Pesachim 64

The doors wouldn’t close on him.

Today’s daf details much of the choreography of the paschal offering. We learn that all Israel would enter the courtyard of the Temple in three shifts, each shift taking its turn to sacrifice their lambs while a special sequence of psalms, known as Hallel, was chanted. We learn that the priests would stand shoulder-to-shoulder in two lines, one line holding gold bowls and the other silver as, bucket brigade style, they would pass the blood of each paschal sacrifice all the way to the altar on which it was poured. This method allowed the highest number of priests to participate in the ritual — a gorgeous lesson of inclusion.

Inclusion is in fact a theme found elsewhere on the daf. Further down the page, the rabbis describe temple doors opening and closing between each of the three shifts, and they wonder whether the priests physically closed the doors or if the doors were perhaps miraculously closed of their own accord (naturally, there is no agreement on this point). This leads to the following observation by Rabbi Yehudah:

Heaven forbid that Akavya ben Mahalalel was banned! The Temple courtyard would not close on any man from Israel as full of wisdom and fear of sin as Akavya ben Mahalalel!

Apparently, those closing doors did have a mind of their own! Rabbi Yehudah cites an instance when the Temple doors stubbornly refused to close against a certain Akavya ben Mahalalel, who had been banned by his colleagues.

Who was this Akavya ben Mahalalel and why was he banned? Today’s page doesn’t say, but stories of him are found scattered in rabbinic literature. Akavya ben Mahalalel was an early Tanna — so early he apparently lived while the Temple still stood — who is best remembered for refusing to change his firmly-held convictions to match the opinions of the majority.

According to Sifrei Bamidbar (a rabbinic collection of midrashim on the book of Numbers), Akavya made one of his famous stands with regard to the infamous sotah ritual. Outlined in Numbers 5:11–31, the sotah ritual is invoked by men who suspect their wives of adultery. To test a woman’s fidelity, her husband can bring her to the Temple where she is made to drink a strange concoction of water, dust and ink called “bitter waters.” According to the Torah, if the wife is guilty of adultery, this potion will cause her “thigh to sag and belly to distend.” If not, she is granted immunity — and fertility.

Akavya ben Mahalalel’s colleagues felt any wife could be called up for the sotah ritual, but Akavya himself disagreed — he thought it could apply only to a free-born Jewish woman (not a slave or former slave). In support of their view, the majority remind Akavya that distinguished leaders of the Sanhedrin, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, once administered the test to a former slave woman.

Now it gets really spicy. In disgust, Akavya ben Mahalalel insultingly remarks: “they offered a drink to one who is like them.” In other words, like the former slave woman to whom they administer the bitter waters, these great sages are of dubious lineage. Burn! (Trust me, the insult really zings in the Hebrew.)

Swiftly, Akavya ben Mahalalel was excommunicated. To use a modern turn of phrase, he was cancelled. The sages even stoned his coffin for good measure. But on today’s daf, Rabbi Yehudah comes to Akavya’s rescue, noting the Temple doors refused to close on him because of his unmatched brilliance and righteousness.

Akavya ben Mahalalel had his prejudices and felt himself superior because of his birth. In many ways, he represents the definition of the privilege. His way of thinking was wrong and needed to be checked. By contrast, his esteemed colleagues Shemaiah and Avtalion, who were of humble birth, had risen to top leadership roles.

Rabbi Yehudah reminds us that people are complex. The same person who is capable of prejudice and nasty barbs can also be a person full of wisdom and fear of God. Like Akavya and his colleagues, we are all both flawed and prejudiced and we all also have capacity for great wisdom and kindness. Rabbi Yehudah reminds us that excommunication — cancelling — is not the answer to this complexity. He invites us to ask ourselves: how do we learn to reprove and call out misdeeds without cancelling? How do we reproach with love to invite change instead of distance?

Read all of Pesachim 64 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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