4/04/2006

Prophetic Intuition: Reading of Pesachim 66a

Thinking about my post from last night/this morning, I had an insight into the well-known Gemara in Pesachim 66a. Hillel, who had just been appointed Nasi, had forgotten the procedure by which one would transport his slaughtering knife to the Temple when Erev Pesach fell out on Shabbat.

Hillel responds, “Leave Israel alone! If they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets”. The people found other ways to transport the knives – sticking it in the wool of the Paschal lamb, for example, which reminded Hillel that, indeed, that is the ruling on the matter.

Granted, this story has Halakhic implications, but it should be read as aggadah, with a literary narrative structure. As I’ve mentioned previously, the lines between Halakha and Aggadah are not sharply drawn. In this instance, the same story appears in the Tosefta (Pesachim 4:1), Bavli (Pesachim 66a), and Yerushalmi (39a/6:1). Each version has slight variations, and there’s a wealth of scholarly material on this (for example, here – see especially the comparison chart at the end). My point is only that there is license to treat this story aggadically.

In both Talmuds, Hillel suggests that the collective intuition of Israel is prophetic in nature. Many have tried to minimize the implications of this idea, whose unfettered ramifications, especially in our times, would spell the end of Halakha as we know it. I’d like to suggest that those limitations are part and parcel of the narrative itself.

The population that Hillel instructs us to ‘leave alone’ consists of those who are bringing the Paschal sacrifice. As I mentioned in the last post, the Pesach is the vehicle through which our identity as Israel is constructed, and by which we transmit that identity to the next generation. Those who participate in this process, who have rooted their very identities in the ever-unfolding holy history of Israel, have gained a spark of that prophetic intuition, and can contribute to the further unfolding of that history. Those whose roots are anchored in foreign soil lack this prophetic instinct, much as true prophecy could not be attained outside of the Land of Israel.

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