In the last few chapters of Tractate Pesachim, we’ve learned a lot about the paschal lamb. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been hard lately to keep the details straight in my head. For example, we read a lot about the differences between first and second Passover, but I’d have to go back and read the text again to be able to confidently explain what someone who became impure after their lamb was slaughtered but before its blood was sprinkled on the altar should do on either of these two holidays.
And so, it was refreshing today to see that I’m not the only one. We read in the mishnah on the second side of today’s page:
Rabbi Yehoshua said: I heard two rulings from my teachers: One ruling was that the substitute of a paschal lamb is sacrificed as a peace-offering after Passover, and another ruling was that the substitute of a paschal lamb is not sacrificed as a peace-offering after Passover; and I cannot explain these two rulings.
We haven’t talked much about sacrificial substitutions in this series so let me fill you in. Sometimes an animal designated to be a sacrifice (meaning it was declared sacred and earmarked as the sacrificial animal) got lost, so a new animal would be designated in its place. But if the original animal then turns up, what do you do with the replacement animal which is now also sacred?
In this mishnah, Rabbi Yehoshua remembers that sometimes an animal that was designated as a substitute for a lost paschal lamb (which was subsequently found) can be offered as a peace offering. He also knows that under different circumstances the substitute is not offered up as a peace offering but is instead left to graze until it becomes unfit for sacrifice (usually by virtue of becoming blemished) and then it is sold and the proceeds are used to purchase a different animal that will be sacrificed as a peace offering. But he can’t recall the details or explain the conditions that would require the former action (offer it as a peace offering) or the latter (put it out to pasture).
What a relief! If Rabbi Yehoshua, a leading teacher and scholar in his generation, is unable to recall the details of this ruling, kal va’chomer (all the more so), there will be instances where it will happen to me and to us. Especially those of us learning at the rapid clip of a page a day.
Rabbi Yehoshua’s admission also sheds light on the talmudic process itself. The rabbis inherited a wide range of statements about Jewish law. Some have been preserved in the Mishnah, others in the Tosefta, and still others in the Gemara. Like Rabbi Yehoshua, they memorized them and passed them on to their students. Some of the statements are clear; others require further explanation. More often than not, they are detached from the biblical verses from which they were derived and come without explanatory notes. In order to fully understand the Mishnah and to put it into practice, more is often required.
That’s what Gemara tries to do. Through logical argumentation and midrashic interpretation, the rabbis of the Gemara seek to reattach the Mishnah to the biblical text and to transform it into a text that can be put into practice.
In our mishnah, Rabbi Akiva explains what Rabbi Yehoshua cannot and then the rabbis of the Gemara continue the conversation and provide a number of understandings about when a substitute lamb is sacrificed and when it is left to wither. Check out today’s daf to learn about what they have to say.
As you do, the details of the conversation may be implanted in your brain. Or, they may not. If you have trouble recalling the specifics two weeks, two days or even two minutes from now, you will not be alone. You can always go back and read it again. Or, you can continue to read on and see what the next pages have to offer. What you find there may inspire you. All will contribute to your growing understanding of what the Talmud is all about.