Pesachim 66

Twice in today’s daf an exquisite phrase is used which, since the time of the Gemara, has been invoked in numerous halachic writings and rulings.

Firstly, in Pesachim 66a when Bnei Beteira asked Hillel HaBavli – with reference to a wider discussion initiated by the Mishna (Pesachim 6:1-2) about the actions that may or may not be performed on Shabbat in order to slaughter a Korban Pesach on Shabbat – “if one forgot to bring a knife to the Temple before Shabbat, what should be done?”, he said to them, “I heard this law but I have forgotten it”, but הנח להן לישראל – “leave it to the Jewish people”, אם אין נביאים הן בני נביאים הן – “because while they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets”.

What we learn from here is that the Jewish people – by virtue of being the descendants of great people – are assumed to do things right, which means that even if a law is a matter of dispute, then the actions of the people will reflect the passed-on traditions and will thereby be a legitimate expression of how things should be done.

Then, in Pesachim 66b we read that Bnei Beteira asked Hillel HaBavli whether, when an act is permitted according to the Torah (דאורייתא) but is forbidden by the Sages (דרבנן), the action prohibited by the Sages be performed in an unusual manner (כלאחר יד) where this action enables a mitzvah to be performed (במקום מצוה)? To this, he too responded “I heard this law but I have forgotten it”, but הנח להן לישראל – “leave it to the Jewish people”, אם אין נביאים הן בני נביאים הן – “because while they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets”. This also suggests that even if a law is a matter of dispute, then the actions of the people will reflect the passed-on traditions and will thereby be a legitimate expression of how things should be done.

Clearly, Hillel HaBavli had great faith in the mimetic traditions of the Jewish people. But is it really true that we can presume that answers to complex questions such as these can be answered merely by observing the ways of the people who are descendants of great people (i.e. ‘children of prophets’)?

Significantly, and as pointed out by Rabbi Elli Fischer*, the very fact that this phrase is only used by Hillel HaBavli with respect to the laws of the Korban Pesach as performed in Jerusalem speaks volumes about its limitations. Still, there were those who widened the application of this sentiment, and various examples can be found – such as in the responsa of the Hatam Sofer (Orach Chaim 74, 181; Yoreh Deah 134, 332) and elsewhere – where what was done by the people was considered to be a ‘mekor’ (source) for what may be done.

Ultimately, while halachic decisions are mostly determined by formal legal discussion as found in texts, there are at least some occasions when the most powerful ‘mekor’ for a certain behaviour is the actions of the people.

* http://adderabbi.blogspot.com/2006/04/prophetic-intuition-reading-of.html