Masechet Shevuot 12a-18b

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06 Jul 2010

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.

Shevuot 12a-b: Even the altar enjoys a good dessert

On yesterday’s daf Rabbah explained that when animals are purchased for use as sacrifices in the Temple, lev bet din matneh aleihem – “bet din has in its heart” – that they are bought on the condition that if they are needed they will be used as sacrifices on the altar, but if they are not needed then they will be treated like any standard donation to the Temple, and their value will be consecrated but their bodies will not.

Not everyone agrees to the idea that lev bet din matneh aleihem, which would permit the animal to be used for other purposes in the Temple. The Gemara on today’s daf asks how Rabbi Shimon – who does not accept lev bet din matneh aleihem­ – would suggest that the animals be used. Rabbi Yitzhak quotes Rabbi Yochanan as explaining that Rabbi Shimon believes that they must be brought as sacrifices, and are used for ketz ha-mizbe’ach, meaning that when there are no sacrifices to be brought, voluntary communal sacrifices would be brought to honor the altar, that is, to ensure that it does not stand empty of sacrifices.

This suggestion is supported by a statement made in a baraita that teaches that unused sacrifices such as these are like a “dessert of white figs” for the altar. In response to this example, the Gemara argues that since neither leaven nor honey can be placed on the altar (see Vayikra 2:11) it is difficult to understand the suggested parallel. Rav Chanina taught that the baraita means to say that the additional sacrifices brought on the altar are similar to a fruity dessert enjoyed by a person.

Rav Chanina’s teaching should be understood to mean that just as figs are served as an additional dessert after the main meal is over, similarly these sacrifices are brought only when the main sacrifices are finished, even though there is no obligation to bring them.

Shevuot 13a-b: The power of Yom Kippur

Can one reach atonement even if he does not do teshuva (if he does not repent)?

Although we ordinarily view teshuva as essential for receiving kappara (atonement), nevertheless the Mishnah (2b) teaches that for virtually all Torah transgressions a person can receive kappara by means of the se’ir hamishtale’ach – the scapegoat that is thrown from the cliff to Azazel as part of the Yom Kippur service (see Vayikra 16:5-22).

The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) asks when the se’ir hamishtale’ach applies. If the person did not do teshuva, why should it be effective for him? Would it not be placed in the category of zevach resha’im to’evah (the sacrifice of an evildoer is repugnant – see Mishlei 21:27)? On the other hand, if he did teshuva, then why is Yom Kippur special? A person can repent on any day of the year!

Rabbi Zera explains that this Mishnah follows the ruling of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who taught that the sacrifices brought on Yom Kippur are so powerful that they will effect kappara for all sins, even if the individual is omed be-mardo – if he remains rebellious. The only exceptions are sins of throwing off the yoke of Heaven (i.e. denying the existence of God), belittling the Torah and rejecting the commandment of circumcision, which will only be forgiven if the individual does teshuva.

Rashi explains that according to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi the concept of zevach resha’im to’evah applies all year, but does not apply on Yom Kippur, which has a unique power of atonement. The Torat Chaim points out that the language used by Rabbi Yehuda – that the person is omed be-mardo (that he remains rebellious) – indicates that even if he denies the power and holiness of Yom Kippur itself, he will be forgiven nonetheless.

Shevuot 14a-b: The consequences of forgetting ritual defilement

The second perek of Masechet Shevuot, Perek Yediot ha-Tumah, begins on today’s daf, and continues the discussion of issues of ritual defilement.

From the simple reading of the Torah (see Vayikra 5:2-3) it would seem that coming into physical contact with a dead creature that gives off ritual defilement is, itself prohibited. Nevertheless, the tradition of the Sages is that there is nothing inherently wrong with touching such a creature; the only prohibition is for someone who is ritually defiled through such contact to enter the Temple precincts or spread that tumah to something consecrated.

The first Mishnah repeats the teaching that appeared at the beginning of Masechet Shevuot (see 2a), that the laws of yediot ha-tumah – recognizing that someone was ritually defiled and then interacted with the Temple or some consecrated object – have the same “two that are four” pattern that parallel the case of shevu’ot – oaths – in that they contain two basic concepts that include four ideas. The two concepts that are written in the Torah are that –

  1. He was aware that he was tamei, but then forgot, and touched or ate consecrated food
  2. He was aware that he was tamei, but then forgot, and entered the Temple

The Sages then added two further laws

  1. He was aware that he was tamei but forgot that this food is consecrated
  2. He was aware that he was tamei but forgot that this is the Temple.

In all four of these cases, he would be obligated to bring a korban oleh v’yored – a “sliding scale” sacrifice where a wealthy person will bring goat or a lamb, a middle income person will bring a dove and a poor person will bring a meal offering.

Shevuot 15a-b: Expanding the Temple

Most of us have probably experienced the need to expand our homes or to add on to the local synagogue as the community expands and there are needs that did not exist when the structure was first built. Can we do that to the Temple? Will the newly built area have the same level of holiness as the original structure?

In the context of discussing where a person who is ritually defiled cannot enter in the Temple precincts, the Mishnah teaches (14a) that the Temple can have additions built that will have the same level of holiness, but only if a specific formula was followed. In order for the addition to be made holy it must be consecrated in the presence of the king, a prophet, the Urim V’Tumim, the full Sanhedrin of 71 Sages, and two thanksgiving sacrifices – all accompanied by the singing of the Levi’im.

The Gemara on today’s daf explains that the source for this is the passage written regarding the erection of the mishkan – the Tabernacle in the desert – ve-khen ta’asu – “so shall you build it,” which is understood to mean that for all generations these elements are necessary in order to establish the holiness of the Temple.

But how do we know that these elements were all there when the mishkan was first put up?

The rishonim explain that Moshe played the role of both king and prophet, and his brother, Aharon was the High Priest who wore the urim ve-tumim. The Gemara appears to assume that the Sanhedrin was there, as well, although others suggest that Moshe embodied the full Sanhedrin, as is indicated in Masechet Sanhedrin. The Gemara explains that establishment of the Second Temple is the source for needing the thanksgiving sacrifices (see Nehemia 12:31).

Shevuot 16a-b: The holiness of the Temple remains forever

As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page), in order to add to the Temple in a way that the addition will be made holy it must be consecrated in the presence of the king, a prophet, the Urim V’Tumim, the full Sanhedrin of 71 Sages, and two thanksgiving sacrifices – all accompanied by the singing of the Levi’im. The Mishnah (14b) concludes that if this formula was not followed, the additional area does not have the full kedusha of the Temple, and someone who enters in a state of ritual defilement will not be obligated to bring an atonement.

In today’s Gemara we find that Rav Huna understands that the Mishnah requires that all of the different elements of the ceremony must be done; Rav Nachman says that even having just one of them would suffice to give holiness to the new addition. The Gemara explains that their disagreement stems from a basic difference in how they view the holiness of the land of Israel after the destruction of the Temple that was followed by a mass exile. Rav Huna believes that the original kedusha remains forever and there was no real need to perform a ceremony when the Second Temple was erected. When we find in Sefer Nechemiah that they did have a ceremony, it was just a remembrance. Rav Nachman believes that the original holiness no longer existed, so Ezra needed to perform the ceremony in order to ensure that there would be kedusha in the Second Temple.

The idea that the holiness given to the Land of Israel may have been established in such a way that it would last forever is subject to a dispute among the Tanna’im and Amoraim, and extends to the rishonim, as well.

Tosafot accept the simple reading of the Gemara, which seems to view the holiness of the Land of Israel and that of Jerusalem as being the same, so if the destruction of the Temple removes the holiness from the Land, it does so for Jerusalem as well. The Rambam, on the other hand, sees the two as distinct and rules that even if the holiness of the Land is removed, kedushat Yerushalayim – which stems from the presence of God – can never be removed. With the return of the Jews to Israel under Ezra ha-Sofer and the building of the second Temple, the center of the kedusha was the rebuilt Temple – the seat of the Almighty – and the rest of the Land derived its holiness from Jerusalem. Thus the Rambam rules that even with the destruction of the Temple, kedushat Ezra remains forever.

Shevuot 17a-b: Ritual defilement in the air

As we have learned, the Temple precincts have a high level of kedusha – of holiness – and someone who is tamei, that is he has become ritually defiled by contact with a dead person or animal, cannot enter. What if someone enters the Temple while ritually pure and suddenly becomes tamei? What should he do in such a situation?

The Mishnah (14b) requires such a person to leave in the most direct way possible. If he does so, he is not obligated to bring a sin-offering. If he stops to bow, however, or if he stops a long enough time to bow down, or if he chooses a longer path to leave, then he is obligated to bring a sin-offering.

On today’s daf (=page) Rava asks what the halacha would be regarding a person who suspends himself in the air above the Temple. Would the same rules apply? The Gemara concludes teiku – the question stands and there is no clear conclusion.

Rava’s question is unclear. One version of the text seems to present the question as asking whether the air above the area of the Temple has the same laws as the Temple itself. Tosafot object to that reading, arguing that that question was discussed and decided in Masechet Zevachim (32a) where the clear ruling is that someone who places his hand in the air of the Temple would be held liable for doing so.

The text as it appears in our Gemara presents Rava’s question as focusing on bowing down. The R”i mi-Gash explains the question as asking whether “the amount of time of bowing” is the description of what is considered a significant length of time as far as the Temple is concerned, or is there a real requirement that it be possible for the person to bow down – something that he cannot do while suspended in mid-air – and he would not be held liable in such a case. Tosafot ha-Rosh approach the question differently and say that Rava was asking whether “the amount of time of bowing” is the description of what is considered a significant length of time as far as the Temple is concerned, or, perhaps that only applies on the ground where bowing is possible. In the air, however, where a person cannot bow, he would transgress immediately.

As noted, the Gemara comes to no conclusion regarding this question.

Shevuot 18a-b: Avoiding situations that could lead to transgression

Sexual relations when a woman is a niddah – from the time when her period begins until she goes to the mikvah after it is over – is forbidden. Transgressing that negative commandment carries with it the punishment of karet – the people will be “cut off” from the community. The Mishnah (14b) discusses the case of someone who transgresses a positive commandment of niddah, and explains that the positive commandment is when a couple is engaged in permissible intercourse, and the woman suddenly realizes that she has become a niddah. When she informs the man of her status, his obligation is to remain in place until his erection is lost in order to avoid sexual pleasure with a niddah.

This parallels the case of the individual who enters the Temple and becomes tamei while he is there, since in both cases the entry was permissible, and the problem developed at a later time. The difference is that in the Temple, the man who became ritually defiled must leave as quickly as possible, while in the case of the niddah the recommendation is to wait until it is appropriate to leave.

Following this discussion, the Gemara on today’s daf (=page) brings a baraita that quotes Rabbi Yoshiya as teaching that the passage in Sefer Vayikra (15:31) warns husbands to refrain from intimacy with their wives when their period approaches. In other words, it is essential for a woman to track her period so that the couple will know when to anticipate its arrival and avoid intimacy for a half day prior to that time.

Most of the rishonim do not believe that Rabbi Yoshiya’s teaching is a biblical law, rather it is a rabbinic ordinance that was attached to a passage in the Torah. Others suggest that the biblical law would forbid intimacy only at the time that the period was expected, and the rabbinic addition is to extend that time by half a day. It should be noted that this rule limiting intimacy before the expected period refers only to sexual relations; other interactions between husband and wife remain permitted.

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.