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Shiur #29: Hypothetical Questions, Two-Headed People and the Unity of Am Yisra'el

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #29: Hypothetical Questions, Two-Headed People and the Unity of Am Yisra'el


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Pelimo asked Rabbi: "If a person has two heads, on which should he place his tefillin?"

He said to him: "Either get up and go to exile, or accept upon yourself excommunication." 

In the meantime, a man came by and said: "A child was born to me with two heads.  How much do I have to pay to the kohen [for the redemption of the firstborn]?"

(Menachot 37a)


In this story, Rabbi clearly thinks that Pelimo's question is out of place, and he suggests two possible punishments for his student.  Yet the gemara goes on to maintain that the case is indeed feasible.   Are such seemingly impossible scenarios legitimate fields of Talmudic inquiry or not?  Who is right, Rabbi or Pelimo?  The Talmud itself seems to contain contradictory impulses regarding this question. 


A mishna in Bava Batra (23b) states that any chick found within fifty ammot of a person's dovecote belongs to the owner of the dovecote; any chick found farther away belongs to the finder.  The gemara then continues:


Rabbi Yirmiya asked: "If one leg [of the chick] is within fifty ammot and one is outside of fifty, what is the law?" 

For this, Rabbi Yirmiya was thrown out of the beit midrash.  


What was wrong with Rabbi Yirmiya's question?  One possible explanation is that Rabbi Yirmiya is tossed out for asking about a situation that happens only rarely.  Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot ibid.) rejects this option because the mishna itself asks a question about the infrequent case of a chick equidistant between two cotes—how then can the scholars of the academy object to Rabbi Yirmiya's question?  Therefore, Rabbeinu Tam concludes that the question is only objectionable because a previous part of the gemara had already made the answer clear.  However, others do view the problem as asking about the unusual.   


            On the other hand, other gemarot ask without hesitation about cases that are not only improbable, but quite impossible.  Let us consider two of them.  One gemara (Chullin 70a) examines an elaborate scenario in which a weasel enters a pregnant animal's womb, swallows the fetus, and then emerges from the womb with the fetus still inside the weasel's mouth.  The weasel then climbs back in to the womb and spits out the fetus, which eventually emerges from the birth canal.  Is this newborn animal considered to have come from the womb and therefore have the sanctity of a firstborn?  Another gemara (Yevamot 54a), while analyzing the requirement of a man to have relations with the widow of his childless brother, raises the following question: what if the surviving brother accidentally falls off a roof and lands directly on his deceased brother's widow, intimately penetrating her in the process.  Does such an act make them husband and wife according to the laws of yibbum, which require (on the biblical level) only the physical act of marital relations, not a wedding ceremony?  No sages in these two gemarot shows any irritation about Talmudic analysis applied to impossible scenarios.


            Rav Yisra'el Lipshutz notes this apparent contradiction in his Tiferet Yisra'el (Avot, Chapter 5, Bo'az 1).  He suggests that a question about an impossibly wild case is not deemed out of bounds, even if the case could never happen, as long as some conceptual principle emerges from raising these far-fetched scenarios.  Rabbi Yirmiya's picayune question of the chick straddling the fifty-amma line, though possible, does not deepen our understanding of the underlying concepts.  On the other hand, the case in Yevamot helps us clarify what role intent has in the forming of a union between the brother and the widow; similarly, the case in Chullin forces us to more carefully define the legal definition of "peter rechem" (Shemot 13:12).  In instances like these, the Talmud does not object to these questions; quite the contrary, it revels in them.

            Students of secular law and philosophy will recognize the value of unusual cases in sharpening legal principles.  For example, Immanuel Kant claims that acts that are wrong must be so universally ("the categorical imperative").  In a famous essay on truth-telling, he raises the moral conundrum of a person with murderous intent who asks another about the whereabouts of his potential victim.  Clearly, the philosophy student who objects at this point because such a case rarely occurs misses the point.  Irrespective of whether or not such a scenario is practical, it perfectly highlights the question of how far to take the categorical imperative.


            When should an educator object to these types of questions?  According to Rav Lipshutz, this would be appropriate when the question has no conceptual implications.  Here, objections of a dual nature may be raised: first of all, focusing on unusual cases that shed no light on central concepts represents a waste of time and intellectual energy; furthermore, an educator might justifiably begin to suspect that the student asking such questions just wants to make trouble.  Indeed, Rashi explains that Rabbi reacts harshly to Pelimo's question about the two-headed man because he assumes that Pelimo is simply mocking Rabbi's halakhic discussion.


            The above analysis should guide us in responding to questions about why the Gemara discusses cases likely never to be realized.  If the Gemara does ask these questions, we should look for the conceptual implications.  On the other hand, we should remain aware that not every strange case deserves its day.  We can safely ignore the theoretical scenarios with no larger implications or the ones that reveal mischievous intent on the questioner's part.


We must now look for the deeper conceptual meaning in Pelimo's question that Rabbi initially missed.  To this end, Tosafot cite a midrash that Ashmodai, king of the demons, produced such a two-headed person in King Solomon's time.  This individual married a woman with one head, and they proceeded to have children of both the single- and double-headed varieties.  The latter type insisted on a double portion of inheritance and the case came before the wisest of all men, King Shelomo.  Shelomo suggested the following solution (see the Shita Mekubbetzet, Menachot 37a): blindfold one of the heads and pour hot water on the other head.  If the blindfolded head would cry out in pain, the two heads belonged to one being and could lay claim to only one portion of the inheritance. 


Rav Soloveitchik beautifully transforms this image into a powerful metaphor in his essay, Kol Dodi Dofek (pp. 35-36 in Divrei Hagut Ve-ha'arakha).  Rav Soloveitchik argues that the Jewish covenant includes both a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny.  The former begins when the exodus from Egypt forces the Jews into a collective identity, and it mandates taking part in and identifying with the joys and tribulations of the Jewish people.  The covenant of destiny begins with the freely-chosen acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, and it consists of adherence to Torah and mitzvot.  According to Rav Soloveitchik, Jewish responsibility incorporates adhering to each covenant.  Therefore, we instruct the potential convert both about the fulfillment of mitzvot and about sharing the fate of the Jewish people.


The Jews in exile, Rav Soloveitchik explains, settled in different lands, encountered many different types of cultures and adopted a wide array of dialects, modes of dress and the like.  In a sense, the Jewish people sprouted multiple heads.  This immediately raises the question whether such a multi-headed being truly retains a sense of unity.  The test case is what happens when one head finds itself in pain or trouble: if the other heads also cry out and feel the need to help alleviate the difficulty, then the many heads still belong to one whole.  


Although this reading does not glean any halakhic insight from the case of the two-headed person, the aggadic idea should inspire us all.  In particular, religious Jews who have clearly taken on the covenant of destiny might need reminding that the covenant of fate demands our attention as well.  Thus, Pelimo's wild question turns out to be supremely relevant.