We have often remarked that the Gemara is fully comfortable allowing contradictory opinions to coexist side-by-side. And yet, when the Mishnah appears to contradict itself, the rabbis often feel compelled to explain. Today’s page offers a great example:
One may not roast the paschal lamb on a metal spit nor on a metal grill.
However, Rabbi Tzadok said: There was an incident with Rabban Gamliel, who said to his slave Tavi: Go and roast the paschal lamb for us on the grill.
The Torah requires that the lamb be roasted by fire. Here, the mishnah first prohibits the use of a metal spit or grill to ensure that the lamb will be roasted exclusively by the fire and not by the heated metal of a cooking utensil. But then, in the same mishnah, Rabban Gamliel seems to undermine this ruling by ordering his slave Tavi to bring out a metal grill for roasting the paschal lamb.
How do we resolve this machloket (a difference of opinion about the law) in the mishnah? The Gemara usually takes one of two routes.
The first option is to preserve the contradiction by suggesting that the contradictory example comes to show the ruling is incorrect. The Gemara refers to this approach as ma’aseh listor, an example that contradicts. In our case, that would mean that Rabbi Tzadok has brought evidence the first line of the mishnah is incorrect: the mishnah initially said you can’t use a grill, but if Rabban Gamliel did it, so can you. However, this is not the route the Gemara takes in this case.
The second option — and the one taken by the Gemara today — is to find a way to harmonize the ruling and the example by making each more specific. Here’s how the Gemara accomplishes that:
The mishnah is incomplete and is teaching the following: If it is a perforated grill, so that the fire reaches each part of the meat and the animal will not be roasted from the heat of the grill itself, it is permitted. And with regard to this Rabbi Tzadok said that there was an incident with Rabban Gamliel, who said to his slave Tavi: Go and roast the Paschal lamb for us on the perforated grill.
Here, the Gemara suggests that the mishnah is missing information, namely that a solid metal grill is prohibited but a perforated grill is permissible because the gaps in the grill ensure that the lamb will be roasted by the fire and not by the heated metal. With this additional information, Rabban Gamliel’s actions serve as support for the exception rather than to undermine the rule in its entirety.
Hold on a second, you might be saying to yourself, by adding new information, the Gemara has changed the meaning of the mishnah! Is this really allowed?
Traditional scholars can be uncomfortable with the notion that a mishnah is incomplete and reject the notion that the Gemara is changing it. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, for example, explains that, in cases like this, the Gemara is not suggesting an actual emendation of the text of the mishnah; rather it is a “necessary elaboration” for a mishnah which is “insufficiently clear in its current form.”
Modern scholars, however, are more likely to ascribe bolder intent to the Gemara. Dr. Aryeh Cohen asserts that the phrase the mishnah is incomplete and is teaching the following, “more often than not … is used to introduce a law which would harmonize a contradiction between two other laws, or between a law and a precedent-story. The claim is that this is really what the Mishnah says. The result is changing what the Mishnah says.