The Gemara on yesterday’s daf (=page) introduced us to the idea that in the event that given foodstuffs has a yad (literally “hand,” in this case a handle) attached to it, or if it was covered with something that served as a shomer (“protection”) to the food, touching those appendages would be considered significant and the ritual defilement potentially could spread.
The Gemara on today’s daf discusses the situation of a stalk of wheat, where the husks of the wheat kernels serve as protection, and the kernels themselves protect one another. In response to the Gemara’s query whether the kernels – or even a row of kernels – are of the minimum size necessary to become ritually defiled, the Gemara refers to the case of “the wheat grains of Shimon ben Shetah.”
This reference relates to a Gemara in Masechet Ta’anit (23a) which teaches that during the time of Shimon ben Shetah the wheat kernels grew to be the size of kidneys, the barley grew to be the size of olives and the lentils grew to be the size of gold dinars. Furthermore, the Gemara there relates that these oversize fruits were preserved to serve as a reminder to future generations that if their generation would be without sin they, too, could merit such produce.
Shimon ben Shetah was the head of the Sanhedrin during the reign of King Alexander Yannai. Under his religious leadership, witchcraft was abolished from the land, he clarified the laws of court testimony and solidified the laws of marriage contracts. His belief in the supreme authority of the Sanhedrin led him to call even King Yannai to court, and the tension between them led Shimon ben Shetah to go into hiding for fear of his life. Ultimately, after King Yannai’s death, his widow, Queen Shlomzion took over the reigns of government. The Queen was Shimon ben Shetah’s sister, and the period of her rule – in concert with her brother – was a time of national success and contentment in all of its different aspects.