“If you cut off its head, will it not die?”
The last few Daf Yomi portions have not been for the faint of heart. This week has taken us from a discussion on bloodletting to circumcision and today, we discuss both circumcision and leprosy. The discussion on circumcision includes the cutting away of shreds of skin and sucking blood from the wound (in an attempt to close it off and prevent infection.) We are told that a mohel who does not perform this last part of the ceremony is neglectful and should be removed from the job.
The Torah prohibits the removal of the bright white spots of leprosy. We are faced with a dilemma in today’s Daf: what if the baby who is scheduled for a circumcision has the snowy spot of leprosy on his foreskin? The ceremony is time-bound and must be performed on the eighth day, and even on Shabbat. Rabbi Yoshiya says that the circumcision can proceed when there is evidence of leprosy. Rabbi Yonatan applies a fortiori logic and says that if circumcision can override Shabbat which is a more stringent standard than the leprosy prohibition, then by extension it is also permissible for circumcision to override leprosy.
The consideration of intention, which has been present throughout this Daf Yomi cycle, returns with a new twist. We are told when a circumcision of a baby with leprosy is considered, it is permissible to carry out the rite because the intention is to fulfil the mitzva of circumcision which is a positive one, rather than to abide by the prohibition against cutting away leprosy, which is a negative mitzva. We are told that the “removal of leprous skin is an unintentional act” and “one does not intend to cut the symptom of leprosy; he intended to circumcise the baby.” And although the preference is to abide by both positive and negative mitzvas, when it is not possible to do so, the positive mitzva overrides the negative one.
But it is more complicated than that. Rava quotes an opinion from Rabbi Yehuda who said that if an unintentional act results in an inevitable consequence, then its outcome cannot be deemed unintentional. The Rabbi reminds us: “cut off its head and will it not die.” In other words, even if we do not intend to kill a chicken. if we cut off its head it is inevitable that it will die, and we are held accountable for the loss of life. However, the Talmud always finds workarounds and simple edicts rarely stand without further qualification. One can do something to indirectly remove leprosy such as the painful act of tying a thick rope around one’s foot and placing a rod on his shoulder. We are told that “if the bright white spot is thereby removed, it is removed.”
Today’s text provides an important perspective on intention and unintended consequences. We have all been there – we have the right intentions in our head but for whatever reason things do not turn out as planned. Maybe we were not thoughtful enough in how we expressed ourselves and inadvertently caused someone pain. If you are like me, you sometimes do something in a hurry and one thing after another goes wrong and you are left with an outright mess. Intention counts, but our actions regardless of intention, have consequences and we need to clean up after ourselves and make amends even when our intentions are pure.