SUGYA OF THE MONTH: Shattering Preconceptions in BT Chagigah 26a

David Quintas, Columbia University 

Most of my experience learning the final chapter of Tractate Chagigah was an extremely frustrating one. The chapter primarily deals with Tumah and Tahara, laws of ritual purity and impurity. The intricate categories and litany of terms associated with these statuses posed a baseline difficulty from the get-go and even after I started feeling comfortable with the lingo, it remained difficult to get invested in the material.

Even for Talmudic discussions, this one felt particularly arcane. On the most basic level, Tumah and Tahara are not applicable today and thereby offered little opportunity for putting my hard work into practice. What really irked me about this section, though, was that so much of its contents discussed the required limitations on one’s interactions with the Amei Ha’aretz, a rabbinic euphemism for lay-people lacking necessary knowledge of purity laws. These conversations – built on mistrust for those ill-informed members of the community – seemed to be an admission on the part of the Rabbis that all of the scores of guidelines, all of the circuitous discussions they were having (and, not to mention, I was cracking my head over) were too complicated for a significant portion of the population to grasp. It was hard not to think of the Talmud and its legal discourse as the workings of an intellectual elite, with no bearing on most of the Jewish people.

However, on the second to last folio of the Tractate, I came across a statement that really floored me. On BTChagigah 26a, citing Mishna 3:8, it states:

“ובשעת הרגל אף על התרומה”.

And during the Pilgrimage Festivals, (they are deemed credible) even with regard to Terumah

What the Rabbis teach here is that during the duration of the Shalosh Regalim, the three holidays in which all Jews were expected to visit the Temple, even an Am Ha’aretz can be trusted regarding the complex laws of purity and impurity. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi draws a source for this idea from the Book of Judges (20:11):

“ויאסף כל איש ישראל אל העיר כאיש אחד חברים’’

And all the men of Israel gathered to the city, like one man, united.

This verse cites an example of unity and comradeship–ironically in the context of 11 tribes uniting violently against the tribe of Benjamin in the incident of the Pilegesh of Givah–and is used as a (perhaps homiletical) source for temporarily suspending the restrictions on interactions with the Amei Ha’aretz. Essentially, the Rabbis temporarily bestow upon their usual polemical targets the highly respected title of Chaveirim (here meaning those versed in the intricacies of Tumah/Tahara, but also a term implying acceptance in the rabbinic circle). Citing Rashi, Eliezer Berkovitz writes that the restrictions were lifted in order to save the Amei Ha’aretz from “public insult.” According to this logic, during the period when all Jews united in the Temple there was an overwhelming desire to protect each person from embarrassment, even if that meant allowing for leniencies in the laws of purity.

This sugya, for me, delivered a twist equal in shock to any at the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Coming right at the Tractate’s close, this temporary extension of the coveted Chaver status upon those who otherwise would not be trusted totally re-contextualized my study up to that point. It provided a method by which to read this section as admitting that certain values – national unity, avoidance of segregation or embarrassment – were important enough that they could void the serious demands of ritual purity which the sages had just laid out. Granted, there are many readings that claim this suspension is fully grounded within Talmudic legal logic itself, otherwise it wouldn’t be allowed (for instance, Rambam writes that it can be assumed that even an Am Ha’aretz would purify himself before visiting the Temple, so considering them pure is justified). However, realizing that it was possible that something I had been reading in exclusive and elitist terms could consider ethics of inclusion and sensitivity was a reversal of thought that not only changed my opinion of Tractate Chagigah, but indicated that even a seemingly irrelevant or elitist Rabbinic discussion may be struggling with more than we realize. .