The toy industry has come a long way since Talmudic times. Perhaps the most popular "toy" during the Talmudic era was that of a chicken’s head. It was the need for the chicken’s head—I’m not quite sure how the game was played—that serves as the background to one of most famous and important principles of the laws of Shabbat, namely, that of p’seik reisha.
When a kosher animal gives birth to a bechor, a firstborn male, there is an inherent conflict of interest that arises. The Torah instructs that one is to give the animal—potentially worth thousands of dollars—to the kohen, who then offers it as a korban. Furthermore, the owner must watch over this animal for a period of between 30 days and three months, during which time he may not work the animal or shear any of its wool.
It is highly unlikely that one would give repeat business to a supposedly kosher butcher who sold you non-kosher meat, or to one who misled you regarding a particular product. But what about a butcher who tells you that, while he does not keep kosher himself, he only sells kosher meat? Or the butcher who you know keeps strictly kosher in some areas but not in others? And when, if and under what conditions should we give a cheat a second chance?
In our last post, we discussed the need to have an expert examine a bechor in order to declare that it has a mum, thus allowing its consumption and use by all. Even if the mum was most obvious, nonetheless the halacha still demanded an expert's opinion, fearful that the potential monetary gain would lead one to declare the not-obvious defect to be an obvious one.
A rabbi, dayan, shochet, doctor, and matir bechorot—these are some of the licensed functionaries needed to fully run a Jewish community. While we all recognize the need for the first four on the list, a matir bechorot is a remnant of a bygone era, when many were farmers and the Temple stood in Jerusalem.
Sometimes the most obscure of arguments can teach the greatest of lessons. That Rabbi Eliezer’s “proofs” from heaven were rejected because “Torah is not in heaven” is relatively well known (Bava Metzia 59b). Less well known is that this powerful story is the result of a dispute regarding the purity of an oven, “the oven of Achnai”, that was broken and put back together. This debate took place years after the Temple had been destroyed, rendering the entire debate totally irrelevant—at least from a practical point of view.
It is not uncommon to hear people define a mitzvah as a “good deed”. And there is little doubt that many mitzvot are, in fact, very good deeds. Yet as the Hebrew word indicates, a mitzvah means “a command”. Yet like all translations, the word “command” does not quite capture the definition of a mitzvah. Whereas a command implies something we must do, there are many mitzvot that are obligatory only if we find ourselves in a given situation.
Amongst the many wonderful opportunities and challenges wrought by the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is that of running our own State. No longer need Judaism be truncated, focusing on the ritual and individualist aspects of religion. Rather, for the first time in close to 2,000 years issues with which every other nation must deal with have suddenly become issues that the Jewish people can and must grapple with.
The privileges and obligations of the firstborn are a major theme of Pesach. Most famously, the proximate cause of the Exodus was makat bechorot, the death of the firstborn Egyptians. Pesach gets its name because G-d pasach, passed over, our homes as He smote the Egyptians. It is in appreciation and recognition of being saved from the fate of their Egyptian counterparts that the custom of ta’anit bechorim, the fast of the firstborn, developed.