י׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ג (August 16, 2013)

Pesaḥim 57a-b: Which is Better – Sheep or Goat?

Although the story of the Hasmonean victory against the Greeks during the Second Temple is well-known, the dynasty that they built degenerated over time. In a number of places in the Talmud we are told about disagreements between the Sages and the High Priests, who often did not follow the traditions and rulings of the Sanhedrin. The fourth perek concludes with a number of stories about Kings and High Priests of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the lack of respect that they had for Jewish tradition generally and the Temple service specifically.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that lists four cries that were heard in the courtyard of the Temple. One of them was about Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai who was so fastidious about his own honor that he would wrap his hands in silk while performing the Temple service, thus indicating that he did not perceive the avoda (work) of the mikdash as being worthy of dirtying his hands.

The Gemara then describes what became of Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai.

They said: The king and the queen were sitting and talking. The king said that goat meat is better food, and the queen said lamb meat is better food. They said: Who can prove which one of us is correct? The High Priest can, as he offers sacrifices all day and tastes their meat. The High Priest had the right to take a portion from any sacrifice offered in the Temple, and therefore was well acquainted with the tastes of different meat. Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai came, and when they asked him this question, he signaled contemptuously with his hand and said: If goat is better, let it be sacrificed as the daily offering. The daily offering is a lamb, proving that its meat is preferable to that of a goat. The king said: Since he not only disagrees with me but has no reverence for the monarchy, as evident from his contempt, sever his right hand.

Following this story, the amora’im comment that aside from his lack of political sensitivity, he also was incorrect in his decision about the quality of the different types of meat. Rav Ashi points out a Mishna that clearly says that they are of equal importance; Ravina infers this from Biblical passages.

Although the story appears to simply show the lack of respect the participants had for the Temple service, in his commentary to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah Bachrach suggests that a serious question was involved. A person who brings a sin-offering has a choice of either bringing a sheep or a goat. If a sheep is brought, no one will know that it is a sin-offering, as it could also be a voluntary sacrifice; a goat clearly indicates that the sacrifice is being brought because of a sin. Thus the question that Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai did not take seriously was whether as part of the repentance process it would be better to publicize that a sin had taken place or to hide it.