Masechet Chullin 19a-25b

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Smooth Knife
14 Jul 2011

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Chullin 19a-b: Contrasting ordinary ritual slaughter with Temple service

The Mishnah on today’s daf contrasts between two methods of ritual slaughter of birds – shechita (ordinary ritual slaughter) and melikah (slaughter performed as part of the Temple service). According to the Mishnah if shechita was performed by cutting the back of the neck, it is invalid, while if melikah was performed in that manner, it is valid; on the other hand if melikah was performed by cutting the front of the neck, it is invalid, while if shechita was performed in that manner, it is valid.

Sacrifices brought from fowl are not formally zevachim, a category limited to animals that are slaughtered in an ordinary fashion. Birds are prepared for sacrifice by means of melikah, where the kohen pierces the neck of the bird with his fingernail (see Vayikra 1:14-17 and 5:8-10). The Gemara in Masechet Zevachim (daf 64b) describes melikah as one of the most difficult of the services in the Temple, and explains what was involved.

Rav Zutra bar Tuvia quotes Rav as teaching that the kohen would hold the wings with two fingers and the legs with two fingers stretching out the bird’s neck, and the bird would be killed by means of the kohen‘s thumbnail.  According to the baraita, the bird’s body was held in such a way that it was outside the hand of the kohen, and – while holding the wings with two fingers and the legs with two fingers – the kohen would kill the bird with his thumbnail.

According to Rav Ovadia mi-Bartenura, as well as the Rambam, the kohen would hold the bird in his left hand according to one of the two opinions, and would perform melikah with the thumb of his right hand. This parallels cases of slaughter in the Temple, where both hands are used. The Shitah Mekubetzet quotes Tosafot as suggesting that the entire melikah service was done with the right hand (as depicted in the above illustrations). According to this approach we can easily understand why this service is considered to be the most difficult one, since the bird had to be held and killed with a single hand.

Chullin 20a-b: Must birds be ritually slaughtered?

As we learned on yesterday’s daf the laws of shechita – ordinary ritual slaughter – and melikah – the unique slaughter of birds as part of the Temple service, stand in contrast to one another. While shechita can only be performed on the front of the bird’s neck, melikah can only be done on the back of the bird’s neck. Nevertheless, on today’s daf, Rabbi Yirmiyah quotes Shmuel as teaching that there is one point of similarity between them. The area of the neck that is appropriate for shechita and melikah are identical.

While comparing and contrasting these two methods of ritual slaughter, the Gemara makes reference to the fact that whether or not shechita is a Biblical requirement is, itself, a matter of disagreement (as we learned on yesterday’s daf, the Torah is clear about the requirement of melikah – see Vayikra 1:14-17 and 5:8-10). The source for this disagreement appears later on in Masechet Chullin (daf 27b) where Rav Yehudah quotes Rabbi Yitzhak ben Pinchas as teaching that the passage that commands kisui ha-dam – requiring that the blood of a bird that was killed must be covered with dirt – should be understood to mean that the bird can be killed in any manner. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disagrees, arguing that the passage that teaches that animals must be killed “as you were commanded” (Devarim 12:21) refers specifically to the requirement that ritual slaughter involves the two simanim – the windpipe and the esophagus – where the majority of both must be cut for animals and the majority of one must be cut for birds.

Rashi points out that even according to the opinion that there is no Biblical requirement to perform shechita on birds, nevertheless a bird that simply dies or is bludgeoned to death will not be kosher. The only argument is whether the rules and regulations of shechita (see the five basic rules above, daf 4) apply to the slaughter of birds as well as animals. In any case, it is clear that at least on a Rabbinic level, all agree that shechita applies to fowl.

Chullin 21a-b: Determining “time of death”

There are a number of circumstances where it is clear that an animal (or a person) is dead, even though there still may be some spontaneous movement of the limbs of the animal. Thus, Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as saying that when someone’s neck is broken and the majority of the flesh in that area is torn, that person will already have the status of a dead body that ritually defiles the area where it is found. Although the Gemara points to a case where it appears that this status can be attained when the neck is broken even if the flesh remains intact – the story of Eli ha-Kohen who falls backwards and breaks his neck upon hearing that the Holy Ark was taken captive in a war with the Philistines (see I Shmuel 4:18) – it explains that this was due to Eli’s old age and heaviness.

In the course of this discussion, the Gemara quotes a Mishnah in Masechet Oholot (1:6) that if an animal’s head is cut off, then there is immediate ritual defilement; it is viewed like the tail of a salamander that continues to twitch even after it is removed from the body of the salamander.

After the limb of a living creature is separated from the body, the nerves of that limb continue to operate in an uncontrolled manner for a short time due to the continued functioning of the neurotransmitters that still send out signals to the limb. Although the muscles continue to flex in response to these neurological signals, this is not necessarily an indication of life.

In contemporary discussions about establishing a working definition of “time of death” and the possibility that “brain death” – a cessation of all recorded brain-stem activity – may be viewed as halakhic death, the Mishnah in Masechet Oholot that discusses the ramifications of cutting off one’s head serves as a key source from the Talmud, opening the possibility of harvesting organs for transplant purposes.

Chullin 22a-b: Bringing sacrifices from fowl

According to the Torah (Sefer Vayikra 1:14), the two types of birds that can be brought as sacrifices are torim and benei yonah – turtledoves and pigeons. The tor that is referred to is identified as Streptopelia turtur, while the yonah is identified as Columba livia domestica. These birds are consistently referred to differently, the former are called torim, while the latter are called benei yonah. This is understood by the Sages to mean that a tor is only qualified to be brought as a sacrifice when it is an adult bird, while the yonah can only be brought when it is young, before it reaches adulthood. According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, these two periods are mutually exclusive, and what would be an appropriate sacrifice in a pigeon would be inappropriate in a dove, and vice versa. The cut-off point between the two is just four or five days after hatching, when the bird’s body becomes covered with plumage – gold in the case of torim and yellow in the case of benei yonah.

The ruling of the Mishnah is that torim that are too small and benei yonah that have already reached adulthood cannot be brought as sacrifices and therefore performing melikah on them (see above, daf, or page 19, for a description of melikah) would not be effective in any way.

In explanation of the difference between the two, the Rambam in his Moreh Nevukhim (3:46) argues that the meat of the turtledove is better when it is more mature, while that of the pigeon is better when the bird is young. The Ramban in his Commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 1:14) offers another suggestion, pointing to the different nature of each of these birds. Adult turtledoves are loyal to their mate to the extent that if one’s mate dies, the other will not choose another partner. This represents the relationship that exists between the Jewish People and God. In contrast, pigeons are jealous creatures that separate and switch mates, even as they are happy and content in their early stages of development.

Chullin 23a-b: An animal that is no longer a lamb but is not yet a ram

On today’s daf, Rabbi Zeira raises the following question: If a man commits himself to bringing a burnt-offering from a ram (an adult) or a lamb (a younger animal), but, in fact, brings a palges – an “in-between” animal – what is the halacha?

The Gemara points out that according to Rabbi Yohanan it is clear that he can offer the palges together with the libations that are appropriate for the larger animal. He believes that a palges is a beriah bifnei atzmah – that it has a unique status and situation, as it is neither a keves nor an ayil – and that the passage o la-ayil “or for a ram” (see Bamidbar 15:11) should be understood as including a palges. The Tosafot Yom Tov explains that the word o – “or” – refers to something aside from the ram and it is as though the Torah had written “Thus shall it be done for each bullock, or for each palges or for each ram.”

The source for the word palges is found in Greek, where it refers to someone who is no longer a child, but has not yet gained the status of an adult. In our case it refers to an animal that is an “in-between” stage of development. One the one hand, it is more than a year old, so it is no longer a keves – a lamb. On the other hand it is not yet an ayil – a ram – a status that it does not obtain until it is in its second year. Rashi seems to extend this status to the animal during its thirteenth month; the Rambam appears to give it this status only on the last day of the animal’s thirteenth month; according to other rishonim, during the entire second year of the animal’s life it is considered a palges.

Chullin 24a-b: Is there mandatory retirement in the Temple?

The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that the things that disqualify kohanim do not disqualify levi’im; similarly, the things that disqualify Levi’im do not disqualify kohanim. This is explained by the baraita as follows:

These laws, however, are limited by our Gemara only to the Tabernacle in the desert, based on the passage in Sefer Bamidbar (4:47) that restricts the age limitation only to carrying the Tabernacle. The Gemara concludes that in Shilo as well as in the permanent Temple, these age restrictions did not apply.

According to Sefer Yehoshua (18:1), the first established resting place for the Tabernacle was Shilo, where it stood until the war with the Pelishtim during the time of Eli the High Priest, as described in Sefer Shmuel (I, Chapter 4). As the Mishnah explains (Zevachim 112b), this was a permanent structure made with a stone foundation and the Tabernacle coverings as a roof. Following the destruction of the Tabernacle in Shilo, its remains were erected in Nov, as we learn from the story during King Shaul’s reign (see I Shmuel 21:7), and later we find that King Solomon sacrificed at the great altar in Givon (see I Melakhim, or Kings 3:4).

By mentioning Shilo and the Temple, the Gemara appears to connect the end of age regulation for the Levi’im with the reality of a permanent structure that did not need to be carried. During those times when the aron was moved to place to place, i.e. Nov and Givon, however, the age restrictions were again in force. The Sifrei disagrees with this approach, and suggests that from the time that they entered Israel, the age restrictions were removed. The Rambam rules like this Sifrei when he writes that the age restrictions did not apply for all generations.

Chullin 25a-b: A true Golem

The Mishnah on today’s daf continues the comparisons and contrasts between parallel situations in Jewish law. Thus we learn that a wooden utensil that is still in its golem state can become ritually defiled, even as simple wood slats cannot become defiled; metal, on the other hand cannot become ritually defiled in its golem state, while a simple piece of metal – e.g. a pin – is considered important enough to become ritually defiled.

The word golem refers to something that remains in an unformed state. The term appears as early as Sefer Tehillim (139:16), where it is used to describe the first development of a baby in utero, and it was borrowed by the Sages to refer to someone who is lacking in intelligence and proper conduct. This stands in contrast with the chacham – the one who possesses intelligence (see Avot 5:7). The Rambam, in his Commentary to the Mishnah in both Pirkei Avot and here in our Mishnah, teaches that the term golem to someone or something whose form exists but has not been properly “finished.”

Ritual defilement applies only to utensils; objects that are in a plain state are not considered to be sufficiently important to be able to become ritually defiled. Wooden objects are considered to be utensils as soon as they have a beit kibbul – a place that can hold something (like a spoon) – even if the utensil has not been “finished” with its final decorations, etc.; since it can be used for its purpose, it is considered a utensil. In contrast, plain wooden slats have not reached a level of use that would give them this status. With regard to metal, a plain slab of metal would not be considered significant enough to become ritually defiled; the Mishnah teaches that a metal object that is plain, but serves a purpose, e.g. as a pin or a knife, would be considered a utensil to become tamei.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.