We are taught in the Mishna (Pesachim 3:2) in today’s daf (Pesachim 45a) that dough which has become stuck in the cracks of a kneading bowl must be removed and disposed of before Pesach if its volume is the equivalent to, or greater than, a כזית (the size of an olive). However, if its volume is smaller than this, then it is בטל במיעוטו – ‘nullified due to its insignificant volume’.
Having explained this, the Mishna then teaches us that this rule applies not only to chametz on Pesach, but also with respect to the laws of טומאה, and specifically, the laws of immersing utensils (טבילת כלים). What this means is that if there is some dough stuck in a crack of a kneading bowl which you’d rather not be there, then such a presence is considered to be a חציצה (interposition) and the immersion is ineffective. However, if a person wishes for that small amount of dough to be there (eg. because it fills the crack), then it is considered to be part of the kneading-bowl and the immersion is effective.
Following this, and commenting specifically on the first half-of the Mishna, the Gemara (Pesachim 45b) cites a teaching of Rabbi Nachman in the name of Shmuel stating that if there are two half-olive-size volumes of dough in the cracks of a kneading bowl, with a thread of dough connecting between the two, then if these are one unit (as proven by the fact that if, by pulling the thread of dough, the other pieces pull away with it), then they are considered to be a unified piece and must be removed and disposed of before Pesach, whereas if they are not, then they are בטל במיעוטם – nullified due to their insignificant volume.
Overall, what we learn from here is that there are times when a foreign presence can be overlooked – especially if its presence is desired. However, there are times when it cannot be overlooked, especially if it is substantive or undesired.
I mention all this because, this past Shabbat, I was reading the recently published second volume of אבוא ביתך – which is a work written by Rabbi David Stav, together with his son Rabbi Avraham Stav – exploring questions of modesty and morality in the modern era.
Significantly, and unlike most other books on these subjects, Rabbis Stav are rabbinic voices from the Religious Zionist world, and consequently, their approach is – overall – more validating and more accommodating than most other rabbinic books on such subjects.
And why do I mention this? Because in the opening of their essay addressing the phenomenon of observant Jews watching movies which may contain one or two ‘inappropriate’ scenes, they – unexpectedly – reference the laws of ביטול (nullification) of forbidden substances, having been inspired to do so by Rabbi A. Y. Kook.
As they explain, the great author Shai Agnon writes in his ‘Sefer, Sofer V’Sippur’ that Rabbi Kook once asked him for his books which he wanted to read. Having read them, Rabbi Kook told Agnon, “I have read all your stories and I found in them some things which do not sit well with me. However… just as when something forbidden has become mixed into permitted food and there is sixty times more permitted food than the forbidden substance, then it is nullified by the permitted substance…So too with your books, though there may be some forbidden ideas in them, they are nullified because there is [at least] sixty times more positive ideas”.
In light of this, they write, “if we continue with the terminology of Rav Kook which he draws from the laws of Ta’aruvot (foods wherein something forbidden has been mixed into something permitted) – we must clarify in every situation whether the forbidden substance (i.e. the inappropriate scene) gives ‘flavour’ (טעם) and thereby affects the entire mixture, and if the forbidden substance is ‘significant’ (דבר חשוב) and therefore cannot be nullified even if it has a much smaller quantity to the rest of the mixture.” To this, we may wish to add – as inspired by our daf – that if each individual scene may not be significant, but are forged together with a thread (i.e. narrative) such that ‘if, by pulling the thread of dough, the other pieces pull away with it’, this too would be problematic.
Admittedly, I am not certain how far we can extrapolate specific halachic rulings from specific contexts (such as the laws of Ta’aruvot) to broader, more multi-faceted, phenomena that involve very different prohibitions. Still, just as we learn in our daf that there are times when a foreign presence can be overlooked – especially if its presence is desired, and there are times when it cannot be overlooked – especially if it is substantive or undesired, so too, there are times when words (e.g. curse words) and images (e.g. inappropriate images) in our world can be overlooked, and other times when they should be intentionally avoided.