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.
This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, The Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan
When witnesses come to testify that a person has died, it is obvious that they must be certain that they saw that person dead. Thus, the Mishna on our daf rules that even if the witnesses saw someone being crucified or being mauled by a wild animal, they cannot testify unless they are sure that he was killed.
Crucifixion was one of the methods of capital punishment used by the Romans during Mishnaic times. This cruel and unusual punishment was usually carried out on slaves and individuals captured during times of rebellion. The crucifixion itself did not kill the prisoner, as what was done was simply nailing the person’s hands and legs on a wooden cross. Death usually was the result of dehydration and loss of blood, which is why, on occasion, people who were nailed to a cross were taken down and survived.
With reference to the ruling in our Mishna, the Talmud Yerushalmi comments that we can never be sure that someone who was known to have been crucified was dead. Given the length of time that a person could be on the cross before he died, during that time a Roman matron may come by and request that he be taken down, or else appeals could be made to the authorities for clemency. Josephus writes that on several occasions when he chanced across acquaintances who were being crucified he successfully arranged to have them taken down from the cross and they survived.
With regard to the Mishna’s ruling that even seeing a wild animal eating away at a person is not enough to testify to his death, the Talmud Yerushalmi suggests that we must assume that the Heavens showed mercy on him and that the animal abandoned him without killing him. Nevertheless, in our Gemara Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as ruling that this is only the case if the animal is not attacking one of his vital organs. If the animal is eating a part of the man’s body that would kill him, then we can accept such testimony.
When a person “disappears” into water, can we assume that he drowned, or must we consider the possibility that he survived and perhaps is alive, even though we cannot find him?
The Mishna on our daf suggests that we need to distinguish between different types of bodies of water. When dealing with mayim she-en lahem sof – literally “water with no end,” i.e., a large body of water whose end cannot be seen – we must be concerned that he survived, while regarding mayim she-yesh lahem sof – when we can see the entire body of water – we can assume that he died. Rabbi Meir does not distinguish between the two, arguing that even in mayim she-yesh lahem sof we must operate with the assumption that the person could survive. To support his position, Rabbi Meir tells of a man who fell into ha-bor ha-gadol – the great cistern – and came out alive three days later. The baraita quotes the retort of the other Sages to Rabbi Meir – “we do not accept proofs from miraculous occurrences.”
It appears that “the great cistern” referred to was one with which the Sages were familiar. In the continuation of the Gemara a baraita is brought that tells the story of Nechunia Chofer Shichin’s daughter who fell into “the great cistern.” When the report reached Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, he reported that all was well, and after a time that she had been saved. When questioned about it, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said that throughout the ordeal he was certain that Nechunia Chofer Shichin’s daughter was safe because she would not be punished with the very object that her father devoted his life to.
According to the Mishna in Shekalim (5:1) Nechunia Chofer Shichin – whose name literally means “Nehunia the ditch digger” was one of the appointed workers in the Temple, whose official position was to be responsible for water for Jerusalem generally, and specifically for the pilgrims coming to the Temple during the holidays. The Gemara tells that Nechunia was an expert in choosing the correct place to dig wells, thus he was able to fill cisterns not only from the collection of rainwater, but from underground reservoirs, as well.
We have already learned that the Sages found leniencies in situations where a woman whose husband disappeared would remain an agunah (literally “anchored” to her dead husband), and accepted the testimony of a single witness to allow her to remarry. The Mishna on our daf reports that this ruling was not always widely accepted. Rabbi Akiva relates that on his travels to Bavel he was in Nehardea where he met a man named Nehemiah ish Bet D’li who asked him to relay a tradition to Rabban Gamliel in Israel that his grandfather, Rabban Gamliel haZaken had allowed such testimony to be accepted. Upon hearing this Rabban Gamliel rejoiced and put this ruling into practice.
The Mishna relates a story where a group of people who were traveling left one of their party behind in a pundak – an inn – when he became ill. Upon their return they inquired as to their comrade’s health, and the pundika’it – the woman who was in charge of the inn – responded that he had died and that she buried him. Based on her word, the Sages allowed his widow to remarry.
The Gemara relates that in this last case, the pundika’it was a non-Jewish woman, who was believed based on the fact that she was mesihach lefi tumah – she was telling a story, and she did not realize that she was offering testimony. The believability of a mesi’ach lefi tumo is accepted by the Sages because we assume that the person telling the story has no vested or personal interest, and no reason to lie.
The power of this statement can be understood from the fact that aside from her being non-Jewish, the term pundika’it – a woman innkeeper – is often used in Aramaic to mean a prostitute, with the assumption that a woman servicing travelers often made herself available to them as well (see also the Radak‘s commentary to Sefer Yehoshua 2:1, where he explains that Rahav ha-zonah, with whom the Israelite spies found refuge, was an innkeeper).
In our case Tosafot emphasize that the pundika’it was considered mesihach lefi tumah because, as explained by the Gemara, she burst into tears upon seeing the friends of the dead man, and only afterwards did she respond to their specific questions.
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 www.steinsaltz.org 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.