Outside of Jewish settings where it neutrally refers to the rabbinic literature, the adjective talmudic means something like “obsessively detailed,” “hair-splitting,” or “esoteric.” It is the kind of word that might be used to describe an atrocious legal brief or a convoluted statute. In such cases, it is not a compliment.
The reason for this has everything to do with the complicated history of Jews and Christians, particularly the doctrine of supersessionism and the Christian critique of Judaism as legalistic. And while it is the conceit of our entire Daily Dose series that the Talmud is actually full of surprise, wit and wisdom, pages like the one we encounter today can give us some sympathy for those who use talmudic to mean “frustrating” and “arcane.”
Today’s page offers a detailed discussion of the mishnah on the bottom of 59b which begins as follows:
The paschal lamb that is slaughtered not for its own purpose; or if he received, carried, and sprinkled not for its purpose; or for its own purpose and not for its own purpose; or not for its own purpose and for its own purpose — is disqualified.
Unless you know a great deal about the rabbinic understanding of Temple sacrifice, this likely sounds like so much gibberish — and we haven’t even gotten to the Gemara yet. So let’s demystify it. The rabbis understood sacrifice to have four steps:
Slaughtering: the animal is killed
Receiving: the blood is drained from the animal
Carrying: the blood is conveyed to the altar
Sprinkling: the blood is applied to the altar
Furthermore, the rabbis understood that all of these steps must be done with proper intention. To slaughter a paschal lamb correctly, you must know that you are slaughtering a paschal lamb and not believe it is some other kind of offering. This is at least in part because there is very little difference between the paschal sacrifice and some other kinds of sacrifices except for the timing and intention.
The purpose of this mishnah is to explain which wrong intention at which step disqualifies the offering. The first part of the mishnah groups the four steps into two categories: step 1 (slaughtering) and steps 2–4 (receiving, carrying, sprinkling). The first two clauses of the mishnah tell us that if any of these steps are done without proper intention, the sacrifice is disqualified. The third clause tells us that if step 1 is done with the proper intention but steps 2–4 are not, the sacrifice is disqualified. And the final clause tells us that the reverse is also true — if step 1 was done with the wrong intention, but steps 2–4 were done with the right intention, the sacrifice is disqualified. In short, whether the intention was screwed up in step 1 or in steps 2–4, the paschal offering is disqualified.
Now the mishnah moves on to give an example of the kind of wrong intention one might have:
How does one perform these rites “for its own purpose and not for its own purpose”? This is when the one who sacrifices does it for the purpose of the paschal lamb and for the purpose of a peace-offering.
And how does one perform these rites “not for its own purpose and for its own purpose”? The one who sacrifices does it for the purpose of a peace-offering and for the purpose of a paschal lamb.
Here, the mishnah suggests that one way you can have wrong intention is by slaughtering a paschal lamb thinking it is a peace offering. But in trying to clarify its meaning, the mishnah now raises another possibility — that someone intended the sacrifice as both a paschal lamb and a peace offering. This is where the Gemara gets started:
Rav Pappa raised a dilemma: Did we learn this about one rite (i.e., he stated both intentions while slaughtering) or, did we learn it about two rites (i.e., during one rite he said that it was for its own purpose and in another he said that it was not for its own purpose)?
From here, the rabbis work hard to determine exactly what this difficult mishnah has in mind. It’s a valiant discussion, but one we can’t cover in full here. We encourage you to click the button below and check out the full page.