Talmud pages

Pesachim 72

Ritual mistakes.

As a rabbi, I love to attend wedding rehearsals. Not because I am enamored of the seemingly endless details of the day. What I enjoy about them is that after we go over the small details like the order of the processional, who will be holding the rings, and when to raise the cup, I remind everyone involved that all of that will fade into the background and we will be able to focus on the real reason we are all assembled: to sanctify the relationship of the couple. At that moment I recenter the participants on what is important, and the stress of the details fades into the background.

Anxiety about ritual errors doesn’t only apply to weddings, of course. On today’s page, the rabbis note some of the things that can go wrong with the rituals of Passover and, many others.

Not surprisingly, making a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem, securing the right animal, ridding oneself of leaven, entering the Temple with not one but, as we’ve recently learned, two important sacrifices that must be performed by sundown (paschal offering and festival peace offering), can all be a source of confusion and stress. All kinds of accidents can happen, as detailed on today’s page: an unfit animal might be offered up, an animal might be offered with wrong intention, or an animal might be offered at the wrong time. Other complications can arise as well if an animal’s owner becomes ritually impure or even dies (hopefully not from stress!) in the lead-up to Passover. 

How should we approach these errors? The rabbis disagree. For example:

As for all other offerings that one unwittingly slaughtered on Shabbat for the purpose of a paschal offering, if they were not fit for the paschal offering, he is liable to bring a sin-offering. And if they are fit, Rabbi Eliezer deems him liable to bring a sin-offering, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua exempts him.

This is a fairly obscure error. An animal not previously designated as a paschal offering is slaughtered on Shabbat as a paschal offering. Why might this happen? Perhaps someone got mixed up and brought the wrong lamb or goat to the Temple. In any case, if it was not the sort of animal fit to be a paschal offering in the first place, the person brings a sin offering to atone for this mistake. But if the animal was fit to be a paschal offering (just not designated as one), the rabbis disagree about the offerer’s culpability. Consistent with their personalities, Rabbi Yehoshua is more lenient and does not require a sin offering, while Rabbi Eliezer still does.

The page continues on past paschal offerings to examine mistakes made in the ritual of circumcision, the consumption of sacrificial meat, with regard to sexual relations, and the rituals of Sukkot. For example, perhaps one has two babies to circumcise, one of which is scheduled for a Shabbat bris, the other for the day before Shabbat. Anxiety about circumcising the wrong baby on Shabbat could, ironically, lead to just that error.

We also learn that a person might forget to check and engage in sexual intercourse to consummate a levirate marriage with his sister-in-law. But, in that case, the rabbis recognize that the offender may have been too shy to ask his sister-in-law if she was menstruating at that time.

Even when it comes to the most sacred obligations toward God, or the most potent taboos, stress can lead people to make mistakes. In my experience, dress rehearsals can help a great deal, but even they do not guarantee a seamless experience. But, at least in the case of weddings, as a wise colleague of mine once said, “in rituals, there are no mistakes; only good stories!” And for everything else, there’s a sin offering.

Read all of Pesachim 72 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 1st 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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