Pesachim 65

First come first served.

The Gemara on today’s daf is based on the Mishnah on 64a that describes the ritual slaughtering of the paschal lamb. One detail involves organizing and managing the large crowd of people bringing sacrifices:

The paschal lamb was slaughtered in three groups, as it is stated: And the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it. (Exodus 12:6) Assembly, congregation, and Israel. The first group entered, and when the Temple courtyard became filled with them they closed the doors of the Temple courtyard.

The three words in Exodus 12:6 that describe a large group of people — assembly, congregation, and Israel — serve as an interpretive key to explain why the paschal lamb was slaughtered in three successive shifts. Each group was ushered inside, the door shut, the lambs slaughtered. Then they were sent out and the next group came in. But the burning question is: who gets to go first!?

Our Gemara brings another text to explain:

After the first group exited, the second group and then the third group would enter. It was taught: It was called the lazy group because it was the last of the three groups.

It seems that the tried and true “first come, first served” method is used. Those who hurry to perform the mitzvah get to go first. And even though the ceremony is repeated in full for each group, it is also better to be first. In fact, members of the third shift were named “the lazy group” because they didn’t hurry to offer their sacrifice. As we touched on just a few weeks ago on Pesachim 4azrizim makdimin l’mitzvot: one should always rush to perform a mitzvah. 

But doesn’t it seem harsh to disparage the last group — especially as we are required to have a last group — with the derogatory term of “lazy”? The Gemara, too, points out that though these later-comers might have been less punctual, they were also necessary. And since everyone gets to participate in the same ceremony, why the name calling? The Gemara answers:

Nonetheless, the members of the third group should have hurried themselves. As it was taught that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: The world cannot function without a perfume merchant or without a tanner (who works with strong-smelling chemicals). But fortunate is he whose profession is perfume merchant, and woe to him whose profession is tanner. Likewise, the world cannot exist without males or without females; yet fortunate is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females.

Even though we need the late comers to constitute the third group, we should strive not to be in this group. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s statement sounds insensitive but it also reflects reality. The world needs all sorts of people in all sorts of roles. We need those who work in nice offices and those who work in smelly factories; those who come to shul early to set up chairs and those who come just in time to make a minyan. The rabbis of the Talmud needed sons for Torah study partners and daughters whom they would worry about supporting until marriage. Each human being is just as essential as the other.

The tension between sympathy and disdain for those in less exalted roles is allowed to stand. All three groups bringing the paschal sacrifice are equally necessary from heaven’s perspective — but it is preferable to be in one of the first two groups.

Sometimes people have choice and sometimes they do not. One does not choose to be a daughter but a tanner might seek to become a perfume merchant and women have achieved significant roles of Torah scholarship in modern society. And if you hurry up you don’t have to be in the third group slaughtering paschal lambs. It is on all of us, whatever role we have been dealt or chosen for ourselves, to make our lives as fragrant as possible — to live lives of alacrity rather than sloth, to choose to be the first to come, and the first to serve.

Read all of Pesachim 65 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 25th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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