Thursday, 20 July 2017

Sanhedrin 4: When Words Have Two Meanings or are Otherwise Ambivalent

At times the written words of the Torah can be interpreted in different ways.  Some of the more obvious examples would include words that might be written in one way but spoken differently, leading to different possible interpretations.  Other examples could be words that are spelled the same but mean different things depending on how they are pronounced aloud (using different vowels).  The Gemara focuses on how to determine whether we take the words of the Torah or the vocalization of the Torah as authoritative in such cases.

Some of the situations discussed in today's daf include 

  • the sixty-six days of tumah observed by a woman following the birth of a baby girl
  • how and where blood is sprinkled on the altar when different animals are sacrificed
  • how many walls are required in a sukka
  • whether we consider one or two people when discussing the loss of a quarter-log of blood
  • whether we fill four or three compartments of the tefillin
  • why blindness allows a person to be free from the obligation of appearing on the Festivals
  • whether an animal cannot be cooked in its mother's milk, chalev, or a mother's fat, chelev

The first example, a woman's ritual impurity after labour, is particularly fascinating to me.  The Gemara teaches us that she is tamei for shivuayim, two weeks, rather than shivim, seventy days, thought it seems to be written as 'shivuayim' in the Torah.  Part of the rabbis' reasoning is contextual, based on the calculation of a tamei after a woman gives birth to a boy.  But part of their reasoning is purely interpretative, based on their social context, what seems to make sense, what is efficacious, etc.

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