Masechet Chullin 68a-74b

September 1, 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 68a-b: When a fetus can’t wait to see the world

The fourth perek of Masechet Chullin begins on today’s daf. Entitled beheima ha-mekashe leiled – “an animal that encounters difficulty while giving birth” – its focus is on the laws relating to an unborn fetus in its mother’s womb at the time that the mother is slaughtered.

When an animal that is in labor encounters difficulty in delivery, and its owner suspects that it may die, one option is to slaughter the animal. Such a situation raises many questions – not about the animal itself, which can certainly be slaughtered and eaten – but with regard to its fetus. Generally speaking, we assume that ritual slaughter will permit the entire animal, together with everything inside it, to be eaten Just as all of the animal’s internal organs will become permitted by means of shechita, similarly the fetus, which at the moment of slaughter is part of the animal, will become permitted, as well.

What if the fetus is fully developed, and is viable after its mother’s death. Do we still view it as part of its mother, or do we recognize it as an independent entity? If it was part of its mother at the moment of slaughter, will it need its own shechita? If we do not recognize it as an independent entity at all, how will that affect those parts of an animal that ordinarily cannot be eaten?

These questions do not only relate to situations where the mother is slaughtered while in distress; the Mishnah simply chose a case where such a situation would most likely occur. Although the case in the Mishnah – where the fetus’ front leg came out – is understood by the Tosafot Yom Tov as an indication, or, perhaps, as a cause of the distress, in fact it is normal for kosher animals to be born front legs first.

In any case, it is clear from the Mishnah that in such a case the fetus becomes permitted as a result of its mother’s slaughter; in the event that the fetus’ head came out it is considered to have been born, and as an independent entity would not become permitted by means of its mother’s slaughter.

Chullin 69a-b: Birth defects in kosher animals

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, when a pregnant animal is slaughtered its fetus becomes permitted together with all of the rest of the animal’s internal organs.

On today’s daf we learn that there are certain limitations to the rule of the Mishnah. Rabbi Yochanan teaches that if the slaughtered animal was opened and that the fetus had not developed into an animal, rather it has the appearance of a dove, it is forbidden. The Gemara explains that this law is based on the fact that the Torah requires that an animal have split hooves if it is to be eaten (see Devarim 14:6). At the same time, if the fetus has the form of an animal – even without split hooves – Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches that it is deemed kosher based on the fact that the same passage talks about a single hoof. Thus a kalut ben parah – a single-hooved animal born of a cow (or any kosher animal) would be permitted.

Occasionally an animal with split hooves will give birth to a creature that has a birth defect – its hooves are not split. Although such animals do not have the usual indicators of kashrut, nevertheless we can be certain that it is from the family of kosher animals. This would be true even if the newborn animal does not have the appearance of the kosher mother, e.g. it looks like a camel or a donkey; since we know that it was born from a kosher animal it is kosher and can be slaughtered. This is not the case where the fetus does not have the appearance of an animal at all, e.g. when it looks like a bird or a lizard. The Me’iri quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi that derives this from the abovementioned passage that emphasizes that a behemah – cattle – can be eaten when found in cattle, excluding other life forms that are found in cattle.

Tosafot explain that the Gemara chose the example of a bird because such a creature would not be viable; even if it had been born it could not live.

Chullin 70a-b: Theoretical questions applied to modern times

One of the many types of sanctified animals is a bechor – a firstborn animal from kosher species – that must be given to a kohen. The kohen is obligated to bring the bechor to the Temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed, and he gets to eat its meat. In the event that such an animal develops a mum – a blemish that precludes it from being brought as a sacrifice – in contrast with other sanctified animals it is not redeemed and exchanged, rather it becomes the property of the kohen who can slaughter it and eat it even outside the Temple. Thus, unlike other kodashim that do not operate in the absence of a Temple, the laws of bechor apply even today, and in theory a firstborn animal must be set aside to be given to a kohen who can make use of it after it develops a mum. (Due to concern with the possibility that the bechor may be misused, the recommended practice is to arrange for the animal to be sold, at least in part, to a non-Jew so that the laws of bechor should not apply.)

The Mishnah on yesterday’s daf discusses the ramifications of an animal that encounters difficulty while delivering an animal that will be a bechor. Since the holiness of the bechor is dependent on its playing the role of a peter rechem – it must “open the womb” (see Shemot 13:2, 12) – only if the majority of the animal has breached its mother’s womb will it become sanctified. Only in such a case will the firstborn be treated with the sanctity of a bechor; if only parts of the fetus emerge it has no sanctity so the owner is free to kill it in order to save the mother and throw its meat to the dogs.

On today’s daf we find that Rava asks a series of questions attempting to clarify what constitutes a petter rehem. Among the questions that he asked are:

  • What if a weasel inserted its head into the womb and took the fetus into its mouth and extracted it, and then inserted its head again into the womb and spit it out, and then the fetus came forth of its own?
  • What is the law if one joined the wombs of two animals to each other and the fetus issued from one womb and entered the other? Do we say that it exempts only its own mother from the law of bechor but it does not exempt the other animal or perhaps it exempts also another animal?

The Gemara concludes teiku – these questions remain undecided.

Tosafot point out that these cases are impossible and will never happen, but they are raised in the course of discussion for reasons of derosh ve-kabel sachar – “discuss and receive reward” for engaging in Torah study. It should be noted that it is not unusual for the Gemara to raise theoretical questions such as these in order to examine foundational questions and extract rules that may have practical applications. Modern medicine has given Rava’s theoretical questions true relevance, for example regarding questions of surrogate motherhood.

Chullin 71a-b: Limiting ritual defilement

The Mishnah on today’s daf turns its attention to a woman whose fetus dies in utero and the questions of ritual defilement that stem from that situation. According to the Mishnah, if the midwife reached into the womb and touched the dead fetus, she contracts ritual defilement of contact with the dead; the mother remains ritually pure until the fetus is delivered.

The Gemara explains that on a Torah level the dead fetus does not defile as long as it has not been delivered since this is a situation of tumah belu’ah – “swallowed defilement” – which does not ritually defile. The defilement contracted by the midwife is a rabbinic decree, lest the fetus’ head is delivered – which determines that the fetus defiles – and the midwife believes that it has not yet attained that status.

With regard to the mother, however, there are several different explanations offered by the commentaries for the ruling that tumah belu’ah does not ritually defile.

  • In our Gemara, Rashi explains that we view the ritually defiled object as digested, so it does not defile anything else; in a similar vein we find in Masechet Niddah (daf 42b) that he explains that once tum’ah becomes belu’ah in an animal it is as though it had disappeared and cannot spread the tum’ah by touching it nor by carrying it.
  • The Me’iri and others suggest that given its minor status within the host animal, it is seen as negligible.
  • Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Tumat Met 22:2) presents the Rambam‘s opinion that the rule of tumah belu’ah is limited only to things that are enveloped within a living creature and argues that the body serves as a chatzitzah – a separation that protects the ritually defiled object from affecting others, just like a cover on an earthenware vessel keeps the tum’ah restricted to that vessel so that it cannot affect others.

Chullin 72a-b: Burial traditions in ancient Israel

According to Rabbi Akiva, the passage in Sefer Bamidbar (19:16) “And whosoever in the open field toucheth…” – which is taught in the context of the laws relating to ritual defilement and the dead – comes to include the case of someone who comes into contact with a gollel and dofek, teaching that such a person will become ritually defiled.

The commentaries disagree about how to define these terms. Many commentaries, including Rashi, explain that the gollel is the cover to a casket, while the dofek are the walls of the casket, upon which the gollel rests. This appears to be the position of the Rambam, as well, who explains (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ohalot 2:4) that the walls of the casket are called the dofek because they press down – dochakim – on the dead body. Rabbeinu Tam argues that our Gemara clearly relates to these things as being above ground, “in the open field,” so they cannot possibly be part of the casket. He suggests that these terms relate to the tombstone that is aboveground, with the gollel as the large stone placed above the grave (apparently horizontally), while the dofek refers to the stones upon which the gollel lies – pressing down on them.

These explanations clearly relate to the burial practices that were common in the Medieval period. During Mishnaic times, burial traditions in Israel often included interring the corpse in a burial cave that served as a temporary grave where it would decompose. At a later date, the bones would be removed and transferred to a family burial cave. This cave was sealed by means of a “rolling stone” – a gollel – which was held in place with another stone – a dofek.  In some cases, wax or clay with the impression of the owner’s seal was placed between the stone and the wall so that it could be easily determined if the tomb had been opened. To enable people to descend into the large tomb, the dofek was pried loose and the gollel was rolled away.

Chullin 73a-b: The significance of ritual slaughter when the animal is not kosher

By performing ritual slaughter on a kosher animal, its meat becomes permitted to eat. Such shechita also serves another purpose, as a properly slaughtered animal does not become tamei – it does not attain the ritual defilement of a neveilah – an animal that died on its own or was killed by a predator (see Vayikra 11:39). This is true even if the shechita does not accomplish its primary purpose. If an animal was found to be a treifah – an animal with a terminal condition that will die within a short amount of time – although shechita does not permit it to be eaten, nevertheless the animal does not become a neveilah, rather it remains ritually pure, since it was slaughtered properly.

How would such shechita affect the status of an unborn – or partially born – fetus that we have been discussing in this perek?

According to the Mishnah on yesterday’s daf, a fetus in its mother’s womb does not become a neveilah if its mother is slaughtered, even though its exposed limb would become a neveilah if it was cut off before its mother’s slaughter. In a case where the exposed limb was not cut off and shechita was performed on the mother while the limb was hanging out, we find a disagreement between Rabbi Meir and the Chachamim. Rabbi Meir rules that the shechita cannot affect an exposed limb that was not inside the womb at the moment of slaughter, so it becomes a neveilah; the Chachamim argue that the shechita keeps the entire fetus from becoming a neveilah, so it is rendered a slaughtered treifah, which does not ritually defile.

The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that elaborates on the discussion that took place between Rabbi Meir and the Chachamim regarding this issue. Rabbi Meir’s argument is that if the mother’s shechita affects the entire fetus, perhaps it should permit it to be eaten, as well. The Chachamim reply that not all slaughter permits an animal to be eaten, as is evident from the case of a treifah that is slaughtered, which remains pure, even though its meat is not permitted to be eaten.

Chullin 74a-b: A living, breathing, slaughtered animal

What is the status of a fully-developed calf (or other kosher animal) that was taken from its mother’s womb after ritual slaughter had been performed on the mother?

In the Mishnah on today’s daf we find that although Rabbi Meir rules that an animal that dies in its mother’s womb (or is not fully developed) becomes permitted by means of shechita performed on its mother, if it is fully developed then it would need its own shechita. The Chachamim disagree, arguing that the mother’s slaughter permits the fetus. Rabbi Shimon Shezuri goes so far as to state “even if it is five years old and is plowing the field, the slaughtering of its mother renders it permitted.”

As we have learned (see above, daf 69) the passage in Sefer Devarim (14:6) that defines a split-hooved animal as kosher is understood as teaching that cattle – beheima – can be eaten when found in cattle – ba-beheima. While the Chachamim apply this even to the case of a viable animal that lives outside of its mother’s womb, Rabbi Meir rules that such an animal would become permitted only if could not have ritual slaughter performed on its own. (All agree that if the mother had not been slaughtered properly and the fetus survived, it could be slaughtered on its own.)

Rashi explains Rabbi Meir’s position as based on his view that full development of the fetus requires it to have its own shechita, while the Chachamim believe that the fetus will require its own shechita only if it is fully developed and is born. The Ramban disagrees with Rashi, arguing that according to that view, Rabbi Meir would have to forbid a fully-developed fetus that dies in its mother’s womb prior to shechita. His explanation is that the passage in Sefer Devarim permits all the organs in a slaughtered animal – including a fetus. Rabbi Meir believes that the live, fully-developed fetus is an exception, since it can have its own shechita.

Although we accept the Chachamim’s ruling, nevertheless we require that a fully-developed fetus be slaughtered in the normal way, lest someone become confused about the requirements of shechita (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 13:2).

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.