Living in the river of uncertainty (Daf Yomi Pesachim 9)

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“And is it so that an uncertainty does not override a certainty.”

The last few days of readings inspired me to research the marten, which is a type of weasel I have never encountered in my life. I learned that the marten is shy, nocturnal, and has a coat of soft brown fur.  It has been on the verge of extinction due to demand for its fur. The marten primarily eats fruit, berries, rodents and small birds. There is a myth that it kills babies based on mixed-up details involving a story about a fox in England. The marten gets a very bad rap in the Talmud, which describes an animal that goes from house to house feeding on bread and consuming the remains of stillborn babies.

The marten in today’s Daf Yomi is a shrewd animal that appears right before Passover in order to consume the leaven ahead of the annual search. He seems to be ensconced in a game of “find the bread” as he drags morsels from house to house in an effort to confound the residences into declaring that the search is complete. The Mishna says that regardless of these intelligent creatures that appear to be winning the game, one can declare that the search is done after just one round because otherwise, there would be “no end to the matter, and it would be impossible to rely on any search for leaven.” 

In a juxtaposition of oddities that is common in the Talmud, we are told that a house that belongs to a non-Jew may be assumed to be impure because stillborn babies are buried there. The impurity is imparted to the residents due to contact with a corpse. The resident would have had to live in the house for forty days for impurity to be considered relevant, because a fetus is not considered a stillborn until that time. But here is where the sneaky marten comes in. If he is seen near the property, there is a presumption that he would consume the stillborn because “martens eat whatever they find.”For this reason, the property is freed from the sigma of impurity emanating from a corpse. We are told that the same applies to leaven. And accordingly, if one saw a marten take a slice of bread, the presumption is that he ate it entirely, and the search can be declared complete.

Rava introduces the concept of uncertainty into the discussion of the habits of the marten. He says that the case of the stillborn is not comparable to that of the presence of leaven. We may not have needed the great Rabbi to tell us that, because it is an odd leap of imagination between the two. He introduces complexity into the matter, however, by saying that one can assume the marten ate the stillborn, while even if one saw the animal with a slice of bread between its paws, there can be no certainty that he actually consumed it. He describes this as a conflict ‘between an uncertainty whether or not the marten ate the bread, and a certainty that the bread was there. The principle is that an uncertainty does not override a certainty.”

We have all been in situations where we cannot remember if we did something, such as turning off an iron before heading out the door. There is the sinking feeling after we leave our home that the iron will burn through the ironing board and set the house on fire. So, we turn back to check in order to be extra certain, even though in the back of our mind we know we turned the iron off. But the feeling of uncertainty is overwhelming, and even if we know we will be very late, we head back home. The iron is of course turned off and the cats are sleeping on the edge of the sofa in the early morning streaming sunlight unconcerned about any imagined danger.

The feeling of uncertainty these days can be overwhelming. There is a constant feeling of anxiety associated with living one’s life against the backdrop of a pandemic. The marten seems like a benign enough animal that may even do some good as it eats its typical diet of rats and mice. But the image of the marten in today’s reading is one that lives in the shadows and consumes the remains of discarded stillborns. The uncertainly comes from a world that has mostly put itself on pause as we wait and wait for a vaccine, and the numbers of sick and dying steadily increase. The trajectory of the curve is terrifying and nerve-wracking as we live in the river of uncertainty.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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