July 30, 2022

Ketubot 15

Given that today’s daf (Ketubot 15a-b) includes a substantive discussion about fundamental principles of halachic doubt – such that Moshe Halbertal (in his book ‘The Birth of Doubt: Confronting Uncertainty in Early Rabbinic Literature’ p. 34) rightly identifies this discussion as being ‘one of the most central developments of the doctrine of uncertainty in the Bavli’, I would like to explore this topic while quoting from the insightful analysis of Professor Halbertal.
One of the principles found in our daf (Ketubot 15a) is that of Rabbi Zeira who rules that ‘anything fixed in place (קבוע) is likened to being fifty-fifty, whether the result is leniency or stringency’. As Professor Halbertal explains, ‘this qualification asserts that we indeed follow the majority when there is uncertainty about an object that has left its place. However, if the uncertainty arises in the place of the object, or with regard to the place of the object, the uncertainty is treated as being completely balanced, with a likelihood of 50 percent, irrespective of the question of the majority.’
In case this is not clear to you, he proceeds and explains while making further reference to our daf: ‘The Talmud offers the following example: “It was taught [in a beraita]: Nine stores all sell properly slaughtered meat, and one sells the meat of a carcass; if he bought from one of them but does not know from which he bought, his uncertainty is deemed prohibited. If [the meat] was found, follow the majority.”’
However, ‘if meat was purchased from a store, and the buyer does not know whether it is a store that sells kosher meat or not, or if he forgot which store he bought the meat from, then even though most stores in town are kosher, this case is treated as a fifty-fifty uncertainty; in this case, the meat is forbidden out of uncertainty. Since the uncertainty arose when the meat was in its place, it is considered “fixed in place” (קבוע). In contrast, if the meat was found in the streets of that same city, its source is determined on the basis of the majority, and since most stores sell kosher meat, the meat may be eaten. This meat is called “separated” (פריש) – meat that had been separated from its place, which is subject to the principle: “Anything that separated, separated from the majority.”’
It is important to note – as Professor Halbertal observes – that, ‘at first glance, there is no probabilistic difference between one who bought meat in a store and is uncertain as to whether the store was kosher and one who found meat in the street and is uncertain as to whether it is from a kosher store. Nevertheless, according to the Talmudic rule, these two questions have completely different solutions. The question as to whether the meat was bought in a kosher store is treated as a perfectly balanced uncertainty, irrespective of considerations of majority and minority. On the other hand, the question as to whether the found meat is from a kosher store is decided in favour of the majority. In other Talmudic passages, the broad distinction between the “fixed in place” (קבוע) and “separated” (פריש) is applied in various contexts pertaining to uncertainty [and] in medieval and modern halakhic and Talmudic literature, there have been several attempts to illuminate the differences between “fixed in place” and “separated” in an obvious effort to understand why, despite the apparent absence of any probabilistic difference, there is an essential difference in how the uncertainty is decided.’
From here on, Halbertal proceeds to explore a range of sources that seemingly highlight the conceptual difference between the principles of “fixed in place” (קבוע) and “separated” (פריש). However, while – from a purely probabilistic perspective – it may be difficult to distinguish between the two, the idea that location matters in terms of halachic decision-making is, as I have regularly explained, not only understandable but is – in fact – fundamental. In fact, just yesterday I explained in my commentary (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/ketubot-14/) that, ‘yes, the law is in accordance with Rabban Gamliel, but you should not rule in accordance [with Rabban Gamliel] unless in a situation where the majority of men living in her locale are fit for her. What this means is that while the law in theory is always in accordance with Rabban Gamliel, Abaye rules that the law in practice also depends on the variables of the situation.’
Ultimately, the fact that the halacha draws a distinction between “fixed in place” (קבוע) and “separated” (פריש) comes to teach us that, when dealing with matters of halachic decision-making, and whatever way we calculate risk, doubt and probability, context truly matters.
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