Weekly Daf: Can we permit an item of questionable status based on a double doubt?


Can we permit an item of questionable status based on a double doubt?

Rabbi Shmuel Wise, Maggid Shiur at realcleardaf.com 

We discussed this question on 74a in the daf this week. The major topic of our current chapter (#8) is mixtures that contain at least one unidentifiable prohibited item. The first mishnah of our chapter rules that if a prohibited animal got mixed with even ten thousand permitted animals, the entire mixture becomes prohibited. But on 74a, Rav reveals a mixture case in which we are allowed to be lenient:

A ring that is prohibited as an accessory to an idol got mixed with 100 permitted rings. If less than the majority of the rings became separated from the group of 100 and fell into a second group of rings, any given ring that a person takes from group #2 is permitted. Why? Because of a double doubt: Perhaps the selected ring is from the original permitted rings of group #2. And even if it is a ring that was previously part of the questionable group #1, it’s far from certain that the idolatrous ring was the one selected. Based on this double doubt, we rule that this ring is permitted.

But what exactly is the rationale of this double doubt argument? A reasonable person might say that the chief consideration should be: What is the probability that we’re dealing with a prohibited item? Indeed, the principle of majority carries great weight in halachah. From court rulings to yibum to the death penalty, the principle of majority is used to decide issues across the spectrum of halachah. Yet for some reason we can’t use majority here: As the mishnah states, even if there are 10,000 permitted animals over the 1 prohibited animal, we cannot use majority to assume that the animal selected is permitted. This needs to be better understood. And we must also endeavor to understand why a double doubt achieves what majority could not.

Here’s how I understand it: There’s something particularly sensitive about the known presence of an item that is prohibited. As an example, consider a cup of poison that is known to be mixed with 17,000 other cups. In spite of the low odds of fatality, most people would not drink any of the cups. And yet most of us will drive to work in spite of the similar odds of dying in a car crash (see https://www.thrillist.com/cars/nation/how-likely-you-are-to-die-in-a-car-accident-in-every-us-state-the-most-dangerous-roads-in-america). Somehow, the human psyche perceives the significance of a danger that is here and present. And so it is with mixtures containing a prohibited item: even though the odds overwhelmingly indicate that any given animal is not prohibited, halachah obligates us to reckon with the prohibited animal that is here and present (except of course when the principle of nullification is warranted, in which case the halachah decrees that the prohibited item doesn’t exist).

So, what does a double doubt do? A double doubt says that we actually have no idea whether there is a questionable situation before us at all. By adding that one crucial piece of information, we can allow the regular rule of majority to take over and grant us the right to presume that the item before us is permitted.

If you any thoughts about this or any other interesting points about double doubts to share, please send them in: I would undoubtedly love to hear them!