In the age of Twitter and text messages, the use of acronyms has had a resurgence. So much so that if you were to ask someone to “take this conversation out of the public sphere and into a private space” instead of “DM [direct message] me,” you might cause them to ROTFLOL [roll on the floor laughing out loud].
Though these might seem like artifacts of the current moment, the use of acronyms is not a new phenomenon. On today’s daf, we find an example of a talmudic acronym: PANKAKHES (made up of the Hebrew letters peh, nun, kuf, ayin, kaf, samech). This is not the first time that we have seen examples of this (see Pesachim 103 or Yoma 48, for example). In fact, PANKAKHES is one of many acronyms used by the rabbis through the Talmud. And just as they help us today remember things like the order of planets in the solar system or the order of mathematical operations, the rabbis relied on them as memory aids to help them keep track of their learning.
We encounter PANKAKHES in the context of a discussion about restrictions put in place to ensure that priests only burn sacrificial items while in a state of ritual impurity. As part of the conversation, the Gemara refers to specific restrictions that apply to items consecrated for use in the Temple but which are not terumah, the sanctified food permitted only for the priests to eat. PANKAKHES is a mnemonic device used to help the rabbis remember the rules that apply to these items.
It includes the following:
Piggul, Notar, Korba, Me’ila, Karet, Asur le’onen.
The Gemara doesn’t explain what all these words refer to, so we’ll break it down here:
Piggul refers to sacrifices brought by a priest who considers eating the offering at a prohibited time, rendering the offering invalid. Terumah is not invalidated if a priest thinks about eating it at a forbidden time.
Notar is the meat of an offering that is not consumed in its assigned time. Once the time for eating ends, the notar, what remains, must then be burned. Consumption of terumah is not time bound, so it cannot become notar.
Korban refers to sacrificial offerings. Terumah is not sacrificed.
Me’ila, represented in our acronym by its second letter ayin, is the offering brought by a non-priest who derives an unintentional benefit from a consecrated object or offering. If an ordinary person eats terumah, they simply replace what they have eaten and add a penalty.
Karet is the punishment, known as excision, for one who eats consecrated items while ritually impure.
Asur le’onen, represented by its second letter samech, refers to items prohibited from being eaten by someone in acute mourning (the time between death and burial). Priests can eat terumah at any time.
PANKAKHES is used as a kind of shorthand for all these rules. Using the acronym in this way reminds us that the Gemara is a text for insiders, those with a lot of prior knowledge. This is a challenging characteristic of the Talmud that can at times be off-putting for new students. And it’s one of the reasons that the traditional printed page of Talmud is surrounded by commentaries.
The Gemara doesn’t provide a pronunciation guide for today’s acronym. It’s possible the correct pronunciation is pah-kah-chess. But we couldn’t end today’s piece without noting that pancakes is also a possibility (and autocorrect’s spelling suggestion as well). Not only are pancakes yummy, but they make for a memorable mnemonic device!
Read all of Yevamot 73 on Sefaria.