Pesachim 81

Public humiliation.

The Talmud has discussed at some length what must be done if a person becomes impure in the run-up to Passover. But what if it’s not the person but the paschal lamb itself that contracts impurity? This was a more likely complication than you might think. The owner who purchased the lamb on the 10th of the month had to spend four whole days ensuring that it did not come into contact with any impure object, creepy crawly creature (yes, that’s a technical category in the Talmud), or a corpse (less rare in the ancient world than in the modern one) — all in order to make sure that it made it to the altar in a state of purity, a fitting offering for God.

The mishnah at the very end of today’s daf addresses this potential complication of a paschal lamb that unfortunately becomes impure:

If the whole or most of it (the paschal lamb) became ritually impure, one burns it before the Temple with wood from the arrangement (i.e. wood belonging to the Temple).

Ordinarily, of course, the paschal lamb would be taken back to the person’s home, rented room or encampment and burned there before being eaten. But this lamb found to be largely or wholly impure is instead burned immediately at the Temple, using wood provided by the Temple.

The Gemara asks the logical follow-up question:

What is the reason (that the paschal lamb must be burned before the Temple)?

Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina said: In order to embarrass them. 

It is highly unusual for the rabbis to prescribe intentional embarrassment. Indeed, the Torah and rabbinic literature both prohibit private and public shaming. We read in Baba Metzia 59a that it is more comfortable for a person to cast himself into a fiery furnace than to humiliate another in public. How could it be that our sages endorse public embarrassment in today’s mishnah?

Presumably the reason that the offering became impure is that the owners were negligent. The transgressors are punished in front of others as a reminder to be more diligent in the future and ensure that paschal lambs, which are so important that their sacrifice takes place only once a year and overrides the laws of Shabbat — so important, indeed, that there is a make-up date for those who cannot sacrifice on the 14th of Nisan — never becomes impure.

This punishment is reserved for the most egregious cases. The second part of the mishnah softens the rule:

If a minority of it (the paschal offering) became impure, and similarly, the parts leftover, which must be burned, the owners of the paschal lamb burn it in their courtyards or on their roofs, with their own wood. Only the miserly burn it before the Temple in order to benefit from the wood of the arrangement. 

Those whose sacrifice became only partially impure, with the majority of it remaining pure, have the option to burn the unfit meat privately at home — and are thereby spared public embarrassment. But the final remark here is particularly telling. There are those who are permitted to burn their impure lamb at home, but choose to burn at the Temple in order to save their own wood supply. The Gemara implies that the miserly value their pinched pennies more than their dignity.

Tosafot (a medieval commentary) explains that this dispensation is made with concern that the miserly, while permitted to burn a partially impure paschal lamb at home, will not actually do so, unwilling to use their own wood. 

Why are such extreme measures taken to prevent the miserly from sin? We see here an important principle that is found throughout rabbinic literature: it is necessary to acknowledge human tendencies when making and enforcing rules. It is important not to “put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) and instead enable people to avoid transgression by understanding their natural inclinations.

Read all of Pesachim 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 10th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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Accidentally on purpose.