Today’s daf (Megillah 8a-b) contains many of the Mishnayot in the first chapter of Massechet Megillah where each of them begins with the same phrase of אין בין – ‘there is no difference between…’, they contrast two areas of religious practice (eg. vow offerings vrs. gift offerings), or two different degrees of someone who has had the same physical experience (a zav who experiences two emissions vrs. a zav who experiences three emissions), or two different degrees of someone of a specific spiritual category (a confined metzora vrs. a confirmed metzora/someone who becomes pure from a state of confinement vrs. someone who becomes pure from a state of confirmation), or items of two different degrees of holiness (Books of the Tanach vrs. Tefillin & Mezuzot), they then use the word אלא – ‘except’, and they then inform us how each differ from the other.
On first glance, each of these Mishnayot are all about drawing distinctions, with each emphasising how couplets of various practices, experiences, categories and items differ from one another. Yet the very fact that all these varied areas of Jewish law are addressed and explained through the use of the same literary device of אין בין… אלא is ultimately suggestive of the fact that even two completely different aspects of Jewish law – such as the laws of offerings and the holiness of holy texts – rest within the contours of the same spiritual landscape.
Of course, by using the formula אין בין… אלא, our Sages certainly had a practical intention in mind in terms of providing learners with a powerful way to help remember these laws by heart. Yet beyond this, by using this same formula to distinguish between such a broad range of practices, experiences, categories and items, they also emphasized how similar relationships exist between couplets of Jewish law drawn from different realms of Jewish law, and that Jewish law is – ultimately – a family of varied practices and rituals, with each of these Mishnayot telling us more about the precise relationship between different couplets.
Thus the words אין בין… אלא are used both to highlight difference and emphasize similarity – and thereby help us understand that beyond the specific details standing between (בין) specific laws, they are all part of a broader network, sitting alongside one another – as members of one family – within the same spiritual landscape called Jewish law.