Taanit 21

Sounding the alarm.

Take your pick of impending catastrophes: political instability, climate change, healthcare, mental health. Each of these has people who shout about its urgency and demand that we act now. But given everything we’re facing, it can be difficult to prioritize among the various challenges and discern which alarms are worth taking most seriously.

Today’s daf speaks to this moment by asking the question: How do we decide when disaster is sufficiently proximate that immediate action becomes necessary? When does a far-off concern become an imminent calamity in the making, compelling us to respond?

Let’s start with locusts:

They said to Rav Yehuda: Locusts have come to our region. Rav Yehuda decreed a fast. They said to him: They are not destroying anything (as they are eating only a little). He said to them: Have they brought provisions with them (that they have something else to eat? Even if they are not damaging your crops now, they will certainly eat them soon)?

I love Rav Yehuda’s sassy response: The locusts aren’t on an outing and didn’t bring a picnic basket with them. They might not be eating your crops yet, but we know the nature of locusts and what their food needs are. Eventually, they’re going to start in on our food supplies, so best to anticipate and respond to that eventuality.

Next up, pigs:

They said to Rav Yehuda: There is pestilence among the pigs. Rav Yehuda decreed a fast. The Gemara asks: Let us say that Rav Yehuda maintains that a plague affecting one species will come to affect all species, (and that is why he decreed a fast). The Gemara answers: No, (in other cases there is no cause for concern). However, pigs are different, as their intestines are similar to those of humans. (Consequently, their disease might spread to people.)

Now, I’m no biologist, so I can’t comment on the similarities of human and porcine intestines. But if we accept as true that such similarities exist and that they facilitate the transmission of diseases from pigs to humans, the presence of a pestilence among pigs demands a response.  

There’s another layer to this: Given the traditional Jewish disdain for pigs, mentioning them specifically seems strange. Jews don’t typically raise pigs. So what is the situation Rav Yehuda was asked about?

The Meiri, a medieval Catalan talmudist, posits that this passage applies to Jews living among non-Jews who did own pigs and could potentially contract a pig disease and pass it on to their Jewish neighbors. In a similar vein, the Tosafot states that if “one decrees a fast on account of a plague among pigs because their intestines are similar to human beings, all the more that one should do so if there is a plague among non-Jews, who resemble Jews.”

Finally, distance:

They said to Shmuel: There is pestilence in Bei Hozai, (which is quite a distance from Babylonia). Shmuel decreed a fast. They said to him: But it is far from here. He said: There is no crossing here that will stop (the pestilence, and therefore there is cause for concern that it will reach us).

Shmuel responds to those who challenge his decision by noting that there is nothing standing between them and the pestilence, so its arrival is completely foreseeable and warrants action now. 

Our present societal dangers might not present us with such clarity. That said, today’s daf gives us some useful factors to consider.

Read all of Taanit 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 1st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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Welcome to Tractate Taanit.