Sunday, 30 June 2013

Pesachim 9a, b

Some fascinating ideas today about searching for leaven.  Instead of focusing on the halacha, I'd like to focus in on some sociological realities around miscarriage and stillbirth.

Because the rabbis are concerned about a small animal carrying leaven from house to house, they discuss stillbirths.  Really? Stillbirths?  Yes, because a small animal would definitely drag a stillbirth from its burial sites within the homes of gentiles.  The rabbis seem to be suggesting that burying one's miscarried fetus in the floor is a normal practice for gentiles (but not for jews, because contact with a corpse imparts ritual impurity).**    All of this speaks to notions of life and death, the "when does life begin" debate, death rites/rituals re:stillbirth, miscarriage and abortion, and ideas about "the other".  

Now the rabbis look at a hermeneutic principal as it applies to the halacha on searching for leaven: does a certainty carry more weight than an uncertainty?  How do we weigh a certainty against another certainty?  To examine this idea, we are reminded of a violent person's maidservant who threw a stillborn baby into a pit in Rimon.  A priest looked into the pit to identify whether the baby was a boy or a girl -- which would determine the birth mother's required status of ritual impurity (7 days after the birth of a boy and 14 days after the birth of a girl).  This circumstance is used to demonstrate competing uncertainties: did the maidservant actually throw the stillborn into a pit?  What would a small animal do if the stillborn was found? How would that affect the status of a priest who looked over and into the pit?  The questions go on and on.

The end of today's daf takes this debate around un/certainty and applies it to the search for leaven.  What if we aren't sure whether or not a mouse has taken leaven into a home otherwise free from leaven?  The rabbis turn examples upside down to fully understand the risks of ruling leniently even though these uncertainties exist. In the end, we are reminded that we should be lenient in cases of uncertainty when ruling on rabbinic halacha.  Thus when all else is equal, yet we are 50-50 regarding whether we have missed one item of leaven -- we are allowed to claim that our home is halachically ready for Pesach.

I wish that my Bubby knew that ruling.  The cleaning and organizing that she would do in preparation for Pesach was exhausting just to think about. One year, in preparing for Pesach, she was cleaning the floor and walls of a closet.  In the effort of that work, she suffered a stroke.  Part of me is angry that she went to such lengths to keep halacha.  On the other hand, part of me feels angry with myself for not being the one to wash the inside of her closet for her.  She probably would not have let me - both because she hated to accept help and because she would have been unsure that I would do a good-enough job.  It was in my power to offer, though.  That stroke was the beginning of her decline.  And the loss of my Bubby was a loss to me but also a loss to the world.

So in one daf, we are presented with two anecdotes about stillbirths.  And not just about stillbirths, but about how to dispose of stillbirths.  What I take from this is that it was commonplace to have miscarriages and stillborn babies.  People had to have some sort of ritual around that loss, but not necessarily a religious ritual.  However, every action affects other religious rituals.  So what was the ritual, in Jewish homes, when a woman miscarried? When a baby was born without a heartbeat?  I am hoping that I will learn more through these texts.  And even though the texts are based on the lives of the authors, who were obviously men, women's lives were part of their lives.  Thus we will learn something about women's lives as well.

** and from today's daf we learn that until 40 days after conception, a miscarriage is not considered to be a stillbirth and does not impart ritual impurity as it is not yet 'developed'.

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