I’m about to welcome you into the type of Talmudic discussion that many people find mind-numbing, if not alienating — but that honestly fills me with delight. We’re diving deep into the ancient rabbinic arguments about how to honor the holiday of Passover.
(These are recorded in the Talmud, a massive set of books — they take up an entire bookcase, printed — full of ancient back-and-forth debates about Jewish law. The Talmud also contains much aggadata, instructive stories about the rabbis, and midrash, traditional biblical interpretation.)
The opening chapter of Tractate Pesachim in the Talmud is called Or la-Arbaa Asar, “light of the fourteenth,” referring to the fourteenth of Nisan, the day before Passover begins. Except that its title doesn’t mean “light of the fourteenth” at all. The word or ordinarily means light; here, it means not the dawning of day but the evening, with which the Jewish day technically begins.
This reading takes considerable interpretive acrobatics to accomplish, though it’s a foregone conclusion: absolutely no one nowadays disagrees that the final search for chametz (leavened grains) needs to be done at nightfall. So, what’s the point of the debate? If we know the law already — why even bother with the intricacies of how the law is justified?
This is exactly the kind of Torah that serves as my refuge. Not the aggada (narrative story) that captures a human moment, like the one that Knesset Member Ruth Calderon famously taught before the assembled Israeli government — although of course she takes me along, I’m as rapt as anyone in the audience. It’s not even Reb Nachman’s mara shechora, “dark bitterness,” though my existential dread enjoys having a Jewish place to go.
No, it’s the most technical, abstruse, some might say boring, stretches of Torah that steer my soul back to solid ground.
The chapter I referenced in Pesachim goes on to discuss, using dicey rabbinic math, the probability that a mouse entered your house with a bit of chametz in its mouth after you cleaned it. Following the sugya (section of the Talmud) requires looking up multiple other passages in different tractates and following the dicey math there, then importing it back into the present deliberations.
On a dark day, this captivates my mind. I follow each move in the text, wondering at how it unfolds. I read it again; I still don’t feel like I’ve nailed it, so I go back a few more rounds. Why? Because on the daf, on the pages of the Talmud (and other pages of Torah, broadly construed), is where I meet the Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One.
The mundane, esoteric, sacred, picaresque, staggering details contain a map of the Divine mind. Torah is always more unruly, less orderly and neat, than I’d like it to be. It dwells on the particulars of human life, something I would rather avoid in favor of the rarified heights of philosophy. But there’s that too, in the Holy One’s inimitable manner of speaking.
Let me show you how it works. The top of Pesachim daf 9a starts with the first layer of rabbinic discussion, the Mishnah. It’s a wonderfully human Mishnah (Pesachim 1:2). It goes like this: “We are not concerned that perhaps a rat dragged leaven from house to house, or from place to place. Also from courtyard to courtyard and from city to city, because ein sof la-davar—there is no end to the matter.” Because there is no end to the matter. The rabbis are here with us, in the mess. We are not concerned. It’s going to be okay. You can only do what you can do.
But the Rabbis have questions. Wait a minute, they ask. But I am worried. What if you actually saw pizza rat going into your house? Wouldn’t you have to search the house again to make sure there was no chametz in it? Rava (a prominent sage) pipes up: Come on, if you literally saw a rat with a loaf of bread heading into your house, you cannot seriously think that you could just ignore it.
And now, we’re off to the races, talking about just how much uncertainty is enough to necessitate action, something which has to do with probability, not to mention philosophy. But the Talmud won’t let me drift off into abstractions and what-ifs. No, it insists on finding a test case: say, tithing — a big thing in the days of the Jerusalem Temple, which hasn’t existed for nearly two millennia, but remains very present in the rabbinic mind. These mental acrobatics are, to me, a form of mindfulness. But that is not the Torah’s only gift. Here, I am reminded, to my chagrin, that uncertainty and imperfection are core parts of the human condition.
Now a commentator named Abaye, a worthy opponent of Rava, steps into the fray. Hey, he says. You know the thing with the rat? Calm down. It’s only a problem on the actual fourteenth. Want to hear Rava’s response? “What, is the rat a prophetess who knows it’s the fourteenth?!” (The word “rat” in Hebrew is grammatically feminine, hence “prophetess.”)
But the Talmud is back to being worried. What if there were nine piles of matzah and one pile of chametz—then could you reasonably assume that the mouse took something off of the nine matzah piles? Now what if there were just two piles, making the probability fifty percent? What about a loaf of bread lodged in the rafters? What about a mouse and a rat? If there’s a snake in your house with a loaf of bread in its mouth, are you obligated to hire a snake charmer, which doesn’t come cheap? (This is in the Talmud, truly. You can’t make this stuff up!)
Want to know how the argument ends? In taku — an untranslatable word meaning, in colloquial Hebrew, a tie, in the Aramaic of the Talmud, roughly, “let it be.”
In other words, there is no answer. None, that is, other than Torah itself, and the process it creates in our minds. That process, the struggle to grasp the text and its manifold implications and meanings, that is my refuge.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Talmud Bavli, Pesachim, Sefaria
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Gemara, Rabbanit Leah Sarna