‘A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.’
This story, as featured in Lynn Truss’ best-selling, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, seeks to communicate the critical importance of punctuation, and how the placing of a punctuation mark in the wrong place can completely change – and possibly ruin! – the meaning of a phrase or sentence. And in today’s daf (Pesachim 38b) we encounter our own ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ example in the response given by Rabbi Eliezer to Rabbi Ilai.
To give some context, we have previously been taught in the Mishna (2:5, see Pesachim 35a) that if someone prepared unleavened todah (thanks) offerings (see Vayikra 7:12) for themselves, or if a Nazir at the end of their nazirite prepared unleavened wafers (see Bemidbar 6:15), and then used what they had prepared for themselves for the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, then they have not fulfilled their duty. However, if these matzot had initially been prepared by an individual to be sold to others in the market and was then used by that individual for the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, then they have fulfilled their duty.
In seeking to explore the logic and basis of this ruling, today’s daf cites a Beraita which informs us how Rabbi Ilai asked his teacher Rabbi Eliezer, ‘what is the law in terms of someone who seeks to fulfil their duty [of eating matzah on Pesach] with [unleavened] todah offerings, or with [unleavened] wafers of a Nazir?’. To this, Rabbi Eliezer replied: ‘I’ve not heard the law about such a case’.
We then read that Rabbi Ilai asked the same question to Rabbi Yehuda, who responded by teaching him the law as formulated in our Mishna which distinguishes between offerings that a person had prepared for themselves, and those they had prepared to be sold in the market.
Having heard this explanation, Rabbi Ilai returned to Rabbi Eliezer and conveyed to him what he had been taught, to which Rabbi Eliezer responded: ברית הן הן הדברים שנאמרו לו למשה בסיני, “By the covenant! These are really the words that were said to Moshe at Sinai!” – meaning that Rabbi Eliezer sensed that what Rabbi Ilai had been taught by Rabbi Yehoshua was correct, and that this explanation was an authentic tradition expressing the oral interpretations that Moshe had received from God at Mount Sinai.
However, we are then told, איכא דאמרי, meaning “there are those who say”, that what Rabbi Eliezer actually said to Rabbi Ilai was, ברית הן הן הדברים שנאמרו לו למשה בסיני, “By the covenant! These, are the words that were said to Moshe at Sinai?!” – meaning that such a distinction between the offerings a person has prepared for themselves, and those they have prepared for the market, doesn’t sound like an authentic tradition expressing the oral interpretations that Moshe had received from God at Mount Sinai.
According to the first explanation, Rabbi Eliezer poetically affirmed the provenance of Rabbi Yehoshua’s explanation, while according to the second explanation, he poetically challenged its provenance.
Which all goes to show how the placing of a punctuation mark in the wrong place can completely change the meaning of a phrase or sentence.