Today’s daf continues to probe difficult and arcane laws about sacrificial errors. Recall that, in general, if you make an accidental ritual mistake, you need to bring a sin offering to atone — though in some cases you are exempt from bringing the sin offering.
On today’s page we consider the case of a paschal sacrifice made on Shabbat on behalf of someone who cannot eat (perhaps someone ill or elderly who cannot chew the meat). According to the Torah, eating the paschal offering is an obligation, as is finishing all the meat in a single night. Sacrificing on behalf of someone who will not eat the meat has the potential to disrupt these obligations. And if you make this mistake on Shabbat, you have now violated Shabbat for no reason. But is it a sin offering worthy offense?
The Mishnah says “yes.” But Rav Huna bar Hinnana tests the Mishnah’s position, pointing out that since slaughter on behalf of someone who cannot eat is invalid, it simply amounts to having wounded the animal in a way that brings no benefit:
Rav Huna bar Hinnana said to his son: When you go before Rabbi Zerika, ask him: According to the opinion that says that one who inflicts a destructive wound is exempt (from offering a sin offering), how are we to understand the Mishnah’s ruling that one who slaughtered the paschal lamb for those who cannot eat it is liable? What has he improved?
Rav Huna bar Hinnana argues that sacrificing on behalf of people who cannot eat is equivalent to inflicting a “destructive wound” — one that creates no benefit. Since the rabbis have a principle that making a destructive wound on Shabbat does not incur the penalty of a sin offering, we might suppose that this hypothetical scenario of sacrificing on behalf of someone who cannot eat on Shabbat should not incur liability for a sin offering, contra the Mishnah.
But no, the Mishnah is in fact right, as the Gemara explains:
He has improved it in that if the sacrificial parts of the offering ascended to the top of the altar, they do not descend.
If the paschal sacrifice made on behalf of non-eaters on Shabbat ascends to the altar before the mistake is discovered, the Gemara explains, then the meat is not taken off the altar — it is allowed to burn there. This effectively elevates the meat. Since meat incurred benefit, the sacrifice violated Shabbat and therefore requires atonement in the form of a sin offering.
A similar argument further down the page shows that one is liable also for accidentally sacrificing an animal with a disqualifying blemish as a paschal offering on Shabbat. In doing so, this animal too finds its way onto the altar when it otherwise would not have — elevating the status of the meat. And this benefit means the sacrifice has violated Shabbat. The case is even clearer in the case of an animal that has a condition which means it will die within the year. Had it died on its own (explains Steinsaltz) it would have become a neveila (a carcass that imparts ritual impurity). But proper slaughter elevates this animal such that its remains do not impart impurity.
All of this is very complicated and specific. However, I believe this text has something to teach us about the skill of finding the good in the bad. These animals were sacrificed when they should not have been, and yet the rabbis discerned benefit in it, be it meat that makes it to the altar when it would not otherwise have, or a carcass that is prevented from becoming a source of impurity.
On today’s page, finding the benefit is unfortunate in that it means the sacrifice has violated Shabbat and the person responsible must bring a sin offering. But it is also a gift to be able to look for and find the good in a situation. I’m reminded of the Yiddish song “Hob Ich Mir a Mantl” (“I Had a Little Overcoat” — turned into the children’s book Joseph Had a Little Overcoat). In that Jewish folktale, a coat that becomes worn out is turned into a jacket. When the jacket wears out, it becomes a vest, and so on until all that is left is enough to cover a button. When that button too is lost, the story of the coat remains. Maybe today’s page will never be a riveting story, but it does teach us something about finding the benefit in a bad situation. And, of course, atoning for your mistake.