Pesachim 79

Who's in and who's out?

Today’s daf asks what the community should do if they are ritually impure before Passover. Should they offer the paschal sacrifice in a state of ritual impurity, or should they wait until Pesach Sheni?

The holiday of Pesach Sheni, Second Passover, happens exactly one month after Passover, on the fourteenth of Iyar. The holiday is instituted in the book of Numbers, when some men are unable to offer the paschal sacrifice because they are ritually impure with death. They come to Moses and ask what they should do. Moses kicks the question upstairs and God supplies the answer: “When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight…” (Number 9: 11-2)

I’ve always loved Pesach Sheni. First of all, it’s my birthday. And second of all, it’s the holiday of second chances, an opportunity to do something wonderful when you weren’t able to before. The mishnah on today’s daf affirms this emergency make-up holiday with an important caveat:

If the entire community or most of it became ritually impure, or the priests were all impure and the community was pure, they should perform the ritual of the paschal lamb in ritual impurity.

If a minority of the community became impure, those who are pure perform the ritual of the paschal lamb on the first Passover, and those who are impure perform the ritual on the second Passover.

If only a minority are impure, they are gifted with a second chance, on Pesach Sheni. But if the majority of the community is impure, then actually the paschal sacrifice can be offered in ritual impurity!

The example from the Book of Numbers involves tum’at met, death impurity. But let’s be honest — according to the rabbinic schema, the vast majority of people who would be seriously ritually impure on any given day would be people who menstruate, who contract tum’at niddah. Furthermore, the average menstrual cycle is about 28 days, so if someone has tum’at niddah on the fourteenth of Nissan, then they are very likely to have it again on the fourteenth of Iyar!

Women’s exclusion is not just implicit in today’s discussion of Pesach Sheni. Given that we follow the majority in deciding whether or not the paschal sacrifice can be offered in communal ritual impurity, the rabbis ask what to do if there is a 50/50 split. If the numbers are equal, how do we determine who is in the majority? The Gemara suggests removing women from the count, and following the majority status of men only.

Pesach Sheni is a chance for people who couldn’t be part of communal ritual to join in, better late than never. But who is part of that community? Today’s daf pulls in two opposite directions. On the one hand, it insists that those who are ritually impure (at least with tum’at met) can and must participate in Passover when they are able to, to be part of the community of Israel offering their paschal sacrifices. On the other hand, it implicitly and explicitly removes women from the communal calculus — when we have already learned that women are obligated in paschal sacrifice.

Today’s daf highlights the complexities of defining community, of moving towards inclusion, and thinking seriously about who counts.

Read all of Pesachim 79 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 8th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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