Talmud pages

Pesachim 59

The greatest verse in the Torah.

Yesterday, we learned that the afternoon tamid sacrifice is offered a little earlier on the day before Passover to make sure that it is completed in time to accommodate the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, which was also offered in the afternoon. The Gemara explored how the timing of the sacrifices was moved even earlier when the first day of Passover coincided with Shabbat and the whole procedure had to be completed before Shabbat began.

Today’s daf continues the conversation about what to do when the first day of Passover coincides with Shabbat, and addresses a number of technical and complex matters about the timing of, and differences between, the daily offering and those connected to Passover.

In thinking about today’s talmudic conversation, however, it may be just as interesting to reflect on what’s not on the page as to analyze what is; namely, the rabbis do not attempt to interpret the biblical text in a way that would allow the Passover sacrifice to supersede the daily sacrifice. Passover — even Passover plus Shabbat — is not an excuse to skip the regular daily sacrifice. Though the Shabbat and Passover commandments might to us instinctually feel more “special” than a mundane daily sacrifice, for the rabbis they are not more significant. All commandments, after all, come from God. 

In the introduction to his 16th century compilation of the aggadic (non-legal) material from the Babylonian Talmud, Ein Yaakov, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Haviv refers to a debate amongst the rabbis about the most central verse in the Torah. He quotes a text not from the Talmud but from another work composed by the rabbis, an extended set of midrashim on the book of Leviticus called the Sifra (specifically, he is quoting Sifra Kedoshim 4:12, though his version is a little different from the one we have in the printed edition of the Sifra):

Love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18) Rabbi Akiva said this is a great principle of the Torah.

Ben Azai said: This is the book of the generations of Adam — on the day that God created humankind, God made humans in God’s image… (Genesis 5:1) is a greater principle than that.

Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse and it is: Hear O Israel, the Lord is Your God, the Lord is one… (Deuteronomy 6:4, the first line of the Shema)

Ben Nanas says we have found a more inclusive verse than that and it is: Love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Shimon Ben Pazi says we have found a more inclusive verse than that and it is: The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening. (Exodus 29:39 and Numbers 28:4)

Rabbi Ploni stood up and said that the halakhah is in accordance with Ben Pazi.

These are some great candidates for most significant verse in the whole Torah! You may not be surprised that Ben Azai selects a verse that declares humans are made in God’s image, or that Ben Zoma chooses the Shema, which has been described as the Jewish creed. Ben Nanas and Rabbi Akiva’s candidate, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, also makes sense.

The more surprising selection is that of Shimon ben Pazi who chooses a dictum that commands the people to offer a tamid sacrifice twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. But it is this choice, a mundane dictum about a sacrifice that was already in his day long defunct, that is marked as the best.

Perhaps Ben Pazi is teaching us an important lesson about the need for routine in one’s religious life. To build and sustain a relationship with God, we need to show up consistently. Spiritual depth and transformation doesn’t come from the lofty vision of loving all human beings, seeing the divine in all of humanity, or declaring the oneness of God — though those are all certainly important! Rather, it is the day-in-day-out commitment to ritual, as embodied in the twice daily tamid, that is central to building a spiritual life. The Talmud seems to instinctively know this, and never once considers sidelining the tamid, but finds ways to weave the mundane and the special together.

Read all of Pesachim 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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