The mishnah on Taanit 26a elliptically mentions, with praise, “those who deceived with a pestle” and “those who packed dried figs.” Today’s daf offers us a story to explain who these people are:
Once, the evil kingdom issued a decree of apostasy against the Jews, that they may not bring wood for the arrangement of the altar and that they may not bring first fruits to Jerusalem. And they placed guards on the roads … so that the Jews could not ascend (to Jerusalem) for Sukkot.
For context, in his farewell speech in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that when they enter the land of Israel, “You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish his name,” and present it to the priests (Deuteronomy 26:2–3). This mitzvah is called bikkurim (literally first fruits), and there’s a whole tractate of the Mishnah all about how to do it right. So it’s a big deal if a hostile imperial government bans the ritual outright.
What did the worthy and sin-fearing individuals of that generation do? They brought baskets of first fruits, and covered them with dried figs, and took them with a pestle on their shoulders. And when they reached the guards, the guards said to them: Where are you going? They said to them: “to prepare two round cakes of pressed figs with the mortar that is down the road before us and with the pestle that on our shoulders.” As soon as they passed, they decorated the baskets and brought them to Jerusalem.
The righteous people pretend that they just want to press some figs, in order to slip past the guards and offer their first fruits in Jerusalem. They successfully circumvent the oppressive laws and fulfill the mitzvah.
If we read the story carefully, we can see that the righteous people are lying outright. They could have pressed some figs into cakes on their way to offer their first fruits in Jerusalem so that their claim would be true, but they didn’t. In fact, the pressed figs and the pestles disappear from the story once they pass the guards. And while we might expect the Gemara to be surprised that people who are called righteous lie explicitly, it takes their lying as a matter of course. What matters to the story teller is why this particular group of righteous people did it — because of their profound commitment to fulfilling the commandment of bikkurim in the face of an unjust attempt to ban it.
But it’s worth lingering a moment on the lies. After all, we have too many examples from history of unjust laws. Today’s daf acknowledges that sometimes being righteous and being law-abiding aren’t the same thing at all. Sometimes you can even lie to the authorities to break an unjust law. That’s a big idea which opens all kinds of cans of worms. After all, sometimes the injustice of a law is obvious (such as banning bikkurim), while other times, it’s less clear.
Today’s daf is a helpful reminder that we have to at least ask the question about whether laws are just and on the side of righteousness. And if we determine that they aren’t, what are we going to do about it?
Read all of Taanit 28 on Sefaria.