Masechet Chullin 5a-11b

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Smooth Knife
30 Jun 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 5a-b: Identifying Rabban Gamliel and his court

As we learned above (see daf, or page 3) Abayye understands the Mishnah as teaching that shehitah – ritual slaughter – performed by a Kuti is valid. According to him, the Mishnah follows the opinion that accepted the conversion of the Kutim, even though they did not keep all of the mitzvot that were not clearly stated in the Torah. Since shechita was one of the commandments that they did accept, they can be relied upon.

On today’s daf we learn that Rabban Gamliel and his court voted about the trustworthiness of the Kutim and decided that shechita performed by a Kuti is forbidden.

Who were “Rabban Gamliel and his court”?

There were three separate leaders during the Rabbinic period who were known as “Rabban Gamliel.”

  1. Rabban Gamliel the Elder was the grandson of Hillel the Elder. He was the nasi during the Temple period.
  2. Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh headed the academy in Yavneh after the passing of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. His contemporaries were Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
  3. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s eldest son was also known as Rabban Gamliel.

We have a good deal of information about Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh in the Mishnah, Gemara and Midrashim, but few of the teachings of Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi survived (some appear in Masechet Avot). From the little that remains, it appears that he largely carried on the legacy of his father. He probably held the position of nasi only a short time.

The rishonim differ regarding the identity of the Rabban Gamliel of our Gemara, whether it was Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh or the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rashi believes that it was the latter, perhaps because he thinks it unlikely that the Mishnah, which was edited and prepared by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, would leave a clear impression that Kutim were reliable if Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s grandfather, had already ruled otherwise. Nevertheless, Tosafot and the Ramban argue that it was the court of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh which made this ruling.

Chullin 6a-b: Learning from “a certain old man”

As we learned on yesterday’s daf although Abayye understands the Mishnah as teaching that shechita – ritual slaughter – performed by a Kuti is valid, nevertheless
Rabban Gamliel and his court voted about the trustworthiness of the Kutim and decided that shechita performed by a Kuti is forbidden.

The Gemara on today’s daf explains that this decision was made after an interaction with ha-hu saba – “a certain old man.” The Gemara relates:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was sent by Rabbi Meir to fetch some wine from among the Kutim. He was met by a certain old man who said to him, “Put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite” (Mishlei 23:2). Whereupon Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar returned and reported the matter to Rabbi Meir who thereupon proscribed them. Why? – Rabbi Nahman ben Yitzhak explained: Because they found a figure of a dove on the top of Mount Gerizim and they worshipped it.

We find many stories in the Talmud where ha-hu saba – “a certain old man” – plays a prominent role. Tosafot bring an opinion that suggests that this must refer to Eliyahu ha-Navi, although they point out that this is certainly not the case in every situation where he appears. The reason that he is identified as such probably stems from the fact that ha-hu saba‘s statements are accepted by those to whom he spoke, indicating that he must have been someone who they held in great esteem.

The story told by the Gemara most likely took place after the Bar Kochba revolt was put down, when a pagan temple was built on Mount Gerizim. Although not all of the Kutim became idol worshippers, there was a significant minority that was drawn to idolatry. The figure of the dove that is mentioned is most likely one of the symbols of the goddess Aphrodite, as such forms have been found in various places in Israel. Due to pressures from the foreign government as well as internal issues, it appears that most of the Kutim assimilated into pagan culture, which led to the Sages’ decision regarding their status.

Chullin 7a-b: Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair and his donkey

The Gemara mentions in passing that we can be certain that God would not allow a tzaddik – a righteous person – to sin by eating forbidden foods, since He even prevents the animals of such people from doing so. In explanation of this statement, the Gemara relates the following story:

Once, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to redeem captives, and came to the river Ginnai. ‘O Ginnai,’ said he, ‘divide thy waters for me, that I may pass through thee.’ It replied, ‘Thou art about to do the will of thy Maker; I, too, am doing the will of my Maker. Thou mayest or mayest not accomplish thy purpose; I am sure of accomplishing mine.’ He said: ‘If thou wilt not divide thyself, I will decree that no waters ever pass through thee.’ It, thereupon, divided itself for him.

There was also present a certain man who was carrying wheat for the Passover, and so Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair once again addressed the river: ‘Divide thyself for this man, too, for he is engaged in a religious duty.’ It, thereupon, divided itself for him too.

There was also an Arab who had joined them on the journey, and so Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair once again addressed the river, ‘Divide thyself for this one, too, that he may not say “Is this the treatment of a fellow traveler?”’ It, thereupon, divided itself for him too.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair happened to come to a certain inn. They placed barley before his ass, but it would not eat. It was sifted, but the ass would not eat it. It was carefully picked; still the ass would not eat it.

‘Perhaps,’ suggested Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, ‘it is not tithed?’ It was at once tithed, and the ass ate it. He, thereupon, exclaimed, ‘This poor creature is about to do the will of the Creator, and you would feed it with untithed produce!’

Ultimately the Gemara explains that although food for animals need not be tithed, if the food was first purchased to be used as human food, even if it was then used to feed animals, it still must be tithed.

Chullin 8a-b: Tools of the trade for a Kosher butcher

On today’s daf, Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that a Kosher butcher needs a number of special utensils in order to avoid halakhic problems.

A butcher needs to have two separate tubs of water – one where he washes the meat and the other where he washes the forbidden fats.

Similarly, a butcher needs to keep three separate knives – one for slaughter, one for cutting meat and one for cutting off forbidden fats.

The reason that the butcher needs a separate knife for slaughter seems clear. Since we do not want the shehitah knife to develop nicks or other deficiencies that would render it unfit for slaughter, we do not want the butcher cutting meat that might have bones that may ruin the blade. Rashi explains that although the butcher should really check the knife before using it for shechita so he would, theoretically, discover any problems with the knife, nevertheless the Sages feared that if he is in a hurry he may neglect to do so. Others suggest that the concern is about the blood that may have been absorbed in the knife at the time of slaughter. If such a knife is used for cutting meat, the meat may absorb that blood and become forbidden.

The Gemara wonders why two separate knives are needed for cutting meat and cutting forbidden fats. Wouldn’t it be sufficient to have a single knife and require the butcher to cut the forbidden fats only after he finished cutting the meat? The Gemara explains that we fear that he may switch the order and cut the forbidden fats first. Once there is a requirement to keep separate knives the butcher becomes sensitive to the need to keep the meat separate from the forbidden fats. The Gemara offers the same explanation for the two separate tubs. Even though the Sages could have simply required that the meat be washed before the forbidden fats, by requiring two separate tubs we raise awareness that they must be washed separately and we are no longer concerned that the butcher will make a mistake.

Chullin 9a-b: What should every Torah scholar know?

On today’s daf Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that a talmid chacham – a scholar – must know three things:

Rav Chananiah bar Shelemia quotes Rav as teaching three additional things:

The Me’iri explains that although we expect that a Torah scholar would devote his energies to learning theory, still there are certain practical things that he must learn to do. These are things about which people run to ask the scholar questions, and if he is unable to respond, his reputation will be tarnished. Others suggest that a scholar must take an interest in community affairs and these are basic issues that he must deal with.

Rashi explains that the requirement to know ketav – writing – refers to signing his name, since he will have to sign documents as a witness or when making a ruling; Rashi appears to assume that although every Jewish child was taught to read, not all learned how to write. The Yam Shel Shlomo suggests that this means that he must learn to express ideas clearly in writing so that he can pen letters and author rulings and responsa. According to the Maharsha, the requirement is to learn to be a scribe so that he can write Tefillin and mezuzot for himself and for others.

The Gemara explains that Rav Yehuda did not include the second three things “because they are common.” Rashi explains this to mean that since they are common, everyone knows how to do them and there is no need to make it a special requirement for scholars. The first three, however, are performed by specially trained individuals. Rabbeinu Gershom takes a different approach, arguing that it is the first three that are common, which is why the scholar must make sure to learn them, as opposed to the latter three that are only needed on occasion.

Chullin 10a-b: The need for a smooth knife

When slaughtering an animal, it is essential that the knife being used is perfectly smooth and has been checked to ensure that it is without nicks or notches. According to the Gemara on today’s daf ideally this examination should be performed by the resident Sage of the city – either, as the Ra’avad explains because it is considered a matter of halakhic judgment, given the possibility of an error, or because killing a living creature is a weighty issue, it should not be done without receiving permission from the city elder (Rabbi Zundel Kroiser in his Ohr haChamah).

What if the knife is checked after the shechita – the ritual slaughter – has taken place, and is found to have a nick that would render it unkosher for use? Rav Huna says that even if after it was used for shechita it was used for breaking bones, nevertheless we must assume that the nick developed at the very beginning of the shechita, when the knife came into contact with the animal’s skin, and the animal is rendered unkosher.  (For reference, see schematic drawing of the animal’s neck, showing the esophagus and windpipe directly beneath the animal’s skin, with the spine in the middle.)  Rav Chisda argues that the animal is kosher, since it is likely that the nick in the knife was the consequence of breaking the bones that took place after the slaughter was complete.

The Gemara explains that Rav Huna’s argument is one that he has made before. Since the animal is not considered kosher for eating while it is alive, it retains its status until such time as we are certain that it was slaughtered properly. This statement appeared above (daf 9a) in the context of his requirement to check the simanim – the windpipe and esophagus – immediately after slaughter, for without the verification we cannot assume that the shechita was done properly. The Ramban concludes from this that according to Rav Huna there is also a requirement to check the knife after each shechita, and if the knife is lost the animal cannot be considered kosher, even if we do not know that the knife had a problem. Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rashba disagree, arguing that since the knife was checked prior to shechita we must assume that it was good at the time it was used to slaughter the animal. Thus it is only if the knife is found to be nicked that Rav Huna would forbid the animal.

Chullin 11a-b: Majority rules

One of the basic principles in Jewish law is that we follow the rov – the majority. The Gemara on today’s daf searches for a source for this rule, and distinguishes between two different types of majorities:

  1. Ruba d’ita kaman – when the majority is clearly defined, before us. The Gemara’s examples are cases like the Sanhedrin, where the Sages would vote and the majority opinion would be accepted or a case where there are nine stores that sell kosher meat and one that sells non-kosher meat, and unidentified meat is found between them.
  2. Ruba d’leta kaman – when the majority is undefined, that is, where we know what the majority is but it is not something before us that we can count. The Gemara’s examples are a young boy and girl who fall to each other in a situation of levirate marriage, and we assume that neither are sterile, since the vast majority of the population is not sterile.

The Chatam Sofer explains that the basic difference between these two types of majorities is whether or not we can check the situation. In the first case, we base our decision on the fact that we can assume that the piece of meat before us is more likely from the majority of kosher stores that are before us. In the second case, the child who is standing in front of us is independent of all other children, nevertheless we use our broad knowledge of the world to recognize that the majority of children reach puberty and that we can therefore assume that this one will, as well.

Some suggest that in the first case it is the interaction between the majority and the minority that creates the situation of doubt, and the fact that the majority outweighs the minority allows us to reach our conclusion – similar to the decision made in the Sanhedrin. In the second case, however, we cannot say that the majority “beats” the minority, since they are not competing against each other, rather recognizing the majority acts as a tool to allow us to determine how to evaluate the situation before us.

Achronim point out that although the Gemara appears to assume that the first type of majority is stronger than the second type, still there are aspects of the second type of majority that are stronger. When relying on the first type of majority, we do not actually conclude with certainty that the piece of meat is from the kosher store, rather “majority rules” is a legal means of ruling on a doubtful situation. On the other hand, the second type of majority actually offers us a means to determine with a high level of certitude that our conclusion is a correct one.

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.