Sometimes you can read a text in one way, while nevertheless feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Then, you can encounter a different reading to this same text, and subsequently reach an altogether different understanding of what is going on.
This is precisely what happened to me last night when looking through today’s daf, and it highlights the impact translations have on our readings, while also revealing the (hidden) drama inherent in one of the Mishnayot found in today’s daf.
Mishna Eruvin (10:13, 103a) states that ‘one may cut off a wart in the Temple [on Shabbat] (i.e. if the need arises as part of the Temple services), but one may not do so in the rest of the country (i.e. in all other places or circumstances)’.
Upon consulting the Artscroll commentary, it explained that this Mishna addresses the fact that ‘an animal with a wart is unfit to be offered as a sacrifice (see Vayikra 22:22)’ and therefore, the Mishna is to be understood to refer to the severing of a wart from an animal to enable it to be used as a sacrifice.
However, while I noted how numerous commentaries interpreted this Mishna precisely in this manner, and though the Gemara subsequently addresses this question while making reference to Mishna Pesachim 6:1, something nagged at me – especially since the previous Mishna (10:13, 102b) discussed the laws of replacing a dressing on a (human) wound on Shabbat, and the following Mishna (10:14, 103b) spoke of other ways that a Kohen may protect a wound on their finger on Shabbat.
But I then consulted various other commentaries, including the Rambam, and I discovered that they interpreted this Mishna differently, explaining how it refers to a wart on the body of the Kohen since Kohanim may not serve in the Temple if they have an evident or prominent physical blemish.
Interestingly, the Steinsaltz translation mentions both approaches, stating that ‘a wart is an example of a blemish that temporarily disqualifies a priest from performing the Temple service, and disqualifies an animal from being offered on the altar; they regain their fitness once the wart is removed. Consequently, on Shabbat one may cut off a wart by hand in the Temple…’). In so doing, it acknowledges the fact that many Mishna commentaries, along with the Gemara’s analysis, suggests that we are discussing a wart on an animal, but it also acknowledges the fact that the previous and subsequent Mishna discuss a wart on the Kohen, and that a simple reading of the Mishna would likely lead to that conclusion.
Having now explained the meaning of the Mishna, let us ponder its interpretation while considering its contemporary and current applications.
Clearly, if an animal is brought to the Temple that cannot be sacrificed due to a wart on its body this may have generated a small amount of drama, and in such a situation we are told that it may be removed. However, what I would like to consider is the drama of a Kohen who is about to serve in the Temple and who then, upon discovering a blemish, realizes that they are unable to do so. True, some Kohanim may simply make peace with this fact. However, this would likely agitate many of them who would have waited a while their turn to take the lead in the sacrificial service.
In that moment, they would likely ask themselves whether attempting to remove the wart – which itself involves a prohibition that is waived in such a situation – is the sacrifice they are willing to make in order to take a lead in offering sacrifices – and it is this drama that is considered in our Mishna.
In terms of a contemporary application, though the notion of being disqualified due to a physical blemish is something that many of us struggle to comprehend, many of us have probably had the experience of turning up to a job interview or to another significant life event and, moments before, discovering that there is a stain on our clothes or that our hair is a mess.
Sometimes there is something we can do about it, and sometimes – notwithstanding our best efforts – there is little we can do. Yet in that moment of discovery our heart skips a beat, knowing that forces beyond our control may have scuppered a significant life opportunity.
Considering this situation, I am reminded of the scene in the movie ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ when Chris Gardner, who had spent many weeks hoping to get a job at a big firm, was arrested for failure to pay parking fines while painting his apartment and who then ran to his interview wearing an undershirt and jeans. When asked by the boss, ‘what would you say if man walked in here with no shirt, and I hired him?, Gardner replied, ‘He must have had on some really nice pants (trousers)’.
Unfortunately, not all bosses are as forgiving as Gardner’s was, and sometimes forces beyond our control do scupper very significant life opportunities. In particular, this is happening now when so many people continue to financially suffer from the consequences of Corona. In fact, just yesterday, I listened to the radio and heard many heartbreaking stories from many people facing incredible difficulties, and then, hours after while walking past a closed shopping area in Jerusalem, my heart sank for all those shop owners.
The current situation is very upsetting and incredibly painful, and this is because rather than the pain experienced from removing a wart from our body or from a sacrifice so that both can be used in service, the current economic climate means that many people simply cannot do what they need to do, and while some businesses are experiencing the pain and challenge of operating in difficult circumstances, others are experiencing the pain of becoming sacrifices.