“We must accept this conclusion even though it is unusual.”
Intention and attention are the ying and yang of the Talmud. The theme of the dual concept continues to wind itself through today’s Daf Yomi reading, with emphasis on the intention behind mistakes. We are presented with two differing perspectives on such errors, with one Rabbi taking the “it’s just spilled milk” approach, while the other insists that one must account for his actions, regardless of whether they occur unwittingly. The Gemara points out that this is the “subject of an amoraic dispute.”
As discussed in yesterday’s Daf Yomi portion, if one unwittingly slaughters an unfit Paschal lamb on Shabbat, he is liable to bring a sin-offering, because he should have known better and taken the time to do the job properly. In essence, he has overridden Shabbat when the animal would not meet quality standards for a Paschal lamb. Despite the lack of intentionality, Rabbi Eliezer would find this person culpable. Rabbi Yehoshua who represents the lenient point of view would exempt him.
We are presented with a conundrum: if someone intentionally “uproots” an animal that is designated for a Paschal offering and the animal is used for an unintended offering, does it matter if the animal is fit or not? The intention is not to use the animal for its slated purpose, and hence, the overriding of Shabbat would not be allowed. Rabbi Avin settles the matter by stating that intention matters.
Rabbi Eliezer, who often takes the most conservative approach, is not buying attempts to explain away the difference between mistakes and intentional acts. For him, “there is no difference” and “someone who erred while intending to perform a mitzva is liable to bring a sin-offering, even if he made a reasonable mistake.” For the Rabbi, the debate concerning erroneously sacrificing an offering on Shabbat for a purpose other than the Paschal lamb is not relevant. Actions have consequences, regardless of intent.
But can we just decide if someone is liable for an accidental act? Rabbi Yehoshua is not going to let the debate rest. He added a new flavor to the protracted discussion; in addition to considering if someone slaughtered a Paschal lamb for a different purpose which is prohibited on Shabbat, what if they actually changed the purpose to something that is permitted, such as an animal that was fit for the Paschal offering, but not originally designated as such? The Rabbis continue to disagree on responsibility for the action.
We learned in previous readings that timing is a factor in determining culpability. One can only override Shabbat if timing is of the essence – such as sacrificing the Paschal lamb on Passover eve or conducting a bris on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life. The story of the Rabbi who confuses the timing required to circumcise two babies returns from an earlier reading. One baby is due to be circumcised on Shabbat and one is not. What happens when he confuses the two? Is he liable because he performed prohibited labor on Shabbat, when there was no obligation to do so? Rabbi Yehoshua once again takes a less stringent view in this case, because the intention to perform a mitzvah is what counts, rather than the mixed-up days.
Where does all this protracted discussion of babies and paschal lambs lead us? We are back to considering intention, because the act of sacrificing the Paschal lamb is not just about the act itself, but the awareness of the meaning of the act. But performing an act without one’s full attention becomes a perfunctory duty and misses the point of doing something that matters, really matters, with all one’s presence of being.
I write this as New York City is blanketed with snow, which has a way of quieting a noisy city and bringing everything for just a short while to a muffled standstill. It is silence that demands one’s complete attention. Watching the snow fall from the sky is a like purification ritual, that allows for the discovery of the stillness within. And for a brief moment, it feels as though I can reach my arms around the entire city and make it all mine.