Masechet Chullin 117a-123b

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Roman Soldiers
06 Oct 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 117a-b: Ritual defilement

The ninth perek of Masechet Chullin begins on today’s daf. Entitled haOr ve-haRotev – “the skin and the meat juice,” this perek does not belong in Masechet Chullin, based on its contents. In fact, the topics covered in this chapter actually relate to issues of tumah ve-taharah – ritual purity and defilement – and would be most appropriately discussed in one of the tractates in Seder Taharot (the Order of Purity). Nevertheless, it is included in Masechet Chullin since the topics that appear here are practically related to issues that are clarified in this tractate, since activities such as ritual slaughter, removing the animal’s hide and cutting the animal apart all raise potential issues of ritual defilement.

All food items that become ritually defiled by contact with a dead body can potentially defile other food and drink (this is referred to as tumat ochlin), but only if they are the size of an egg. The Mishnah teaches that in the event that meat is not of sufficient size, it can be supplemented by other parts of the animal that are not ordinarily considered food. Thus, if the meat is the size of an egg if it is supplemented by the animal’s skin or solidified meat juice or bones, sinews, horns or hooves, then it will be susceptible to ritual defilement and it will defile other food or drink, as well.

A different type of ritual defilement discussed in the Mishnah is tumat neveilah. A neveilah is an animal that was killed by a predator or died on its own. Such an animal is ritually defiled and will defile others if it is minimally the size of an olive. In contrast with tumat ochlin, the Mishnah teaches that tumat neveilah requires that the meat be the size of an olive, and cannot be supplemented with the animal’s skin or solidified meat juice or bones, sinews, horns or hooves.

Chullin 118a-b: Handles in the service of ritual defilement

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the Mishnah contrasts between two different kinds of ritual defilement. While the laws of tumat ochlin (ritual defilement of food) will allow parts of the animal that are related to the meat but are not themselves meat (e.g., skin, solidified meat juice, bones, sinews, horns or hooves) to supplement its bulk so that it reaches the minimum size required to become ritually defiled, the laws of tumat neveilah (ritual defilement of an animal that was killed by a predator or died on its own) do not allow these parts of the animal to be included.

The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a Mishnah in Masechet Uktzin (1:1) that teaches the concept of yad (literally “hand,” in this case a handle) and shomer (“protection”). If meat or food has connected to it something that serves as a handle, or something that is necessary because it protects the food, then it may be viewed as an integral part of the food, even though it is separate from it.

The Mishnah in Masechet Uktzin teaches as follows:

Whatever serves as a handle to a bulk but not as a protection, is a medium whereby the bulk contracts uncleanness and conveys uncleanness, but is not included together with the bulk to make up the size of an egg to convey uncleanness. Whatever serves as a protection, even if it does not serve as a handle, is a medium whereby the bulk contracts uncleanness and conveys uncleanness, and is included together with the bulk. Whatever serves neither as a handle nor as a protection is no medium so that the bulk neither contracts uncleanness nor conveys uncleanness thereby.

Thus, the handle, which serves to allow the object to be picked up or used, may not supplement the volume of the meat, but if someone were to pick up a neveilah by means of its bones, sinews, horns or hooves, they would be viewed as coming into contact with the ritually defiled meat.

Chullin 119a-b: The fruits of Shimon ben Shetach’s time

The Gemara on yesterday’s daf introduced us to the idea that in the event that given foodstuffs has a yad (literally “hand,” in this case a handle) attached to it, or if it was covered with something that served as a shomer (“protection”) to the food, touching those appendages would be considered significant and the ritual defilement potentially could spread.

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses the situation of a stalk of wheat, where the husks of the wheat kernels serve as protection, and the kernels themselves protect one another. In response to the Gemara’s query whether the kernels – or even a row of kernels – are of the minimum size necessary to become ritually defiled, the Gemara refers to the case of “the wheat grains of Shimon ben Shetach.”

This reference relates to a Gemara in Masechet Ta’anit (23a) which teaches that during the time of Shimon ben Shetach the wheat kernels grew to be the size of kidneys, the barley grew to be the size of olives and the lentils grew to be the size of gold dinars. Furthermore, the Gemara there relates that these oversize fruits were preserved to serve as a reminder to future generations that if their generation would be without sin they, too, could merit such produce.

Shimon ben Shetach was the head of the Sanhedrin during the reign of King Alexander Yannai. Under his religious leadership, witchcraft was abolished from the land, he clarified the laws of court testimony and solidified the laws of marriage contracts. His belief in the supreme authority of the Sanhedrin led him to call even King Yannai to court, and the tension between them led Shimon ben Shetach to go into hiding for fear of his life. Ultimately, after King Yannai’s death, his widow, Queen Shlomtzion took over the reins of government. The Queen was Shimon ben Shetach’s sister, and the period of her rule – in concert with her brother – was a time of national success and contentment in all of its different aspects.

Chullin 120a-b: Prohibiting eating blood and drinking forbidden fats

Two prohibited animal products are dam – blood – and cheilev – forbidden fats. Not only are those parts of the animal forbidden to eat, but someone who eats them is liable to receive karet – a heavenly death sentence (see Sefer Vayikra 7:23-27).

The Gemara on today’s daf teaches that the prohibition on both blood and forbidden fats remains in force even if the form is changed. Thus, even if blood was processed so that it became solid, or even if the forbidden fat was melted so that it became liquid, nevertheless the same rules apply.

Regarding solidified blood, the Gemara recognizes that the prohibition should remain in force, since now the blood would be considered a food, and the prohibition to eat blood (see, for example, Vayikra 3:17) applies. Forbidden fats in liquid form, however, appear to the Gemara to present a problem, for the Torah specifically forbids eating these fats, and there is no clear source prohibiting them from being drunk. Ultimately, Reish Lakish suggests a source that would include drinking in the prohibition, as well.

Tosafot and others point out that the Gemara’s question appears difficult. The Gemara in Shevuot (23a) quotes a passage regarding the Second Tithe (see Devarim 14:23) that commands the farmer to eat “the tithe of your corn, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock,” noting that wine is “eaten.”  From this the Gemara concludes that drinking is considered part of the broad activity of “eating.” Why in this case must we search for a source to forbid drinking forbidden fats?

In answer, Tosafot point out that there is a difference between things that are normally drunk, like wine, and things that are normally eaten, but that have been processed so that they are being drunk in a specific case. In the latter situation, perhaps we would have assumed that such drinking is unnatural and cannot be considered “eating.”

The Maharatz Chajes suggests that the question of the Gemara may revolve around a different issue. Generally speaking, the minimum size necessary to consider someone to have eaten is a kezayit – the size of an olive – while the minimum size necessary to consider someone to have drunk is a revi’it – one quarter of a log. Once we establish that drinking cheilev is considered eating it, the amount required would follow the dry measurement, rather than the liquid measurement.

Chullin 121a-b: “What is alal?”

We learned in the first Mishnah of this perek (see daf 117) that there are certain parts of the animal that are not food in-and-of themselves, but that they will supplement the meat of the animal so that it will meet the minimum size requirement to become ritually defiled with tumat ochlin.

While most of such animal parts are readily recognizable (e.g., bones, sinews, horns and hooves), one of the parts mentioned was alal, something that the Gemara on today’s daf aims to define.

In answer to the question “What is alal?” Rabbi Yochanan answers that it is marteka, while Reish Lakish suggests that it is “flesh that the knife has cut away.” Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation is subject to some debate inasmuch as the term marteka is unclear.

Chullin 122a-b: Identifying creepy crawly creatures in the Bible

The Torah lists eight sheratzim (creeping creatures) all of whom will render someone who touches them to be tamei (ritually defiled), if they are dead – see Sefer Vayikra 11:29-30. In Masechet Menachot (daf, or page 29a) the Sages taught that although their names are specified in the Torah, even Moshe was unable to identify each of them definitively. The Maharsha explains that this is because there are many such species and the differences between them are relatively small, to the extent that identifying them is difficult.

Even the broad term sheretz is subject to different interpretations. In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi suggests that this is a term that encompasses all fine, small animals that crawl on the ground. The Ramban quotes Onkelos as explaining that the fact that these animals are constantly in movement is what gives them this distinct name.

The Mishnah on today’s daf discusses those animals whose skin is considered to be flesh, i.e., it is soft and tender, so that with regard to the laws of ritual defilement they are treated like flesh. Such creatures include, for example, the skin of human beings, skin of the domestic pig, the skin of the hump of a young camel, and the skin of the head of a young calf. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri includes all eight of the sheratzim mentioned above, but the Tanna Kamma limits this rule to four of them – the anakah, the ko’ah, the leta’ah and the homet.

As noted above, we cannot be certain of the identification of these animals. Nevertheless, most of the commentaries agree that they are reptiles. Common identification suggests that –

Chullin 123a-b: Beware Roman soldiers bearing scalps

The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that teaches:

Our Rabbis taught: If a Roman legion which passes from place to place enters a house, the house is unclean, for there is not a legion that does not carry with it several scalps. And be not surprised at this; for Rabbi Yishmael’s scalp was placed upon the head of kings.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha served as one of the last High Priests during the Second Temple period. As one of the Ten Martyrs murdered by the Romans, he was taken to be killed together with his friend and colleague Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the Elder. According to the Rabbinic tradition, when he was taken to be killed the Caesar’s daughter was smitten with his beauty and asked that the skin of his face be removed while he was still alive. The Romans preserved his skin in Persimmon oil and it was worn on occasion during Roman festivals.

The commentaries note that although the baraita offers a clear ruling in Jewish law – that soldiers are suspected of carrying human remains which would render the contents of a house ritually defiled – the Rambam does not mention this ruling in his Mishna Torah. One suggestion is that we are not concerned that someone will actually come into physical contact with these scalps, the issue is tumat ohel – “tent impurity” – whether the items in the same room with the human remains will become defiled. Since the likelihood is that the scalps carried by the Roman soldiers were, in all probability, non-Jews, and given the Rambam’s ruling in accordance with Rabbi Shimon that there is no tumat ohel for non-Jewish corpses (in contrast with Tosafot who reject Rabbi Shimon’s ruling), there was no need for the Rambam to include this law in his Mishna Torah.

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.