Pesachim 78

Absurdity.

On today’s daf, Rabbi Yosei says something that appears to be ridiculous:

Rabbi Yosei said: I see as correct the statement of Rabbi Eliezer with regard to animal offerings, and the statement of Rabbi Yehoshua with regard to animal offerings, and the statement of Rabbi Eliezer with regard to meal-offerings, and the statement of Rabbi Yehoshua with regard to meal-offerings.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, frequently at odds, disagree strongly about animal offerings and meal offerings. On yesterday’s daf, we read that  Rabbi Yehoshua states that “when there is no blood, there is no meat. If there is no meat, there is blood” i.e. both the blood and the meat of the sacrifice have to be fit for sacrifice.  Rabbi Eliezer however insists that “Blood brings atonement although there is no suitable meat.” Since these positions are mutually exclusive, how can Rabbi Yosei agree with both of them?! Indeed, Rav Papa notes exactly this in a conversation with Abaye: Rabbi Yosei is like a document that awards something to two — when there is only one thing to be awarded.

We might expect Abaye to agree with Rav Papa and critique Rabbi Yosei’s impossible position. We might expect the Gemara to critique his reasoning or even his intelligence. We might even expect the editors of the Talmud to take the statement out entirely! After all, why dedicate precious page space to something so absurd? Instead, the rest of today’s daf offers the exact opposite approach.

Abaye assumes that, in fact, Rabbi Yosei was a careful thinker who had a serious rationale for his position. As Abaye puts it:

He said what was reasonable. How so?

When involved in studying the halakhot of animal offerings, he said: It is reasonable that just as they disagree with regard to animal offerings, they also disagree with regard to meal-offerings.

When involved in studying the halakhot of meal-offerings, he said: It is reasonable that just as they disagree with regard to meal-offerings, they also disagree with regard to animal offerings.

Abaye makes two important moves. First, he assumes that Rabbi Yosei was a reasonable thinker and it is our task to understand his thinking. Second, he shows that Rabbi Yosei models that exact quality himself — working to understand the consistent rationale behind the positions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua!

Now, at this point, we might think that while Abaye was defending him, Rav Papa was critiquing Rabbi Yosei’s position. But the Gemara has another surprise in store. Rav Papa actually also agrees that Rabbi Yosei’s position was reasonable, though he offers a different rational than Abaye:

When he said: I see as correct the statement of Rabbi Eliezer, he was referring to cases in which part of the offering became impure. When he said that he agreed with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua, he was referring to cases in which part of the offering was lost or burned.

Rav Papa harmonizes the contradiction between the two positions by using a technique we have seen before: he explains that each was referring to a more specific situation. In this case, Rabbi Eliezer was referring to cases when part of the offering became impure and Rabbi Yehoshua to when the part of the offering was lost or burned.

Finally, the anonymous voice of the Gemara chimes in, offering a number of other explanations for how Rabbi Yosei’s position is rational and makes sense.

Today’s daf models a kind of discourse which is foreign to many of us today. When faced with something that is on its face absurd or contradictory, the rabbis do not dismiss it, but actively work to understand it. What would it look like for us, when someone says something apparently illogical and absurd, to assume that they are making some kind of internal sense and actually thoughtfully work to understand their reasoning? It’s important to note that the Gemara never says that Rabbi Papa and Abaye agreed with Rabbi Yosei. But whether or not they agree, they assume that he is saying something meaningful and well-thought out, and that it is their job to understand it.

Read all of Pesachim 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 7th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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