The tale of the priest’s daughter (Daf Yomi Pesachim 75)

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“In fire she shall be burned.”

We are presented with a disturbing discussion in today’s Daf Yomi on the execution of a priest’s daughter who is accused of adultery. This is a death through the forcing of molten lead down a young woman’s throat. I do not believe that we should lessen the severity of this difficult text through the act of rationalization and a shrugging of the shoulders. Let’s not say that it was a long time ago, the Rabbis lived in a different society, expectations were different.

It is a cruel act no matter the time or place or circumstance. And what happened to the other party to this alleged crime? What type of due process did this young woman have? Was there a trial to determine her alleged guilt? And was the punishment commensurate with the crime? This horrific image is placed within the context of a roasting lamb, as if the comparison is not potent enough. Was there as much care taken in protecting the young woman from an unjust punishment as there was in selecting and preparing the Paschal lamb?

The punishment is especially severe because the daughter who allegedly profanes herself, brings dishonor on her father, who as a priest is held to high standards. We are told that “if she profanes herself through adultery, she profanes her father; in fire she shall be burned.”  Rav Mattana tries to make the circumstance of a horrible death a bit more palatable by saying that the priest’s daughter would not “literally burn in fire; rather, they would prepare for her a molten bar of lead.” As if that is the kinder option for the poor woman! We are told that “they would execute her by pouring molten lead down her throat.” This horrible image will certainly appear in one of my restless dreams.

The Gemara suggests that perhaps, perhaps, we are not really talking about the burning of a body, but rather of a soul. A story is told of the sons of Aaron whose souls were burned but their bodies remained, and even their clothes were left intact. But Rav Nahman speaks of a real-body death, that he says should be completed with kindness. Does the saying “this is harder on me than it is on you” reverberate from anyone else’s childhood? Actually, there is no such thing as kind execution and death is death.

And if we are really talking about a spiritual death that somehow saves the body from destruction, even after molten lead is swallowed, what does it mean to die a spiritual death? This young woman might have been living what felt like a spiritual death if she was married off at a young age to a strange man with whom she had no affinity. The priestly families married their offspring to each other in order to preserve and strengthen their dynasties.

Perhaps this young woman was married to a man who was cruel in some way, and her life felt empty. And she met someone who she could talk to, who understood her, and with whom she could share her dreams. There might have been nothing more than two people coming together to find solace in each other’s company and some respite from a difficult life.

Or maybe not; perhaps this was a steamy sexual affair between the priest’s daughter and a traveling perfume salesman. Or maybe there was no one else except for her strong spirit that was not afraid to speak out freely and boldly. And there is the symbolism of pouring molten lead down her throat. Whether we are talking about a physical or spiritual death, she has been silenced and sacrificed.

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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 https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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