On today’s daf, we have a mishnah that raises a technical problem regarding the separation of challah. As you’ll recall, for the rabbis this does not mean a braided loaf of enriched bread topped with sesame seeds, but a certain amount of dough that must be set aside — usually before baking — and given to a priest.
So, how does this work on Passover? The situation presented by the mishnah is that of a challah from dough that has become ritually impure. The assumption, of course, is that the dough will be baked into matzah, not leavened bread. Normally, ritually impure challah cannot be given to the priests (who must maintain a state of ritual purity to work in the Temple) and therefore would be set aside and burned. However, this kind of disposal through burning can’t take place on a chag (festival day) — it violates the laws against performing forbidden labor on that day. On Sukkot or Shavuot this is not a problem, since one can simply set the dough aside and then burn it after the festival. However, because it is Passover, there is a concern that dough set aside would naturally leaven, and thus put the owner in violation of the law prohibiting the possession of leavened items on Passover.
So what to do with your impure challah on Passover? Can’t keep it around, can’t burn it. The Mishnah presents three possible solutions, which are really two. Rabbi Eliezer’s solution is to bake the dough into unleavened bread and only then designate a portion of it as challah. Since it is baked and can no longer rise, we can wait to burn it after the festival, when burning is no longer forbidden. (Ben Beteira offers a variant on this solution, suggesting separating the challah, as usual, before baking but then placing it in cold water to prevent leavening.)
Rabbi Yehoshua, however, has a much simpler answer: this is a non-problem. He rules:
This is not the leavened bread (hametz) which we are warned about with the prohibitions, “it shall not be seen” (Deuteronomy 16:4) and “it shall not be found” (Exodus 12:19). She should separate the challah and leave it until the evening, if it leavens, it leavens.
(Note: I am not sure if the screenwriter of Rocky IV was specifically referencing this Mishnah when Ivan Drago famously proclaimed, “If he dies, he dies,” but wouldn’t it be fun if he were?)
The Talmud of course, doesn’t just want to know the right answer. What it really wants to probe is the logic behind each position: Rabbi Eliezer (prevent the dough from leavening and burn later) and Rabbi Yehoshua (don’t worry leavening and burn it later). Several possible explanations of their reasoning are brought, including the idea that really the two Tannaim are arguing about the principle of ho’il, which is usually translated as “since.” Stay with me here!
The Gemara suggests that Rabbi Eliezer believes that since the person who is separating challah could ask a court to retroactively void the designation of challah, that piece of dough could still be considered their property, since the dough that had been challah (and thus only fit for a priest) is now just a piece of dough and edible by all. For Rabbi Eliezer, the possibility of this sort of retroactive negation of the designation of challah means that if that dough were to leaven while awaiting the end of the festival, the person would be in violation of the law against owning hametz on Passover.
But Rabbi Yehosha doesn’t worry about sinces or coulds. In his view, even if the person separating challah could theoretically ask for a revocation of the designation of challah, the fact that they did not do so means that from the moment the dough was designated as challah it is not the property of the original owner of the dough. Like all tithes, immediately upon being designated as challah that bit of dough belongs to the priests, and thus is no longer owned by the person tithing it. (He or she can’t sell it or benefit from it in any way, even if it is sitting right there in front of them.) Therefore, whatever happens to the challah before the festival day ends doesn’t much matter, because the person doesn’t own it.
The Gemara casts this debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua over a very specific technical question about what to do with impure challah on Passover as something much more wide-ranging and theoretical: should we worry about ho’il (“since”) when deciding the law? How much should a possible future decision one could make determine the law in the present moment? As is so often the case in studying Talmud, what begins as a seemingly discrete technical question reveals itself to be a far more wide-ranging debate over the very nature of the legal process.