February 13, 2021

Pesachim 84

Today’s daf (Pesachim 84a) records an apparent disagreement between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish highlighting their different approaches to the halachic status of parts of an animal that has been offered as the Korban Pesach. According to what we are told, Rabbi Yochanan asserts that we determine the validity of a piece of meat based on its current status (i.e. if it is soft and edible now, but will soon harden and will become inedible, it is valid), while Reish Lakish asserts that its validity is determined based on their final state (i.e. if it is soft and edible now, but will soon harden and will become inedible, it is invalid).

In light of this, the Gemara then informs us that when Rabbi Avin was planning to visit Rabbi Abahu, Rabbi Yirmiyah asked him to ask Rabbi Abahu about a statement which seems to suggest that Rabbi Yochanan is actually of the opinion – like that of Reish Lakish – that we determine the validity of an animal based on its final state.

To this, Rabbi Abahu replied that such a question reflects someone who ‘was not concerned for his flour’ (which I understand to mean that just as people sift their flour to separate from the desired good flour and the undesirable remnants, by asking this question Rabbi Yirmiyah demonstrated his failing – in this case – to filter between good and bad). As Rabbi Abahu proceeded to explain, though it is true that Rabbi Yochanan had originally held an opinion reflecting how we determine the validity of a piece of meat based on its current status, he later changed his mind to hold the same position of Reish Lakish that we determine the validity of a piece of meat based on its final state. Simply put, Rabbi Yochanan had not contradicted himself; he had simply changed his mind.

Today, the vast amount of data on the internet means that so much of what we may have said or done in the past is accessible. For those rare people who have been totally consistent in what they have ever said or done, this may be fine. However, for those who have undergone changes – personally, intellectually etc. – this may present a problem for them, because it is possible for others – for example, prospective employers or someone who is considering dating them – to find statements or images of theirs or about them that no longer reflect who they are.

Naturally, Judaism – which promotes personal growth and change – teaches us that we should evaluate people on who they are and not who they were, and we should train ourselves to filter between the past and the present, just as we sift flour to separate the good from the bad.

However, as Rabbi Sacks zt’l explained in recent years and in his book ‘Morality’, our society has defaulted to preferring shame over guilt. What this means is that rather than positively acknowledging those who have erred and changed, or those who have gone on a growth journey and thereby transformed themselves, we’ve shamed them for doing so. Instead of overlooking the past out of respect for the present, society – and especially the media – have taken to weaponizing the past in order to do harm in the present.

Interestingly, last year I started teaching at a seminary, where I was delighted to find out that one of the faculty members is an old friend who I knew in my late teens and early twenties. She had married and moved to Israel not long after university, and I hadn’t seen her for more than 20 years. Since then, each of us have grown. She is now an expert in Jewish philosophy, and I now teach about Jewish thought and law. Admittedly, I was not too badly behaved in my late teens and early twenties, but those who knew me then would agree that who I am now is not precisely who I was. Yet what made me happy is that each of us made the choice to encounter each other not as we were, but as we are.

Of course, explained this way the idea of showing generosity of spirit seems so simple. However, generosity of spirit is – unfortunately – a rare commodity in our modern world which seems to prefer highlighting errors of the past, than celebrating growth from the past.

Ultimately, what we learn from today’s daf is that even great Talmudic masters can change their mind, and that it is a sign of wisdom to acknowledge growth and change, rather than weaponize or sensationalize the past at the cost of the present.

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