Pesahim 3a-b - Being careful with one’s words

June 23, 2013



As noted on the last daf (page), the Mishnah that opens Massekhet Pesahim begins with the word or, which is used to mean "the evening of," even though that definition is an unusual one. The Gemara suggests that this term was chosen, rather than simply using leil – "the night of," because it is lashon me'alia – "a higher level form of speech." The attempt to raise the level of sensitivity to word usage is supported by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's teaching that a person should always be careful to keep from saying something inappropriate. This is supported by a number of passages from the Tanakh, all of which prefer to speak in a cumbersome manner, rather than using a simple, direct word that conveys negative ideas. As an example of this, Rav Aha bar Ya'akov points to the passage where King Shaul wonders why David did not appear for the Rosh Hodesh meal (I Shmuel 20:26). Rather than saying "perhaps he was tameh" – i.e. defiled, the passage records him saying "perhaps something happened to him and it turned out that he was lo tahor" – i.e. not pure.
As is commonplace in the Gemara, the technical ruling is followed by a number of illustrations.
There were these three priests in the Temple, each of whom received a portion of the showbread divided among the priests. Since there were many priests, each one received only a small amount. One said to them: I received a bean-sized portion. And one said: I received an olive-bulk. And one said: I received a portion the size of a lizard’s tail. They investigated the background of the latter priest, who used the imagery of an impure creeping animal, and they found a trace [shemetz] of disqualification in his background.
Upon hearing the expression that the third kohen used, referring to an unclean animal, the authorities checked his background information and discovered that he should not have been participating in the service.

Aside from the Gemara's issue with the use of this term, it is interesting to examine where such an expression would come from. The choice of "a lizard's tail" as an independent measure of size stems from the fact that oftentimes a lizard will shed his tail if it is caught and will grow another one. Since a lizard's tail is about 4 centimeters long, clearly it describes a very small amount.

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.
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