Today’s daf (Yevamot 81b) makes reference to a fascinating halachic principle of כל דבר שבמניין אינו בטל – literally ‘any item that is counted is not nullified’.
What this means is that when a prohibited item or substance becomes mixed with a permitted item or substance, though in the situation where the majority of a mixture is the permitted item/substance we generally rule that the prohibited item/substance is בטל (nullified) and the whole mixture is (at least biblically) permitted, in instances where the prohibited item/substance is of such value that it is counted individually (eg. we count eggs with the phrase ‘a dozen eggs’), then the item is not nullified even if it is just a minority of the mixture.
Yet as I explained in my commentary to Beitzah 3 (https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/beitzah-3/), in addition to the halachic implications of this principle vis-à-vis food mixtures, this concept also has hashkafic (ideological) implications. In particular, it has been invoked by a variety of great Torah teachers to explain how Avraham Avinu, who lived in a region where those around him served idols, did not nullify his principles or assimilate and adopt their ideas, but instead, maintained his ideological singularity. Significantly, this too was part of the unique qualities of Rivkah who is described by our sages as being like ‘a lily among the thorns’ (Shir Hashirim 2:2).
More generally, notwithstanding the small size of the Jewish people, Jews have – at least to some measure – striven to maintain our ideological singularity, such that even when immersed in a social, cultural or religious ‘mixture’ that is not fully aligned with our values, our choice to recognize and celebrate our singularity has helped us maintain our Jewish identity.
Interestingly, though this lesson applies to us all, it arose yesterday in a conversation that I had with one of my students who is leaving seminary and returning to the States to go to college and who wanted to know how to find the right balance between involving herself in college life and holding firm to her Jewish values. Obviously, only once she gets to college will she fully understand the options available to her. Still, while I did not make direct reference to the principle of כל דבר שבמניין אינו בטל – literally ‘any item that is counted is not nullified’, this was in essence what I told her.
Ultimately, we learn from this fascinating halachic principle is the idea that part of our ability to remain distinct from the crowd depends on how we see ourselves and the value we place on our individuality and singularity. In essence, to be a Jew is to make contributions to the wider world, while recognizing our unique role in the wider world.