Pesachim 3 The trade-off between clean and clear language

On the previous daf, the Mishna told us that we need to search for chametz by the light of a candle on “אור לארבעה עשר” [ lit: “the light of the 14’th.]

One of the first פסוקים  (verses) we learnt as children tells us how Hashem created “אור”  [“light”]  on the first day, called it “יום” [day], and called the “חושך”  [darkness], “לילה” [ night.]

As such, our first assumption when reading this Mishna would be that we need to search for Chametz during the day, or perhaps at first light, of the 14’th, i.e. the day before Pesach.

Yet, far from taking it for granted, the Gemara asks what “אור” is referring to, and brings a debate between Rav Huna, who says it is referring to “נגהי”  (Aramaic for “light”] and Rav Yehuda, who says that it is referring to “לילי” (Aramaic for night.)

Seemingly unbothered by the apparent bizarreness of Rav Yehuda “translating” a word “everyone” knows means “light” as “night-time”, the Gemara initially assumes that at least  Rav Huna holds that the mishna is referring to day-time, as would be our natural assumption.

Yet after bringing an array of פסוקים  that all seem to use the word “אור”  to refer to day-time, and offering seemingly forced alternate explanations of all them in a way that the word “אור”  itself might still refer to night, it brings various examples of usage in משניות  and ברייתות where the word clearly seems to refer to night.

Clearly choosing the later over the most obvious usage in the pessukim, the Gemara concludes that even Rav Huna agrees that the Mishna refers to night-time, but explains that in his town, the word “נגהי” was also used to refer to night-time.

Seeing as we are dealing with the usage of words by Chazal, it is not surprising that the Gemara chooses examples of its usage from Chazal over the simple meaning of its usage in the scriptures, but given that Chazal do sometimes use language differently to the scriptures (see for example B.M. 2a re “ראיה”), it seems strange that the Gemara feels the need to explain the פסוקים in a way that is consistent with their usage- perhaps the Torah simply uses “אור”  in its literal usage to describe light or day, and Chazal use it as a reference to “night”, for whatever reason?

The Gemara concludes that the reason why the Mishna (and by implication other statements of Chazal) use the word “אור”  in place of “חושך”  or “לילה” is in order to make use of “לישנע מעליה”  (lit. “superior language.”)

It bases this on Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s ruling that a person should never let a “דבר מגונה”- “degrading word” came out of his mouth.

This ruling is in turn based on the fact that Torah added 8 extra letters, despite the golden rule that it NEVER wastes letters or words, in order to replace the phrase ” בהמה טמאה” (impure animal )  with  “בהמה אשר איננה טהורה” (“ an animal which is not pure.”

This proof is followed by others from different Amoraim.

The school of Rabbi Yishmael then brings a similar rule requiring people to always speak with “לשון נקיה” (clean language.)

This is based on the fact that whereas something that a זב  (male impure due to an unusual emission) rides on (and thus becomes impure) is referred to as מרכב הזב (lit. something the זב  rode on), the equivalent by a woman is referred to as “מושב”  (lit. something she sits on.)

Rashi explains that seeing as riding an animal involves spreading one’s legs out to a degree, something normally considered immodest for a woman, the Torah prefers to use the more modest sounding “מושב”

They then bring another two verses to substantiate their claim, which the Gemara understand come to teach us that not only does the Torah, due to its extra sanctity, go out of its way to use clean language, but Chazal were also expected to do so.

Furthermore, not only are the Rabbis due to their stature required to do so, but one is required to do so in every day talk as well!

Perhaps this could explain why the Gemara was not satisfied to simply take the verses that refer to “אור” at face value and explain the Mishna on the basis that Chazal use the word differently.

In the case in Bava Metzia, Chazal might have  used the word “ראיה”  in the every day sense as in “seeing” even though in the language of the Torah, it usually implies “דאתיא לידיה” – something that comes into one’s hand.

However,  the idea that the Torah would never be concerned about using ‘clean language” and Chazal would be was not something the Gemara could consider, as we have seen that the greater sanctity of the Torah should make it more concerned about such things, not less so!

As such, the Gemara needs to go out of its way to show that the Torah could also have used the word “אור” in place of night, and the places where it means “light” literally can be explained in other ways.

Yet in truth, it is hard to say that words like “night” and “impure” are examples of such unclean language, and as the Gemara itself points out, the Torah itself often uses such words such as “טמא”

The Gemara thus qualifies the requirement to use “clean language” to a situation where the clean language is just as short and concise as the “less clean” alternative, in keeping with the dictum of Rav that a person should always teach his students with  concise language.

The clarity of concise language usually thus takes priority over being particular over “clean language,” at least regarding talking to one’s students.

If so, how do we explain the fact that in the examples brought earlier, the Torah indeed added extra letters in order to make use of “clean language?”

Rashi explains that this was an exception the Torah made in order to teach us the importance of using clean language wherever possible, and Tosfos adds that had the Torah not done so in that case, we would not have known that we need to be particular about using clean language in cases where it does not affect the concise nature of the statement.

The incredible implication of this seems at face value to mean that if it was not for this special exception the Torah made, we would think that using “unclean language” even for no justified reason is acceptable?

Is it possible that bad language, of which it is said “כל המנבל את פיו מעמיקים לו גהינום”   (one who dirties his mouth gets a deeper spot in hell- Shabbos 33a) would be acceptable had it not been for this unusual exception made by the Torah?

It seems to be that we need to differentiate between truly dirty language and words like “night”, “impure” ,and “riding” (in the context of a woman) that can hardly be said to be objectively dirty or rude.

It might go without saying that the former has to be avoided in all but perhaps the most extreme or necessary cases, if at all (objectively “dirty” language is found even in Tanach in reference to idol-worship for example- see Sanhedrin 63b  “ליצנותא דע”ז.)

The later, however, is part of everyday language that often cannot be avoided.

So important , however, is the sanctity of one’s speech, that even remotely negative words should be avoided wherever possible, and the Torah breaks its golden rule of never using unnecessary letters that once in order to drive home this essential point (see  ר”ן ד”ה “לישנא מעליה”  who seems to take this approach.)

Negative language inevitably leads to negative thoughts and actions, and although the Torah doesn’t avoid negative statement where absolutely necessary to make a point, as the ultimate “לקח טוב”  (good gift or teaching,) positivity is at its core, and should be at ours as well!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Eruvin 2 Introduction, Technical measurements and clean language.

I was discussing my daf posts with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Matthew Liebenberg of Claremont Shul, Cape-Town, and he tried to warn me that keeping up the pace and variety of posts will be much more challenging when we get to Eruvin, which is known as a particularly complicated and technical masechta.

Though I could not deny that I share a degree of concern, I replied that Eruvin is actually one of my “favorite” tractates, assuming it is possible or appropriate to say such a thing. In addition to being filled with fascinating and extremely practical rules essential to understanding the practicalities of Eruv building, something almost all of us need to know, it also contains many general ideas and topics that apply to all of Torah holistically.

This combination of material typical of the Gemara can be found right here on the first daf as well.

The thrust of the first daf deals with the technical requirements for a quiet side-street or alley to be considered a private domain on Shabbos.

The typical neighborhood in the times of Chazal (as can still be seen in some older neighborhoods of Yerushalayim) consisted of a מבוי – a short and narrow side-street or alley which opened to the main public thoroughfare on 1 or 2 sides.

Various חצרות (courtyards) opened to this central מבוי and each courtyard had houses that opened to it.

מדאורייתא ( at a biblical level,) any area enclosed on 3 sides (the exact number of sides/partitions is subject to debate later) was considered a private domain, and carrying within it was permitted.

As such, as far as biblical law is concerned, it is permitted to carry from one house to another within the courtyard, from one courtyard to another within the common מבוי , or within the courtyards or מבוי , so long as the מבאי is only open on one side to the public domain.

If the מבוי is open on two sides to the public domain, it is more complex, as the מבוי itself could be considered part of it.

Our Mishna and sugya deals with a מבוי that is closed on 3 sides and only open on one side to the public domain.

We see later that there is a rabbinical requirement to symbolically mark or enclose such a מבוי with either a pole on one side, or a beam going from one side to the other (there is some debate about these precise requirements as well.)

Our Mishna focusses on the maximum height that this pole or beam may be, as well as the maximum width of the open side, and rules that if they are higher than 20 amos (arm-lengths/cubits) or wider than 10 amos respectively, they need to be lowered or narrowed.

Rabbi Yehuda disagrees and says there is no such requirement.

It is unclear from the Mishna whether Rabbi Yehuda holds that the fourth side can be of infinite height or width, or whether he too places a limit on this, but simply a higher or wider one, but it would seem that if the later is correct, one could have expected him to say what this limit is.

The Gemara notes that a similar maximum height is discussed regarding a Sukkah (Sukkah 2a,) but the language used there is different.

Whereas in our case, we are told that a מבוי that is too high needs to be lowered, regarding Sukkah, we are simply told that it is פסול (invalid.)

As in both cases, lowering it is both compulsory and effective, the difference in language needs to be explained, and the parallel sugya in sukkah asks the very same question and gives the very same answers.

Two answers are given :

  1. Seeing as the Sukkah is דאורייתא (biblical,) the Mishna uses the word “invalid.” As the pole or beam of aמבוי are only rabbinical requirements, the mishna simply tells us the תקנתיה (solution.)
  2. The later language is also appropriate in theory for the biblical requirement of Sukkah, but seeing as a Sukkah has multiple constraints, each requiring a different solution, the Mishna chooses one word that applies to all of them, for the sake of brevity. Rashi explains that this is based on the principle (Pesachim 3b) that one should always teach one’s students using concise language.

There are various approaches in the Rishonim as to how to understand the first answer.

Rashi seems to understand that when the Gemara contrasts the biblical Sukkah with the rabbinical מבוי , it is not referring to the actual requirement of dwelling in a Sukkah or putting a pole or beam on a מבוי, even though the distinction certainly applies to that as well, but to the maximum height of the Sukkah and the מבוי.

We derive the maximum height of a sukkah from a verse in the Torah: למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל (“So that your generations will know that I placed the Jewish people in sukkot” -Vayikra 23/43.)- the Sukkah has to be low enough for the roof to be noticed.

As such, this requirement predates the writing down of the mishna by far, and it is appropriate to say that it is already invalid.

In contrast, the requirement to mark a מבוי with a pole or a beam itself is only rabbinical and its maximum dimensions are also. Seeing as the Mishna is the first to teach us these maximum dimensions, it is not appropriate to label the מבוי as already invalid but only to tell us how to solve the issue from the beginning.

This explanation has various difficulties, but I shall not dwell on them in this post.

Tosfos understands the answer a little differently- Due to the strict biblical requirements of sukkah, we are concerned that using a softer language would make us think that the requirement to fix it up is only לכתחילה (in the first place,) but if one sat in the sukkah without making these corrections, one would fulfill the mitzva still בדיעבד (post-facto.)

As such, the harsher language is preferred.

In the case of Eruvin, seeing as the requirement is only rabbinical, we are less concerned that a person might make this error, and we choose to use the softer language, in keeping with the principle (Pesachim 3a) that it is always best to use לישנא מעליה (positive language ) where possible.

We see that there are 3 principles at work here, which sometimes need to be traded off against each other, and it is fascinating to note that both Rashi and Tosfos refer to the same sugya in Pesachim which discusses 2 of these principles and the trade-off between them, but for completely opposite purposes.

  1. Language needs to be נקיה (clean), and that doesn’t just mean avoiding foul language but specifically choosing לשון מעליא (positive language.)
  2. Language needs to be concise (probably to make it easier to comprehend and remember.)
  3. Language needs to be clear or strong enough to convey the historical timeline of the law (Rashi) or the stringency of the law (Tosfos)

According to the first answer in the Gemara, the third factor over-rides the first factor, and strength of message over-rides the need for positive language.

According to the second answer in the Gemara, either positive language still takes priority over strength of message, or the positive language given is still considered appropriate or strong enough to give over the importance of the message.

However, the second factor certainly takes priority over the first, and concise direct language is preferred over positive language, as is indeed the conclusion of the above-quoted sugya in Pesachim.

There is lots more to say about the requirements for language to be clean, concise, and strong enough and how they trade-off with each other, but we have certainly seen on this first daf how the Gemara is able to focus on the one hand on specific and technical rules relating to the subject at hand, and at the same time teach us multiple principles that could apply to every aspect of our lives!

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.