Anyone who has studied Talmud — even one day, let alone many hundreds — has surely encountered the most basic feature of this great compendium of rabbinic law and lore: the argument. With the exception of some stories and legends, just about every sentence on every page is an argument of some sort or another. That argument forms the basis of the entire work has become so banal that it is not unusual for the Talmud to be invoked as proof that we can and should all disagree together comfortably. And, for the most part, the Talmud would seem to agree.
But not today. It can be hard, sometimes, to know which arguments will stretch the interlocutors past their breaking points and pitch them headfirst into a more serious realm of invective. One wouldn’t necessarily expect it from today’s dispute, which ends with a dire curse.
The issue under discussion is whether or not certain actions taken as part of a sacrificial ritual can override Shabbat, a discussion that began with the mishnah at the beginning of this chapter on page 65b. We have already established that sacrificing the paschal lamb (which must be done, according to the Torah, “in its appointed time”) overrides Shabbat. But what about other Passover preparations?
Rabbi Eliezer argues that the sprinkling of water that is part of the ritual for removing the impurity contracted through contact with the dead overrides Shabbat when it coincides with Erev Passover. Although this sprinkling would normally be prohibited on Shabbat by rabbinic law, it is allowed in this case because the person upon whom the water is sprinkled needs to purified in order to eat the paschal offering on Saturday night — a mitzvah that must be done in a state of purity.
As we have already seen previously in the mishnah, Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that such sprinkling does not override Shabbat. What is more, the fact that something prohibited only by rabbinic law (sprinkling) does not override Shabbat could be used to argue that something that is prohibited by biblical law (slaughter of the paschal offering) should also not override Shabbat.
Rabbi Akiva’s response is difficult to parse. Clearly, he disagrees with Rabbi Eliezer. But what’s especially strange is that from this position he “proves” something that everyone knows to be untrue: that the paschal offering does not override Shabbat. (It does override Shabbat without question — recall the story of the people forgetting this rule and learning it from Hillel that we read on page 66.)
Rabbi Eliezer is not pleased. In the mishnah, where we find a similar disagreement between the two, he accuses Rabbi Akiva of “uprooting that which was written in the Torah”— a fairly serious charge. But it’s nothing next to what we see Rabbi Eliezer say on our daf today.
Today Rabbi Eliezer doesn’t just accuse Rabbi Akiva of uprooting Torah, he curses him:
Rabbi Eliezer said to him: Akiva, you have responded to me with regard to slaughter. His death will be with slaughter.
According to Rashi, Rabbi Eliezer felt that the Rabbi Akiva’s argument was made contemptuously, since clearly Rabbi Akiva was aware that the Torah is clear on the point: we sacrifice the paschal offering “at its appointed time” meaning even on Shabbat. The fact that Rabbi Akiva would even make such a ridiculous argument shows that he was not taking the discussion seriously. His response is extraordinarily hostile. All the more so if we recall that Rabbi Akiva’s life did end in martyrdom — he was executed by the Romans in an exceptionally grizzly manner. His death will indeed be a slaughter.
It is striking to see such a brutal rejoinder in what seems to a fairly anodyne example of Talmudic dispute. It provides an interesting codicil to the standard trope about the Talmud being the proof that we can argue and yet still be friends; perhaps that is so only so long as we feel that those with whom we argue share our reverence for the subject, or our respect for the rules of debate, or for the honor due to those with whom we disagree. Some of that was missing between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, and the result was deadly.