Talmud Tips

For the week ending 30 January 2021 / 17 Shvat 5781

Pesachim 72 - 78

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Service with a Smile

Rabban Gamliel asked Rabbi Tarfon, “Why were you not in the Beit Midrash last night?”

On our daf we learn a beraita that records a clever verbal exchange between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Tarfon. When Rabban Gamliel made the above query of Rabbi Tarfon, who was normally studying Torah at night in the Beit Midrash with Rabban Gamliel, the reply Rabbi Tarfon gave was a puzzling “riddle.” Rabbi Tarfon, who was a kohen, explained “avadti avodah” — a term whose simple meaning is that he was preoccupied with his priestly sacrificial duties in the Beit Hamikdash.

Rabban Gamliel replied, “All of your words are nothing but amazing (i.e. absurd)!” He continued, rhetorically, “Where do you get such an idea that there exists sacrificial service nowadays (i.e. after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash)?”

(I recall a commentary which asks: “Why did Rabban Gamliel consider only the possibility of avodah as referring to the Beit Hamikdash service, but did not consider that Rabbi Tarfon perhaps meant prayer when he spoke of his avodah? Prayer is also called avodahavodah sh'balev, service of the heart — as taught in Masechet Ta'anit 2a: “The verse states, ‘To love Hashem and to serve Him with all of your heart' (Devarim 11:13). What service (avodah) is done with the heart? You must say: This is tefillah (prayer).” Rather, it must be that understanding the word avodah in this case as a reference to prayer was not considered for obvious reasons: Rabbi Tarfon would have prayed in the Beit Midrash, in addition to the fact that the evening prayer service elsewhere would not be sufficient reason for him not learning Torah in the Beit Midrash after the prayer concluded.)

So, what, in fact, was the avodah that preoccupied Rabbi Tarfon the previous night? Rabbi Tarfon explained his specific avodah in the following manner: “The verse states (in Bamidbar 18:7) ‘And you (Aharon) and your sons shall keep your kehunah in all matters concerning the Altar, and concerning what is within the parochet, and you shall serve; avodat matana (literally, ‘service of a gift') I have given you kehunah, and any non-kohen who approaches will die.' We see here that the Torah makes an equation between the eating of terumah by a kohen with the avodah of a kohen who is offering sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash.” Rabbi Tarfon's reply was that he needed to go home to eat terumah in a state of ritual purity and an environment safeguarded to be ritually pure — and he was therefore not able to go to the Beit Midrash that night. (As we learn in the first mishna in Shas, in many cases a person who became ritually impure needed to wait until nightfall before eating terumah.)

The Torah did not write matnat avodah — “the gift of avodah” — which would imply that the merit given to the kohen to do avodah in the Beit Hamikdash is a gift to kehunah.(This is actually the pshat that Rashi gives in explaining the verse i.e. that Hashem is saying to Aharon HaKohen and his descendents that the avodah service that will be performed by them is a gift to them.) Rabbi Tarfon, however, sees from the “reversed order” of the words — avodat matana — that the matana gifts that are given to a kohen are also to be seen as, and called, avodah. This means that when a kohen, such as Rabbi Tarfon, would eat terumah, it is also a type of avodah of a kohen. (And, of course, this does not mean the work of preparing and eating the terumah food...)

In what sense is a kohen eating terumah considered an avodah? One explanation offered is that the Torah mandates that terumah and another twenty-three special gifts be given to the kohanim to enable them to fulfill their purpose as kohanim. The kohanim were not given a share in the Land of Israel at the time when the Land was divided among the tribes by Yehoshua bin Nun. This type of gift to them is not their ‘share.' Rather, “Hashem is their share.” The kohanim were designated to offer the korbanot for the public and individuals at the time when the Beit Hamikdash stood. And they were also to be teachers of Torah to the Jewish People. Everything they did was a type of avodah — including accepting and eating the twenty-four types of gifts from the nation. The people of the nation gave them these gifts to sustain them, and, in turn, these gifts returned to the people in the many forms of avodah of the kohanim serving the Jewish People and serving Hashem on behalf of the nation. The goal of this ‘arrangement' is to help the Jewish People become closer to their Creator by means of the various korbanot offered by thekohanim, mitzvah fulfillment which they were instructed by the kohanim, and, last but not least — through dedicated Torah study, which they learned from the mouths of the kohanim.

(I have seen the following idea, which is appropriate to our gemara, in the writings of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, on the topic of the exact meaning of various words in the Torah that mean ‘gift.' Rabbi Klein writes, based on the works of Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Mecklenburg (1785-1865): “It is inappropriate to use the term matana when discussing an offering to Hashem. A matana serves to fill a certain need on the part of the recipient. In the case of Hashem, He is complete and has no needs, so He certainly does not require any sort of gift. For this reason, sacrifices to Hashem are never described as a matana in the Torah.” In this sense, the avodah in our verse is not (only) the offering of korbanot, but the avodah of fulfilling the needs of the kohanim by their accepting and consuming the twenty-four gifts for the purpose of enabling them to help fulfill the needs of the Jewish People.)

  • Pesachim 72b-73a

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