Living through compassion (Daf Yomi Pesachim 24)

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“It shall burnt with fire.” 

There is something both satisfying and purifying to watch a fire consume unwanted stuff. If I lived somewhere out in the country where I had a decent property, I would build a large pyre of discarded items and watch them burn in order to free myself of so many unwanted things. It would be nice if we could also pile all the virus in the world into the fire pit and watch it burn. Unfortunately, I live in a small apartment without a yard of my own and am relegated to symbolic burning of candles.

The Daf Yomi told us over the last few days that leftover leaven should be burned with fire at the sixth hour on Passover eve. We also learned that there are other methods for discarding leaven crumbs, like throwing them to the wind. Today we are told that if something is prohibited in the Torah, it should be disposed of through burning, although as usual, there is a qualification. A quotation is offered from Leviticus which suggests that only that which is “disqualified in the sacred place is disposed of with burning, but all other prohibited items in the Torah need not be disposed of with burning.”Presumably, all other items can be disposed of by throwing them to the wind or walking to the nearest Housing Works.

This is the Talmud. There is always another interpretation and another opinion. Rabbi Shimon offers an interpretation that the passage from Leviticus means that one must burn a disqualified sin-offering in the temple. This leads to the perspective that any disqualified offering must be gotten rid of in the sacred place, and by extension, burned. This would include any leftovers associated with a consecrated offering or bread that “remains until the morning.” We are also told what is readily apparent; items that are scheduled to be burned cannot be eaten, although the text turns on itself and says that there is no need to state the obvious. By now we all know that not only can these leftovers not be eaten, but one can derive no benefit from them.

If one even thinks about consuming the disqualified items in the temple, he is liable to be flogged, even if he is hungry and desperate for some nourishment. Perhaps the priests, out of a sense of compassion, would quietly open the back door of the temple and provide the hungry with scraps of leftovers. Allowing the fire to consume everything might be a way of demonstrating that no one can benefit from discarded food, but it appears to be a waste of sustenance.

Today’s Daf Yomi is rather tough in its treatment of punishment. There is a lot of flogging going on and we are provided with a litany of items, primarily derived from reference to creeping animals and insects, that would lead to multiple floggings if consumed. This includes a small water creature which the Koren Talmud says one Rabbi interpreted as a snail. So, no escargot or you will be punished with four sets of lashes. Two of the lashes are based on the prohibition cited from Leviticus against eating “any swarming thing that swarms.” The third and fourth prohibition are based on Leviticus citations prohibiting the eating of anything that lacks fins or scales, which rules out all shellfish.

If you are dumb enough to take someone up on their dare to eat an ant, I would suggest you just don’t do it, or you will be rewarded with five sets of lashes. The consumption of a hornet, in addition to a trip to the doctor to treat a swollen tongue, would result in six lashes, which include the four Leviticus prohibitions, plus a fifth that was applied to the ant, and a sixth from Deuteronomy indicating that “all flying insects are impure to you.”

I am not sure what this all adds up to, except for the image of a burning fire destroying the remainders of the virus all around the world. And the importance of finding compassion among all the death and dying. These are difficult times. Compassion does not need to encompass grand gestures. It can be small ones, like overlooking a co-worker’s children who are bombing a conference call or taking a moment to ask the barista at the local coffee shop how she is holding up or sending holiday cookies to someone who is isolated during the lock-down or feeding a hungry street cat. This can include opening a door for someone who has their hands full, or simply smiling with your eyes to someone who you pass on your morning walk. We are in for several difficult months before the miraculous vaccine is disseminated widely enough to start having an impact. In the meanwhile, living through compassion can help get us through this difficult time. And that includes compassion for oneself.

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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