Daf Yomi: COVID-19 Meets Pesach ‘20 — Full of Uncertainty

By: Norman Rosenfield  |  December 22, 2020
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By Norman Rosenfield

The Mishna on daf (page) 9a in tractate Pesachim tells us not to worry on Pesach (Passover) that a weasel may have dragged chametz (leavened grain product, prohibited on Passover) from house to house, or from one location to another within a single house. Why is this not a concern? Because, much to the relief of those of us with obsessive compulsive tendencies, the rabbis were mindful of the following anxiety-inducing thought process: once I’m worrying about chametz being moved from house to house, I should worry about chametz being transported from courtyard to courtyard; and why stop there — might as well worry that the darned weasel took chametz in its mouth on Amsterdam Avenue in the Heights, crossed the GW Bridge and dropped it off at Dougies in Teaneck, NJ.

Fortunately, the rabbis curbed our required level of concern, allowing us to continue our Pesach preparations without going completely crazy. There has been a noticeable trend in recent years to publish articles pointing out the difference between preparing for Pesach and cleaning the ceiling, between placing shelf liners in cupboards and replacing kitchen cabinets. These distinctions came to a head in the weeks leading up to this past year’s global matchup between the holiday and first-time Pesach preparers, which almost read like a football score: Pesach ‘20, COVID-19. Luckily, tractate Pesachim had our backs during this unprecedented challenge.

On the evening before Pesach, we are obligated to initiate a search by candlelight for chametz in our homes. This is the search where we leave 10 pieces of chametz around our property, collect them and burn them the following morning. Beginning on daf  9b, the Gemara addresses this annual obligation by providing an exhaustive list of what-if situations: What if a mouse came into a house that has nine piles of matzah (unleavened bread eaten on Passover) and one pile of chametz? What would happen if that mouse took a piece from one of those piles and brought it into another house, one that was already searched for chametz … and we don’t know if the mouse helped himself from the matzah pile or the chametz pile? In such a case, the second house must be searched again for chametz — that is, unless the mouse was only seen taking the piece at a distance from the piles, but was not seen taking from the piles themselves.

Following a series of related questions about the halacha (Jewish Law) of finding unexpected chametz, the Gemara (Talmud) begins a new round of inquiries: “If a mouse entered a house….” with a loaf of bread in its mouth, and the homeowner came in afterward and found crumbs on the floor — Rava says that he/she will need to perform a new search, because it is not the way of mice to crumble their food. 

“If a mouse entered a house….” with a loaf of bread in its mouth, and then a mouse came out of the house with a loaf of bread in its mouth — can we assume it’s the same mouse? Maybe it is a different mouse with the same loaf, or maybe it’s a different mouse with a different loaf … A different mouse with a different loaf would necessitate a new search for chametz, but we have no way of confirming those details … 

“If a mouse entered a house….” with a loaf of bread in its mouth, and a weasel later emerged from the house with a loaf of bread — do we assume it was the same bread that the mouse brought inside?

“If a mouse entered a house….” with a loaf of bread in its mouth, and a weasel came out of the house with the bread and the mouse in its mouth — how do we rule? Was it the same mouse that went into the house initially? It is impossible to issue a ruling on these cases, given we cannot verify essential information, and the Gemara therefore ends by stating: “teiku” — let these questions stand unresolved.

With all the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic, it’s important to remind ourselves that we can’t know everything or have all the answers. Now more than ever, the future is completely unpredictable — we may very well celebrate Pesach ‘21 much like we did last year, only this time around we can hopefully better prepare ourselves for another holiday spent in isolation. That being said, you might want to start getting ready for Pesach by finishing off the last of those jelly doughnuts from Chanukah, so as not to leave any crumbs for the mice and weasels!

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