As we’ve seen throughout this tractate, the 14th of Nisan, Erev Passover, is no ordinary day. It’s neither a regular weekday nor a festival: it’s the day devoted to preparing for Passover. In the morning, all of one’s hametz is to be removed and burnt; by afternoon, only unleavened food may be eaten. Back when the Temple stood, Jews would gather in the Temple courts to slaughter their paschal lambs.
When the day before Passover falls out on Shabbat, questions arise: can all the normal procedures for preparing the paschal lamb — transporting it to the Temple, slaughtering it, roasting it and preparing to eat it — still be performed even though these activities normally violate Shabbat? How does one square the circle of being commanded to offer the paschal lamb and also being commanded to observe the Sabbath?
The Gemara on today’s daf offers a compelling story to demonstrate that this question stumped even experts in the days of the Temple. I can remember exactly where I was when I first encountered this story, almost fifty years ago, because it opened my eyes to the delights of moralistic rabbinic storytelling.
It begins like this: when the sons of Beteira (leaders in their generation) forget whether one can offer the paschal lamb when Erev Passover coincides with Shabbat, they ask around and are informed that one man might be able to answer: “a certain person who immigrated from Babylonia named Hillel the Babylonian.” They immediately send for this new, foreign expert.
Of course, Hillel is now known to us as one of the most famous sages of all time, full of wisdom and empathy. In this story, however, he’s relatively new and unknown. While we might have expected him to give a pithy response, Hillel instead responds in the proverbially Jewish fashion by answering a question with a question:
And do we have only one paschal sacrifice during the year that overrides Shabbat? We have more than 200 “paschal sacrifices” throughout the year that override Shabbat!
Like the paschal offering, the daily Temple offering (known as the tamid) was also a yearling lamb. Hillel then uses a gezerah shavah, a verbal analogy between two texts to prove that just as the tamid, which the Torah says is given “in its appointed time,” (Numbers 28:2) overrides Shabbat — so too the paschal offering, which also is given “in its appointed time” (Numbers 9:2) overrides Shabbat.
How brilliant! As if it weren’t dazzling enough to both know the correct answer and offer scriptural proof, Hillel gives another proof in the form of a kal va’chomer (a fortiori) argument: since the tamid, which is not punishable by karet (premature death) overrides Shabbat, surely the paschal offering, which is punishable by karet (and therefore is more significant) must override Shabbat. His exposition is so erudite that:
Immediately, they appointed Hillel the Nasi (the head of their Sanhedrin) and throughout the day, he taught them the laws of Passover.
Demonstrating one’s brilliance has its rewards! But now, there’s a sharp turning point in the story:
Then, Hillel began rebuking and demeaning them (for their forgetfulness).
They asked him a specific question: What if a Jew forgot to bring the slaughtering knife with him on the eve of Shabbat — what is to be done?
Hillel responded: I once learned this law, but I’ve forgotten it.
But, he continued, leave it to the Jewish people — if they’re not prophets, they’re the children of prophets.
So, the next day (the 14th of Nisan), what did they see? Jews who were bringing lambs to be slaughtered brought the knives stuck in their lamb’s wool; those bringing goats stuck them between their goat’s horns.
When Hillel saw this, it jarred his memory, and he said: This is the tradition I received from my teachers.
Even the great Hillel, known for being slow to anger, when suddenly elevated from relative unknown to head of the Sanhedrin was susceptible to not only losing his temper but succumbing to arrogant rudeness. And what happens when he does this? He forgets his learning. The very flaw that he criticized in the people became his own.
And from whom does Hillel relearn the law that he had forgotten? ordinary Jews. In this case, they show him that if one forgets to deposit a slaughtering knife at the Temple ahead of time, one can tangle the knife in the animal’s wool or horns in order to avoid violating the Shabbat prohibition of carrying.
As important as it is to hear the law expounded by our scholars and teachers, there is wisdom to be gleaned from the behavior of ordinary Jews — even for the best of those teachers. Hillel was not immune to the corruption of power, but at least he didn’t forget this fundamental truth.