Weekly Daf: What appears redundant in the Torah’s discussion of a tamei person eating sacred food


What appears redundant in the Torah’s discussion of a tamei person eating sacred food

Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at RealClearDaf.com

We explored this issue on 43b-44a in the Daf this week. On 43b, Rava gives quite the endorsement to the amora, Zeiri:

“Any bereisa that hasn’t been explained by Zeiri, hasn’t been explained.”

As evidence of Zeiri’s proficiency in interpreting bereisa, the Gemara quotes an exceedingly opaque bereisa that Zeiri was able to decipher. The bereisa discusses the passage in Parshas Emor that lays down the prohibitions against eating sacred foods while tamei (in a state of ritual impurity). The passage distinguishes between different types of sacred food: If a tamei person consumes maaser sheini (the second tithe) he is liable to lashes; if he ate teruma (the portion for the kohein) or kodshim (a sacrificial portion) he is liable to death from heaven. The passage also goes out of its way to inform us that these punishments apply whether the transgressor had been tamei with corpse-tumah or the relatively lenient sheretz (dead creeping animal)-tumah.

The bereisa seeks to clarify why the Torah had to spell out these different scenarios. To this end the bereisa articulates the information we would lack had the Torah only informed us of one scenario or the other. Had the Torah only taught this halachah in the “lenient” scenario and not the “stringent” scenario (the exact scenarios being referred to will be the big question), I would have presumed that in the stringent scenario the stricter punishment of death from heaven would apply. Therefore, the Torah presented the stringent case too to teach us that in fact it also is only punishable by lashes. On the other hand, had the Torah only presented the stringent scenario, I would have mistakenly thought that in the lenient scenario, there’s no punishment whatsoever.

But what are these “lenient” and “stringent” scenarios that the bereisa refers to? The bereisa cannot be referring to maaser sheini and teruma/kodshim respectively for two reasons: 1) The bereisa concludes that in the stringent case it’s also only punishable by lashes, yet the Torah states plainly that if a tamei person eats teruma/kodshim, it’s punishable by death from Heaven. 2) The bereisa’s statement that had the Torah only taught that the lenient case is punishable by lashes, we would have concluded that by the stringent case one is punished with death from heaven has no basis given the rule of “dayo” that says you cannot use logic to extrapolate a stringency to your target case that doesn’t exist in your source case.

So what does the bereisa mean? The only other alternative that we appear to have is that the bereisa is referring to the two levels of tumah: “Lenient” refers to where the person contracted sheretz-tumah, and “stringent” refers to corpse-tumah. But this reading is equally untenable. For if we assume that the tamei person ate teruma/kodshim then the bereisa’s statement that the more lenient case is punishable by lashes would be false, since in reality eating teruma – even with sheretz-tumah – is punishable with death from heaven (in addition, the bereisa’s conclusion that even in the more stringent case the punishment is lashes would be false). And if we were to assume that the bereisa is referring to a case where the tamei person ate maaser-sheini (so at least the bereisa’s conclusion that the punishment is always lashes would be true), the bereisa’s suggestion that had the Torah only taught the lenient case (i.e. sheretz-tumah), we would have assigned death by heaven to the stringent case (i.e. corpse-tumah) would still constitute a violation of the “dayo” principle mentioned above.

When I read this question in the Gemara, I thought to myself, “How in the world is the Gemara going to resolve this?”

Indeed, Zeiri’s brilliance becomes evident with the beautiful reading of the bereisa that he offers. Zeiri explains: By “lenient” the bereisa means to refer to sheretz-tumah, and by “stringent” the bereisa intends corpse-tumah. Moreover, the bereisa is making the following argument: Let’s consider what information we would possess had the Torah only discussed sheretz-tumah. We would know that if a person with sheretz-tumah eats maaser-sheini the punishment is lashes, and if he eats teruma, the punishment is death from heaven.

What is the Torah basically saying? That when there is one stringent element (i.e. that he’s eating the holier food of teruma) the appropriate punishment is death from heaven. So we would have assumed that where the person contracted the more stringent corpse-tumah – even if he only eats maaser-sheini – and that the punishment is death from heaven (due to the stringent element of corpse-tumah). Therefore, the Torah had to teach us that in fact the punishment for consumption of maaser-sheini while tamei is always lashes – even where he contracted corpse-tumah. This argument is perfectly logical and doesn’t violate the dayo rules, and the conclusion after the Torah addresses this argument is in line with the actual halachah.

“If a bereisa hasn’t been explained by Zeiri, it hasn’t been explained.”