Masechet Yoma 79a-85b

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24 Aug 2006

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

Yoma 79

We have learned that one of the five forbidden, pleasurable activities on Yom Kippur is eating. The Mishnah (73b) taught that in order to be held liable for eating, one must consume an amount of food the size of a kotevet ha-gasah – a large date. Since this measurement is an unusual one (for example, with regard to birkat ha-mazon – grace after meals – the minimum amount that needs to be eaten is either a kezayit – the size of an olive – or a ka-beitzah – the size of an egg), the Gemara on our daf  attempts to define it.

Rava quotes Rav Yehuda as teaching that a kotevet ha-gasah must be larger than an egg, since the Sages determined that only an amount greater than a ka-beitzah size gives a sense of satisfaction. While ordinarily the Sages do not attempt to give explanations for the specific size requirement given by the Torah, Rabbi Avraham Tiktin, in his Davar Be-ito argues that in this case there was a recognition that the rules of Yom Kippur were left to the Sages to define (see the Ran’s explanation of this phenomenon on page 73b), so we must try and understand their underlying logic.

In an attempt to examine Rava’s position that a kotevet ha-gasah must be larger than an egg, the Gemara brings a series of stories about the Sages and their eating habits. A baraita records that when asked to taste the food that was being cooked on Sukkot, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai insisted that it be brought into the sukkah, as did Rabban Gamliel when he was brought two kotavot with water. Both Rabbis knew that the food that they had been brought did not really need to be eaten in the sukkah, but they were stringent on themselves, and insisted that any food that they ate could only be eaten in the sukkah.

In contrast to these Sages, the baraita also tells of Rabbi Tzadok who would eat less than a ka-beitzah of food by wrapping it in a napkin and eating it outside the sukkah without an after-blessing. Rabbi Tzadok’s behavior is subject to a difference of opinion between Rashi who says that he took the food in a napkin because of his fastidiousness, while Tosafot explain that his religious devotion was such that he treated all food as though it were teruma, so he refrained from touching food lest it become ritually defiled. In any case, it is clear that the baraita tells Rabbi Tzadok’s story in order to emphasize that just as there were Sages who were stringent upon themselves, there were also those who made a point of emphasizing that it was appropriate to stick to the letter of the law without stringencies. In this story, Rabbi Tzadok was lenient with regard to sukkah, ritual hand washing and the blessing after food.

Yoma 80

Today’s daf continues the discussion of shi’urim – the amount necessary to be held liable for eating on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yochanan is quoted by the Gemara as saying that shi’urim and onashim – both the amount that is considered significant and the punishment that will be meted out on the individual who eats forbidden foods according to those measurements – are halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, they are traditions handed down from Moses on Mount Sinai, which have the weight and significance of Biblical law. In response to the question raised that the onashim are clearly written in the Torah, the Gemara explains that Rabbi Yochanan was teaching that the shi’urim upon which the onashim are based (for without a standard minimum measurement, how could we know when the punishments are appropriate?) are halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

A baraita that is brought in support of this understanding of Rabbi Yochanan adds another opinion, as well. According to Acherim they were established – or, more correctly, were forgotten and reestablished – by the court of Yaabetz. Rashi identifies Yaabetz as Otni’el ben Kenaz, based on a Rabbinic tradition. The name appears in I Divrei ha-Yamim 2:55 and 4:9-10 as one of the descendants of Yehuda, and from the context it appears that he was one of the Jewish leaders of his time. He is identified as the head of one of the “the families of soferim (scribes) who lived in Yaabetz” so it appears that he was head of the soferim – the Sages in his generation.

The rules of shi’urim notwithstanding, there are times when a person can eat more than a shi’ur, yet still not transgress the prohibition of eating forbidden foods. Resh Lakish teaches that someone who overeats – in the terminology of the Gemara, eats akhilah gasah – on Yom Kippur will not be held liable. The Tosafot Yeshanim point out that there are different levels of akhilah gasah. One level is overeating – when a person is full and continues to eat. Resh Lakish is referring to a different level, when a person continues eating to the extent that he finds the food disgusting. Resh Lakish derives this rule from the passage (Vayikra 23:29) which teaches that a person who does not suffer inuy – deprivation – on Yom Kippur will be punished with karet. Someone who does damage to himself by way of eating has not transgressed this prohibition.

Yoma 81

The commandment to keep Yom Kippur (the tenth day of Tishrei) as a day of rest and solemnity teaches that we are commanded to begin on the ninth day of Tishrei, and continue from evening to evening (see Vayikra 23:32). The Gemara on our daf learns a number of halakhot from this passage. For example, our Gemara sees this as the source for tosefet Yom ha-kippurim – beginning the holiday early and completing it late – a rule that is then extended to Shabbat and Yom Tov, as well.

Another teaching that is derived from this pasuk is presented by Chiya bar Rav mi-Difti, who interprets the passage as teaching that someone who eats and drinks on erev Yom Kippur is credited as though he had fasted on both the ninth and the tenth days of Tishrei. This is generally understood to mean that there is a special mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur.

Several explanations are given for this law. Rashi and the Me’iri suggest that since there is a mitzvah to fast on the tenth, someone who spends the day before preparing for that mitzvah is given credit for the preparation. The Eliya Rabbah (Rav Eliyahu Shapira’s gloss on the Shulchan Arukh) suggests otherwise. According to him, someone who eats a lot the day before the fast has a harder time refraining from eating on the fast day, therefore the person who spends the ninth of Tishrei eating is credited for having additional inuy. Others point out that Yom Kippur is a holiday, a day on which we really should be eating and drinking. Since we cannot eat and drink on Yom Kippur, we “make up” for it on erev Yom Kippur. Finally, some explain that this is preparation for the mitzvah of expressing regret and asking for forgiveness. Since someone who is well-fed is less likely to be irritable and get into disagreements, we are commanded to put ourselves into such a position so that we will be better suited to be remorseful and apologize.

Yoma 82

Generally speaking, all of the commandments of the Torah are “pushed aside” in the face of potentially life threatening situations. Therefore, the Mishnah on our daf teaches that someone who is ill or pregnant and is in a dangerous situation will be allowed to eat on Yom Kippur, or to eat non-kosher food, if necessary.

There are only three mitzvot that are so severe that a person should give up his life rather than perform the forbidden acts. Those mitzvot are –

  1. avodah zara (idol worship)
  2. gilui arayot (forbidden sexual activities)
  3. shefikhut damim (murder)

According to the Gemara, the sources for the first two mitzvot are Biblical passages. (For the source for avodah zara, see Devarim 6:5 which teaches that you must worship God with all of your heart and all of your soul. The source for gilui arayot is Devarim 22:26 which compares a forbidden sexual encounter with murder.) According to the Gemara, however, the source for murder being forbidden even at the cost of one’s own life does not need to be a pasuk – it is a sevara – it is simply logical. The logic, as presented by Rava in the Gemara is mai hazit didama didakh sumac tefei? Dilma dama dihahu gavra samik tefei! What makes you think that your blood is redder than your fellow’s? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours!

The Maharil Habib in his Tosafot Yom ha-Kippurim explains this argument as simply meaning that we are unable to weigh the true value of one life against another. Since the whole issue at hand is whether we can “push aside” a mitzvah in order to save a life, in this case a life will be lost no matter what, so we cannot allow the forbidden act of murder. It should be noted that this argument works even if we are weighing the value of a single life against that of a group of people. Still the rule of mai hazit would not allow the killing of one person, since the relative value of life cannot be determined by numbers.

Yoma 83

The Mishnah on our daf discusses circumstances when an illness would allow someone to eat non-kosher food, and other cases when halakha would not allow non-kosher food to be eaten.

The first case discussed is bulmus – ravenous hunger. In this case the Mishnah teaches that he can be fed anything that may cure him. The second case is that of someone bitten by a rabid dog. The common cure in Mishnaic times, which was to have the victim eat from the dog’s liver, is forbidden by the Tanna Kamma, although Rabbi Matya ben Harash permits it.

The “hunger sickness” of bulmus, is, apparently, connected to a drastic drop in blood sugar that is caused by starvation or some other disease. As described in the Gemara, the sensation of hunger comes together with a loss of awareness – the individual cannot see or cannot see clearly. The recommendation of the Sages is to feed the ill person sweet foods that can be easily digested as quickly as possible.

The description of this condition is supported in the Gemara by a series of personal testimonies from Sages who were witness to someone who had this condition or who had it themselves. Rabbi Yohanan, for example, describes how he once suffered from bulmus, but was able to save himself by applying his knowledge. He ate dates from the eastern side of a date palm to resolve his need for sweet food.

Date palms are unique in that their fruit does not all ripen at the same time. From one day to the next – and sometimes even through the course of a day, different fruits become ripe. Since the sun rises in the east, it is logical to assume that the ripest fruits will be found on that side.

With regard to the bite of a rabid dog, the disagreement in the Mishnah would seem to be whether the popular cure was, in fact, effective. The Rambam, however, understands that eating the rabid dog’s liver is not a medical cure, but a segulah – a charm – which at best may be a psychological support to the victim. He argues that the Tanna Kamma rejects the possibility that a Torah law would be pushed aside for such an emotional support, even for someone who believes in it.

Yoma 84

It is interesting to examine the Gemara‘s description of the case of the rabid dog that was mentioned in the Mishnah, as well as the way the disease caused by the bite of such a dog is depicted.

A rabid dog is described as having an open mouth dripping saliva, ears that cannot stand normally, its tail hanging limply while walking on the side of the road. Finally, when it barks it cannot be heard.

All of these are symptoms of rabies, a disease that affects the nervous system of an animal, slowly paralyzing it. The Gemara further described the effects of this disease on a person, where without proper treatment (unavailable in the time of the Gemara) it is usually fatal. Among other things, rabies involves a painful contraction of the muscles in the throat which does not allow the victim to swallow. Apparently due to the association with thirst and the inability to drink water, even seeing water was thought to lead to madness, which is why for generations this condition was called “hydrophobia.”

As we learned in the Mishnah (83a) Rabbi Matya ben Harash permits the victim of rabies to eat the infected dog’s liver. Although his position is rejected by the poskim, who accept the position of the Tanna Kamma, nevertheless there are those who see in Rabbi Matya’s ruling the foreshadowing of modern methods of medicine where enzymes are taken from the bodies of animals that have been infected and vaccinations are developed using those antibodies.

Another disease discussed by the Gemara is tzefidna, which, from the description in the Gemara, appears to be scurvy, a disease marked by a lack of Vitamin C, which leads to a weakening of teeth and gums, internal bleeding and anemia. The descriptions in the Gemara of various methods that were used in an attempt to cure tzefidna were, apparently, attempts to make up the lack of this vitamin by ingesting it in a concentrated manner.

Yoma 85

Although earlier (see daf 82) the Gemara took for granted that all mitzvot are “pushed aside” in the face of the overarching value of human life (with the exception of avoda zara, gilui arayot and shefikhut damim), the Gemara on our daf presents a question  – how do we know that piku’ah nefesh – danger to life – pushes aside the restrictions of Shabbat? Apparently the question here is a more difficult one because it involves not only a person saving his own life, but a source allowing others to desecrate Shabbat in order to save him, as well.

Several sources are suggested by the Tanna’im and Amoraim. For example, Rabbi Elazar finds a source in the mitzvah of brit milah – circumcision – which is performed on Shabbat even though it involves activities that are forbidden on Shabbat. Rabbeinu Chananel explains this derivation by pointing out that someone who does not have a brit is liable for the punishment of karet – of being “cut off” from the Jewish people – which is considered the equivalent of death. Thus we find that to “save” the baby from possible karet we can perform the brit on Shabbat, similarly to save a life we can do the same. Rabbeinu Chananel also points out that Moshe was threatened with death when he did not circumcise his son (see Shemot 4:24 ), which is yet another indication of the importance of this mitzvah, which, itself, pushes aside any Shabbat prohibitions.

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasyeh points to the passage (Shemot 31:16) that commands the Jewish people to “keep Shabbat” and to “do Shabbat“. From this we can learn that Shabbat can be overridden if transgressing this Shabbat will allow the person to fulfill Shabbat many times in the future. Maharil Habib in his Tosafot Yom ha-Kippurim points out that what we derive from this pasuk is the concept that we can “desecrate” Shabbat if the purpose is to fulfill commandments – even if we do not have a guarantee that the person will be able to keep many Shabbatot – since we rule that a person can be mechallel Shabbat even to extend another person’s life for a brief period of time.

Perhaps the best known source is the suggestion made by Rabbi Yehuda in the name of Shmuel, who quotes the pasuk (Vayikra 18:5) “…and you should live by them” meaning that the mitzvot are given to the Jewish people to live by, and not to lead them to death. As the Gemara points out, this source includes not only situations in which we are certain that someone’s life is in danger, but even cases where we are not sure whether there is danger to life. The Torah commands that we cannot allow someone to die because of the mitzvot of the 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.