February 8, 2021

Pesachim 79

We have previously discussed the law of פסח שני which states that individuals who are טמא (impure from contact with the dead) do not partake of the Korban Pesach during their state of impurity, and instead, do so a month later.
And we have also discussed the concept of אין ציבור נידחין לפסח שני – meaning that if a community becomes טמא, then they do not delay their consumption of the Korban Pesach, and instead, they join the rest of the people to consume the Korban Pesach on the 14th of Nissan.
In light of all this, today’s daf (Pesachim 79) tries to understand what is meant by the word ציבור (community)? What should be done if a minority of the community becomes טמא (impure) while the majority remain in a state of טהרה (purity)? And what should be done if half of the Jewish people are טמא and half or not?
As might be expected, different answers are offered by different Rabbis to these questions. However, what does seem clear as explained by Rabbi Elazar Ben Matya at the end of today’s daf (Pesachim 79b) is that where there is one more טהור (pure) individual as there are טמא (impure) individuals in a community, then אין היחיד מכריע את הציבור לטומאה – “an individual person cannot tip [the balance of the entire public] toward ritual impurity”. What this teaches us is that while a community is made up of individuals, the concept of community is greater than any singular individual, and at least in terms of bringing a community to a collective state of טומאה (impurity), no singular individual has the capacity to do so. In fact, it is in this spirit that the Mishna states that capital punishment may not be meted out with a majority of just one judge (see Mishna Sanhedrin 1:6).
At the same time, it is worthwhile remembering that the whole notion of being טמא arises from contact with the dead, which means that an individual can clearly have a huge impact on a community in terms of rendering them טמא. Given this, though we say that “an individual person cannot tip [the balance of the entire public] toward ritual impurity”, the whole notion of טומאת מת (impurity arising from contact with the dead) is seemingly predicated on the possibility that an individual person can tip the balance of the entire public toward ritual impurity!
To answer this conundrum let us turn to Rav Soloveitchik who writes in ‘The Community’ that: ‘The individuals belonging to the community complement one another existentially. Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum…Judaism has always looked upon the individual as if he were a little world (microcosm); with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end. A vacuum which other individuals cannot fill is left.’
What this means is that in a living community, our task is to maintain the forces that promote life, and thus אין היחיד מכריע את הציבור לטומאה. At the same time, when someone dies, we are reminded that each person is a world unto themselves. Their loss affects those who love them and the world around them. And when this occurs, we are reminded of the precious value of the יחיד who is, as our Rabbis express (see Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5), comparable to an עולם מלא – an entire world.
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