The Talmud on the conflict between religion and the state (Daf Yomi Pesachim 6)

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“It shall not be found.”

Today’s Daf Yomi had me considering what it means to be an American Jew, and there is no better time to do so than in the tryptophan-induced haze following a Thanksgiving turkey dinner (for one!). Today’s discussion of the obligations to the tax man when one’s share consists of an offering from the animal flock gets at the heart of potential conflicts between obligations owed to one’s religion and the state.

What is the obligation to the priest  who expects the offering of a first-born male animal if it is paid to the government as a form of tax? This is a dilemma that requires the expert judgement of Rava, who considers the ultimate owner of the first-born male animal that comprises the tax payment. The discussion of ownership is critical to determining obligations to the priests. There is an inherent conflict in this scenario between one’s duty to the government and religious obligations.

The Gemara reminds us that the cleanest solution to the dilemma is to pay the required taxes with currency rather than with what might be one’s prized animal. But this might not always be possible. The tax collector might demand payment with an animal, or the citizen might not have the necessary cash on-hand. Rava ruled that in this case the animal that is handed over to the tax authorities is exempt from the requirement to offer the first-born male to the priests because the government is now the rightful owner. For some reason, a comparison is made with dough that is offered as a tax payment, which is not exempt from the priestly contribution. We are told that this is because “an animal generates publicity” because its birth is public and easily discoverable by the tax collectors, while dough can be easily hidden away.

This discussion of religious versus civic duty is a reminder in my tryptophan stupor of our dual duties to our heritage and our state. I have Jewish American friends who do not celebrate Thanksgiving because it is not a Jewish holiday. I myself refused to celebrate it for many years when I was younger for a very different reason. When I was in school, we were taught about the brave settlers who through grit and perseverance colonized America after landing near Plymouth Rock in 1620. But the story failed to consider the perspective of Native Americans, some of whom consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning for everything they lost.

For me the conflict was not between religion and country, but between celebration and pain. Over time, I gave into the holiday in order to be with my family, but with a conscious effort to remember that it is a time of grief for so many. We are a complicated country, with a difficult history. Along with the pain, is the commemoration of American values that are supposed to bring us together as one nation. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. He had hopes that a national day of thankfulness would bring the deeply divided North and South together.

I have always considered myself both American and Jewish, and because I live a secular life, have never experienced a conflict between the two. I pay my taxes and contribute to a synagogue. But not everyone in the world has the protection of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. What I celebrate on Thanksgiving — despite the pain if carries of the memories of past atrocities — is the freedom inherent in the First Amendment that protects my right to be religious or secular or nothing at all.

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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