitzvah of matzah with thanksgiving loaves or nazirite wafers?

He said to me: I haven’t heard the answer.

I came and asked this question before Rabbi Yehoshua.

He (Rabbi Yehoshua) said to me: Behold, they said that if the thanksgiving loaves and nazirite wafers were made for one’s own sacrificial purpose, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah with them, but if they were prepared for sale in the marketplace, one may fulfill this mitzvah with them.

When I came and explained these matters before Rabbi Eliezer, he said to me: By the covenant, these very matters were said before Moses at Sinai!

Having failed to get an answer from Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Ilai turns to Rabbi Yehoshua who supplies it. When Rabbi Ilai returns to Rabbi Eliezer to report that answer, the response is strangely enthusiastic: these are the very matters that were said before Moses at Sinai! But what an oddly certain thing for Rabbi Eliezer to say, especially since by his own admission he apparently had not heard this halakhah before Rabbi Ilai came and reported it to him. The Talmud, too, finds this strange and offers an alternative punctuation for Rabbi Eliezer’s response (in Hebrew, the words are exactly the same, though in English we have rearranged the order to better indicate meaning):

By the covenant, were these very matters said before Moses at Sinai?!

In this case, Rabbi Eliezer is not excited by Rabbi Ilai’s new information, but incredulous: Don’t we need a reason for this law? According to this version of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement, he is not affirming the eternal validity of the ruling, but rather he’s dissatisfied that he is given no explanation for why it should be the case.

A lot is at stake in a single (non-existent) punctuation mark. If Rabbi Eliezer indeed proclaimed that this law was said to Moses at Sinai, then he would effectively be suggesting that the rabbis stop looking for justifications for the law (as they have been doing for much of this page), because it should simply be viewed as a divinely given law that does not have a basis anywhere in text or reason. But if Rabbi Eliezer was incredulous that this was simply inexplicable divine fiat, then he would implicitly be justifying the rabbis’ lengthy discussion of reasons for the ruling. Ultimately, this is the reading the rabbis seem to prefer, and this should come as no surprise: for the rabbis of the Talmud, affirming the search for answers is much more valuable than a conversation-ending explanation.

Read all of Pesachim 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 29th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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