The moment is now (Daf Yomi Pesachim 16)

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“No resolution is found for this contradiction, and the Gemara concludes that it is indeed difficult.”

The difficulty factor is very high in today’s Daf Yomi, and if I thought the struggle was mostly behind me when I completed Tractate Eruvin, the last few days have proven me wrong. Days and days of discussion about ritual impurity is almost more than I can take as the numbers of sick and dying in the United States from the coronavirus, and all the pain and suffering associated with businesses shutting down, continue to trend upwards. There is so much uncertainly in what are living through, which is in essence, what today’s Daf Yomi is about. And there is a lesson deep within the difficult text about living with uncertainty.

The uncertainty in today’s discussion concerns how to best handle liquid of uncertain origin. If it is unclear if the liquid has become ritually impure through contact with another substance, we are told that we should not give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is impure. But we are also told that this assumption of impurity is specific to liquids. In regard to rendering other items impure, if there is doubt, no second (or third) degree is assumed. We are told that there is some leniency here because “liquids transmit impurity by rabbinic law.”

But of course, there is always a difference of opinion in the Talmud, and if you do not like what one Rabbi says, you can look to another. While Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Elazar are willing to be lenient in regard to the uncertainly of liquid transmission, Rabbi Yehuda is not. He said that if there is uncertainty involving liquid transmission of impurity, then a state of impurity should be assumed. He said that “with regard to these liquids, the item is impure in all cases, even in terms of transmitting impurity to other items, as he maintains that the impurity of liquids is by Torah law.”

As we keep being told through all the readings, there is room to be lenient with rabbinic law, which is essentially designed to put guardrails around Torah law. But there is no such leniency when it comes to Torah law. When the uncertainty exists in regard to Torah law, there is no room for any doubt and in the case of potential contamination by a liquid, the impacted item is assumed to be impure. But if you do not like that solution, then listen to Rabbi Elazar who said that in fact according to Torah law, there is no impurity associated with liquids.

Shmuel parses the issue a bit further and says that although liquids cannot impart impurity according to Torah law, they can certainly become impure themselves. Rabbi Elazar holds firm his position that there is no such impurity according to Torah law. He quotes Rav who is often on the other side of a debate with Shmuel. The voice of the Gemara sums up how I am feeling as I make my way through this difficult text: “it is indeed difficult to understand the baraita according to Rav.”

In the spirit of finding just one thing each day that is meaningful, what resonated with me today is the lengths the Rabbis went to in order to develop a system for explaining uncertainty. The nuances that they parse seem to me to be an effort to make sense of their world. In my own way, I do the same in an attempt to understand the trajectory of the coronavirus. I track the positivity rates in New York City each day and study the charts on the city’s COVID-19 website. My heart sinks as I watch the percentage of positivity rate go up and up, and the cases increase. I read every article I can find online about how the vaccines that are promised to be on their way will be distributed to the states. There is so much uncertainty in the world today, and it feels so much more complicated than determining the purity of food or liquid.

Just as the Rabbis analyzed all the specifics of how to arrive at some certainty involving purity, I am trying to figure out how to live with the uncertainty all around us. You know that moment when you try to figure something out, but give up because there is so much that is unknowable? So, you throw up your hands and say, “whatever will be will be.” That moment is now.

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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