Weasels Stole My Chametz

This Spring, Adin Steinsaltz came to Princeton to lead a Talmud study session. The local Chabadniks who cohosted the program handed out pages from Tractate Pesachim– a few folios, including today’s daf. Since Rabbi Steinsaltz was stuck in a traffic jam on Route 1, we were encouraged to study some of the text in hevruta, but not all of it: First, we should read the mishnah and then we should skip ahead to a portion beginning on the next folio (tomorrow’s daf). Dutifully, we did as we were told.

When Rabbi Steinsaltz arrived, nearly an hour later than scheduled, we were all primed to discuss the challenge of dealing with cats and mice scurrying hither and yon clutching chametz in their jaws. But no one had told Rabbi Steinsaltz that we had skipped the gemara about the habit of gentiles to bury their stillborn infants in their houses.

Rabbi Steinsaltz glanced at the text and shook his head. “I would not have chosen this text,” he said. And he then proceeded to explain the laws of purity and the contamination that results from even unwitting proximity to impure things. He taught that there is nothing more impure than a corpse and that a major difference between us and the gentiles is that “we do not bury our saints in our synagogues.”

I suppose that our Chabad sponsors would have preferred a text more felicitous to their outreach mission, but the more challenging material made for a more unforgettable evening.

Daf 332 (Pesachim 9a-9b)

Mishnah. “We are not concerned that a weasel may have dragged chametz from house to house . . .”

Gemara. The gemara suggests a limit to the mishnah: If we actually see a weasel enter the house, perhaps we are concerned– or might we assume that the weasel ate the chameetz while it was there?

Another mishnah is cited related to idolators’ houses, which a Jew generally will not enter “because they bury their stillborn children there.” However, if a weasel or pig is seen entering the house, it is safe for the Jew to enter because it is assumed that the animal ate the corpse.

This leads to a general discussion on how to dettermine the status of a dwelling in ambiguous circumstances.

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