Siyum Masechet Beitzah
The 7.5-year Talmud daily learning cycle started January 5th 2020. Yesterday on October 11th 2021 (I’m a day behind), we completed masechet Sukkah, the seventh masechet of the cycle.
The final chapter of masechet Beitzah begins with a Mishna that discusses activities on Yom Tov which one may have thought were forbidden, but are actually allowed due to financial loss which would otherwise occur.
The Gemara (Beitzah 35b) starts off questioning the very first word of the Mishna — there’s a disagreement as to what that word actually is. Five different options are offered and none are rejected, rather all five versions are proven to have a basis, all possessing sources which show the word used in the same given context of the Mishna (a word meaning to fall or slip).
So, there doesn’t seem to be any practical difference here, yet still the Gemara includes the discussion. Why? Because we want the most accurate version of our tradition.
Unlike the Written Torah, the Oral Torah had been passed down for over a thousand years before it was written. We know the torchbearers generation by generation, from Moses until the Second Temple (Pirkei Avot 1), but over time precision and accuracy became imperfect. By then, differences of opinion arose. Famously, Hillel and Shammai disagreed on many areas of halacha, and after them still more disagreements emerged. While the halachic fundamentals haven’t changed since Moses received the Written and Oral Torah directly from God, new applications emerge in nearly every generation as technology and civilization march forward.
The Oral Torah includes those disagreements, recording the opinions of the prominent scholars who participated in the transmission of the Jewish tradition. The Written Torah was copied carefully from Moses’ original copies, and then copied over and over through the generations, so we hold it to the same standards as its divine Author — perfection. The Oral Torah, however, was first written after over a thousand years of being passed down orally, so we know there are imperections such as gaps, inaccuracies, and even entirely different versions (Jerusalem versus Babylonian talmud) owing to geographical divides.
We acknowledge that the Oral Torah isn’t a perfect body of work, but that doesn’t stop us from striving toward perfection.
So, while there may not be any practical differences halachically between the different versions of this word in the Mishna on Beitzah 35b, that doesn’t mean getting the answer right is meaningless. Who knows what new scenario will present itself? Maybe new insights can be gleaned from the exact word.
The last sugya of masechet Beitzah (Beitzah 40a-b) discusses domesticated versus wild animals. One may give water to and slaughter a domesticated animal, but not wild animals.
The Gemara starts off by noting the sequence: water, then slaughter. From here we learn that it’s best practice to give water to an animals prior to slaughtering it since that will make it easier to skin the animal.
Firstly, notice that we still pick up insights from the text of the Oral Torah, even though it lacks the divine authorship of the Written Torah.
Second, it’s always interesting to note scientific or medicinal statements by the Gemara nearly 2000 years ago. Sometimes the statements seem outlandish or metaphysical, other times the statements have been corroborated by commentators and backed by modern science, and still other times the statement have been discredited. Similarly, Rambam is famous for his medical observations and instructions in the 12th century, which have since been both verified and rejected.
There’s a notion in the Gemara that even when we side with one opinion, that doesn’t mean the other opinion is wrong. The reconciliation is often revealed in the text, where we see the ‘wrong’ opinion was referring to a specific scenario we weren’t aware of. Relatedly, the Sages Hillel and Shammai had many disagreements and we follow Hillel’s opinion in all but six instances, but the Gemara teaches us: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God” (Eruvin 13b). In addition, there is a tradition that we will instead follow Shammai in the future.
Personally, I’m not troubled by the notion of our Sages making scientific declarations that have since been discredited. Rather, I’m awed when they say something that has taken nearly 2000 years to be observed by modern science.
Mazal tov and shkoyach on learning some masechet Beitzah! May we merit to return and learn it again. Next comes masechet Rosh Hashanah.