Talmud Tips

For the week ending 22 December 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Chullin 9-15

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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“From where do we learn that principle that the Rabbis taught us that we should establish an item on its chazaka?”


The principle of chazaka mentioned here in the gemara instructs us to keep the status quo of an item intact in a case when we have doubt as to whether its status has changed for some reason. The reader may find it helpful to view this Torah’s rule for deciding the halachic status of an item in a way that is perhaps similar to Newton’s First Law of Motion: “An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.” Of course it is not the same, and I intend it only as a teaching aid to compare this fascinating principle to a well-known law of physics.

Chazaka(lit. “holding”) is a Torah principle, despite the somewhat cryptic way it is mentioned on our daf, “From where do we learn that principle that the Rabbis taught us….” However, it is clear from the fact that the Sages of the Oral Law ask for its (Torah) source, that it is indeed a Torah concept. Our sugya seeks the source for it in the Written Law.

The source for chazaka in the Torah that our gemara suggests, debates, and then finally accepts, is the case of a house afflicted with tzara’at. This means that the house is “plagued” with a certain spot or spots on the inside, as described in the Torah. The upshot of the presence of tzara’at in a house renders the house and the contents as being tamei (a halachic status of spiritual and ritual impurity). This affliction of tzara’at is often poorly translated as “leprosy” and was applicable, as the Torah teaches, to clothing and people as well as houses, although this “disease” of tzara’at is not applicable today. We are taught that it was inflicted from Above as a punishment for negative and slanderous speech by the item’s owner.

A house that is suspected of having a spot that would render it a bayit ha’menuga — a house afflicted in this manner — must be inspected by a kohen, who decides its status after entering the house and viewing the nega (spot). Only a kohen can condemn the house and rule that it is tamei.

The Torah states the manner in which the kohen concludes his examination of the house before pronouncing it tamei: “T hen the kohen will go out of the house to the entrance of the house…” (Vayikra 14:38) Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, “Perhaps while the kohen was walking out of the house the spot diminished in size to be less than the minimum measure and is therefore not an issue?” Since we see that the Torah is not concerned with this possibility, he concludes, it must be that the Torah relies on the assumption that the size is unchanged unless known to be otherwise — and this shows the source and application of the Torah principle of chazaka.

A question is raised by Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov, that perhaps the Torah is speaking about the kohen walking out of the house backwards. In this manner, the kohen is able to view the spot and ensure it did not change time even while he was exiting the house. Therefore Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov contends that we cannot learn the principle of chazaka from this section of the Torah.

The Sage Abayei, however, answers this question is two ways: First of all, walking backwards does not fulfill the requirement of the exiting — va’yeitzei — in the verse. In addition, even if it is a proper fulfillment of exiting, we still would need to rely on chazaka in the event that the spot is behind the door, in a place he cannot keep in his view even if he walks out backward.

The Sage Rava takes issue with both answers that Abayei stated. Regarding Abayei’s first point, Rava teaches that we find that the kohen gadol fulfills his requirement to exit (v’yatza in Vayikra 15:24) the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur by walking out backwards. This is taught in a mishna, that “his exit is like his entrance”, i.e. he exits while facing the Holy of Holies, walking backwards. (Rava also addresses Abayei’s second point, as taught in the gemara.)

Tosefot raises a question regarding a backwards entry into a bayit hamenuga. The gemara in TractateShavuot(17b) states that although one who enters this house becomes tamei, if he does so in a backwards manner he does not become tamei. Why should this differ from the way we view the exit of the kohen gadol? Tosefot answers that there is a distinction between entering and exiting. Entering is proper and normal only when done in a forward manner. Exiting, however, is considered normal also when done backward, as is the manner of a student taking leave of his teacher. In our day, in fact, it is the widespread custom for one who is departing the Kotel to walk away backward, while still facing this place where the Divine Presence resides. In a similar manner, we take three steps backwards from the intimate setting of being before the King of kings in His palace at the conclusion of each “silent” amida prayer.

· Chullin 10b

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