Pesachim 13: Time for a Joke

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In describing our Talmudic Sages, one would not put a sense of humour at the top of the list—maybe not even at the bottom. Yet that would be unfair. The Gemara (Shabbat 30b) notes that Rabba would open every shiur with a joke, bringing a smile to the face of his colleagues. Like Jews throughout the generations, our Talmudic rabbis were not averse to telling jokes, though their style was somewhat different than ours. Their jokes tended to be sharp one-liners that were often understandable only to the educated. 

We come across two “jokes” (and please forgive me if you don’t find them funny) a few pages apart in the first chapter of masechet Pesachim. 

The mitzvah of bedikat chametz takes time. One must search each room of the house, ensuring no chametz is left behind. But one can search only one room at a time. And while one is searching the second room, there is little to stop a rodent from taking chametz back to the “searched” room. And if one person should own two houses, the problem is compounded. Cognizant of this endless loop, the Mishna (Pesachim 9a) rules that we need not be concerned that a chulda, a weasel, drag chametz from “house to house or from place to place". Not because it may not happen, but because if we were to worry about that, “ein ledavar sof”, there would be no end to how much and how often we would need to check for chametz.

The halacha has never demanded 100% certainty—especially in matters pertaining to food. Such legal principles as, “the majority of people who slaughter are expert”, “something that separates, separates from the majority”, and “chazaka”, a presumptive assumption that the status quo remains, allow one to eat food that may, in actual fact, be non-kosher. Moreover, in a rather startling ruling, if one has before him three pieces of meat, two of which are kosher and one is not—but one cannot tell which is which—all agree that one is allowed to eat two of the three pieces. This, despite the probability of eating non-kosher meat being 66.67%. 

Upping the startling factor many fold, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 109) quotes the view that, provided one does not eat them at the same time, one can eat all three pieces, guaranteeing that one will consume non-kosher meat. Since each individual piece of meat is likely kosher, one may eat them one piece at a time. 

It should thus come as no surprise that our Sages told us not to worry about animals leaving chametz in a place one has recently checked. Yet we all know that when it comes to chametz, the laws are a bit stricter. And the Gemara notes that the following Mishna does seem to take a stricter move. “What chametz is left over should be hidden away, so one won’t need another bedikah” (Pesachim 10b). While the Mishna does not say so directly, the implication is that if we do not hide the chametz, the weasel will take it to a room checked prior. In other words, we do need to fear that while we are checking one room, the chulda is taking some chametz back to the first room. Presumably, one would need bedikah in each room to be done simultaneously, something that may not be realistic. 

Abaye explains that there is no contradiction between these two laws—it is just a matter of timing. On the 13th of Nissan, “when there is chametz all over the house”, there is no fear that the chulda will take bread crumbs and hide them, necessitating a second search. After all, the chulda can get chametz whenever and wherever it wants. However, on the 14th of Nissan, with houses cleaned and very little chametz around, we are afraid that the chulda will hide some chametz for later use, fearing they will be unable to find crumbs later on. Thus, the homeowners must be careful to hide any chametz, lest a chulda get it and do the hiding for them. 

Rava was not impressed. “And is chulda a prophet?” he exclaimed. Does the chulda really know if it is the 13th or 14th of Nissan and hide food accordingly? Left unstated is the fact Chulda was, in fact, a prophet, one of the seven women who attained this lofty status[1]. She was a contemporary of Yirmiyahu and it was her prophecy that led to a great religious revival under Yoshiyahu. Chulda may have been a prophet, but not any chulda can be a prophet.

Our second “joke” is in reference to biur chametz, the destruction of chametz. According to Torah law, chametz may be eaten until noon on erev Pesach. Yet fearing a cloudy day, and with the sun the only reliable method to tell time, our Sages forbade the consumption of chametz two hours prior. Once the fifth hour of the day arises, one must burn or otherwise dispose of one’s chametz. When erev Pesach falls on Shabbat—as it will this upcoming Pesach—getting rid of our chametz presents a challenge. 

Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda, the man of Bartota, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua rules that one leaves aside only enough chametz as will be needed for two meals on Shabbat (Pesachim 13a). All the rest must be destroyed by the fifth hour on Friday, including any trumah that might be in one’s possession. While there is a general prohibition to destroy trumah, sanctified food to be eaten only by kohanim in a state of purity, Friday erev Pesach is an exception. His collegues demurred, arguing that one should hold off destroying any trumah until the last possible moment, i.e., Shabbat morning. Perhaps we might find some kohanim to eat the food on Shabbat! Rabbi Elazar responded that, “they already checked and did not find”, i.e., we know there are no kohanim nearby who might meander in on Shabbat. To this, "they sadi to him" perhaps there are unknown kohanim waiting just outside the city walls who might just show up on Shabbat morning. Best not to burn the trumah on Friday. 

Rabbi Elazar, clearly unimpressed with such reasoning, responded by questioning why "they" allowed the burning on the Friday of chametz trumah whose status of purity was unknown. With the trumah possibly impure and hence forbidden to be eaten, his colleagues agreed it should be destroyed on the Friday. Unlike trumah that is tahor, pure and edible, nothing is to be gained by waiting until Shabbat to destroy it. But, queried Rabbi Elazar, perhaps Eliyahu Hanavi might come and declare the trumah is pure, allowing it to be eaten! How then can you allow the burning of such doubtful trumah on Friday? What if Eliyahu comes later that day? We will have destroyed the chametz for no reason!

His colleagues took his retort quite seriously[2], noting that “a promise has been made to the Jewish people that Eliyahu will come neither on a Friday nor on the eve of a Festival, due to the burden”. As Rashi explains, people are very busy preparing for Shabbat on Fridays. Who has time to greet the Mashiach on a Friday? Thus, we can safely burn the doubtful trumah, but dare not burn trumah that is fit to be eaten. 

Apparently concerned some might take this distinction seriously, and in fact not burn trumah on Friday erev Pesach, the Gemara continues. “They did not move from there until the Sages voted, and they established the halacha in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda, the man of Bartota, who said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua”. All is to be burned on Friday. We need not “worry” that some kohanim or even Eliyahu Hanavi might just show up, preventing us from burning the chametz at the proper time.
 

[1] The others being Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chanah, Esther and Avigail. 

[2] If—and we have no way of knowing—Rabbi Elazar actually agrees with the view that Eliyahu will not come on a Friday, a view quoted elsewhere in the Talmud (Eiruvin 43b), then his retort is all the more sarcastic. Just as we are not going to keep the chametz of doubtful trumah in case Eliyahu might come, which we know he can’t, there is no reason to keep the chametz trumah because kohanim might show up. 

On the other hand, perhaps Eliyahu can come on erev Pesach. After all, what better time for Eliyahu to come than erev Pesach? Don’t we all open the door for him, hoping he might just show up at the seder? Do we not say, "In Nissan we were redeemed and in Nissan we will be redeemed?" (Rosh Hashanah 11a). We can hope Eliyhau will come, but it’s not something with which the halacha can concern itself. We must burn the chametz on Friday.