It Isn’t Always Sunny in Pumbedisa

Yesterday’s daf ended with Abaye’s interpretation of the difference between R’Meir and R’Yehudah. Today’s daf begins with Rava’s different understanding of the same dispute. Concerning chametz the stakes appear to be fairly low, but concerning testimony in death-penalty cases, it could literally be a matter of life and death. Appearances, however, are deceiving: the rabbis are less concerned with witnesses making mistakes about the hour of the day or the day of the week because they know the court will only accept testimony from men who are “experts” in these (and other) matters. By contrast, the obligation to renounce and burn chametz falls on everyone– including ignorant people who cannot be relied upon to mind the hour scrupulously. Consequently, enforcing strict standards is a higher priority for them in the case of chametz.

Daf 335 (Pesachim 12a-12b)

Rava disputes Abaye’s analysis (11b): “According to R’Meir a person errs slightly less than two hours . . . according to R’Yehudah . . . less than three hours.” (Abaye had said: “According to R’Meir a person errs slightly, while according to R’Yehudah a person errs an hour and a bit.”) The underlying question is regarding how much variation may be tolerated in the testimony of two witnesses when considering guilt in a death-penalty case. Minor discrepancies are tolerated but outright contradictions are not. Whose standard applies?

And why do Meir and Yehudah have different standards for setting the time, both for searching out chametz and for variations in testimony? And why, in both cases is the standard stricter regarding chametz than for testimony? According to Abaye, it is because “Testimony is given over to conscientious people, whereas the chametz prohibition is given over to all.” Rava disagrees, saying it is “on account of a cloudy day, when the sun is not visible and . . . it is not possible to tell the time from [the sun’s] position in the sky.”

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