Pesachim 97

Is it time for the seder yet?

Rabbi Akiva said: I will explain: A paschal lamb (that is lost, leading the owner to separate another animal as its replacement) and is later found before the slaughter of the replacement paschal lamb, is left to graze until it becomes unfit. Then it is sold (and becomes unconsecrated) and the owner must bring a peace-offering with its proceeds. And likewise, its substitute.

This is the second half of the mishnah we read on yesterday’s daf — the one in which Rabbi Yehoshua got confused and Rabbi Akiva came to his aid. But this explanation can seem a bit opaque to those who aren’t familiar with these rabbinic discussions of sacrificial replacements and substitutions. As Rabbi Akiva explains, it could be a case that the initial paschal lamb (let’s call it Lamb A) designated for the ritual had gotten lost, and a replacement lamb (Lamb B) was designated in its stead. But then, either before or after the replacement was sacrificed, the first lamb was found again. Then, to make things even more complicated, someone decided to substitute a lamb (Lamb C) to stand in for Lamb A.

On today’s page, the rabbis ask: Can this substitute lamb, Lamb C, still be sacrificed for a regular, non-Passover purpose? Or is it essentially now invalid for any other sacrificial purposes, since even though it was never used and it wasn’t even the lamb originally meant to be used, it is nonetheless still marked with the sanctity of the fact that it is a substitute for a lamb that was once meant as a Passover sacrifice?

The rabbis agree that the answer to this question should hinge on when exactly Lamb A is found and when the substitution of Lamb C is made, but they debate exactly how that plays out. As often happens, the Babylonian rabbis Abbaye and Rava have conflicting opinions here. Rava believes that Lamb C can be sacrificed if Lamb A was found sometime before Lamb B was sacrificed, but was replaced with Lamb C after Lamb B was sacrificed.

Abbaye does not think such a sacrifice of Lamb C would be valid, and  he demonstrates his point with an interpretation of Leviticus 3:7If he brings a lamb as his offering, he shall bring it before the Lord.

“If he brings a lamb”: why does scripture say this? In order to include the substitute lamb that was designated after Passover, which is offered as a peace offering. Could it be that even before Passover this is the case (i.e., such a sacrifice could be acceptable)? Scripture says “he”: “he,” the properly designated lamb, is offered as a sacrifice, but the substitute of the original lamb is not offered as a sacrifice.

According to Abbaye, the specific wording of the verse, and particularly the inclusion of the grammatically superfluous word “he,” proves that Lamb C can never be sacrificed under any circumstances if Lamb A was found before the Passover offering (Lamb B) was made. The Talmud considers this to be a conclusive refutation of Rava’s argument.

But why all this concern over Lamb C, the substitute of a lamb that had already replaced? Although we don’t have sacrifices anymore, we can perhaps think more generally about how we think about mishaps and substitutions in regards to Passover and other dearly held Jewish communal practices. What happens after, as in April of 2020 when a global pandemic forced the Jewish community (and, of course, the entire world) into totally uncharted territory? Plan A (say, large gatherings of loved ones) for seder is lost, and must be replaced with perhaps a less desirable Plan B (say, solo, household-only, or Zoom seders)? Do we hold onto Plan A as something to return to at a later point when Plan B is no longer necessary, or perhaps the replacement itself prompts us to think about a substitute Plan C instead? And if we do that, do we take Plan C just as seriously as we would have taken Plan A, or do we relate to it as somehow “lesser than”? Through this discussion of lambs, the Talmud encourages us to take seriously our expectations around this holiday, recognizing the possibility that they may be dashed by circumstances outside of our control, while also encouraging us to acknowledge the sanctity of what we choose to do instead.

And if you’re feeling extra tired by these dizzying discussions of sacrifice, fear not: the tenth and final chapter of Pesachim is on the horizon, and that’s when we will switch from discussing all these sacrificial details and get on to discussing the Passover meal (i.e. the seder). That chapter also has a few other surprises in store.

Read all of Pesachim 97 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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