Today’s daf (Yevamot 74a) focusses on the restrictions of various individuals such as an אונן (someone whose close relative has died but is yet to be buried), an ערל (someone who is uncircumcised), and a טבול יום (someone who has entered into a state of impurity lasting a day) from consuming various sacred foods such as Terumah, Ma’aser Sheni and Kodshim, and in doing so, it discusses which of these sacred foods is treated more strictly, and consequently is considered holier.
As part of this discussion, a Beraita is cited which states as follows: ‘It is prohibited for an אונן (someone whose close relative has died but is yet to be buried) to eat Ma’aser Sheni, but they may eat Terumah and also participate in sprinkling the ashes of the Parah Adumah (Red heifer). It is prohibited for טבול יום (someone who has entered into a state of impurity lasting a day) to eat Terumah, but it is permitted for them to participate in sprinkling the ashes of the Parah Adumah and to eat Ma’aser Sheni. It is prohibited for one who lacks atonement (e.g., a zav who immersed at the conclusion of his period of impurity but has not yet brought an offering for his atonement), to participate in sprinkling the ashes of the Parah Adumah, but it is permitted for him to eat Terumah and Ma’aser Sheni.’
On first glance, this is just a further list of detailed laws and restrictions like the many others found in our daf. But as Rav Yechiel Zilber points out (in his ‘Shiurei HaYom’), this Beraita repeatedly employs a deliberate style whereby while it tells us that each individual is prohibited from one thing (eg. in the case of an אונן, eat Ma’aser Sheni), it then follows by informing us that they are permitted to do two things (eg. eat Terumah and be involved in the Parah Adumah). And when one reads this Beraita, and especially when one does so with a greater awareness of this fact, it immediately changes the way in which these words are heard.
Reflecting on this, what would happen if we adopted a similar style when teaching Hilchot Shabbat? Or Hilchot Kashrut? Or Hilchot Taharat HaMishpacha? Simply put, how would we relate to halacha if we focussed that much more on what can be done than what cannot?
Admittedly, this is not the first time I have made this suggestion. In fact, over the years I have attempted to develop curricula reflecting this approach. Moreover, there are a handful of books that clearly attempt to present halacha in this manner. Still, these are the exceptions, not the rules. Nevertheless, the impact of a no-can-do approach to teaching some of the most fundamental areas of halacha undoubtedly impacts the attitudes of those expected to keep those halachot.
In conclusion, what we learn from the Beraita found in today’s daf is that how ideas are presented directly impacts how they are received, and that the manner in which we emphasise what can be done over what cannot changes the way Jewish law is both heard, as well as how it is lived.