The Sacrificial Elephant (Pesachim 96)

Last week we lost our son’s beloved stuffed elephant, which he sleeps with every night and takes with him to Gan each morning. We searched our home, the Gan, and the bike path that connects the two, but alas, Elephant was gone. Fortunately we were able to avert disaster because D managed to track down and purchase another elephant just in time. The new elephant was cleaner and less worn; and Matan seemed to accept the fact that Elephant had taken a bath. All was well until the Gan located the lost elephant a few days later and handed it to Matan, who was then holding the new elephant, which he had already christened Elephant after its predecessor. “Two Elephants, One Two?” Matan asked us imploringly. He regarded his Elephant as unique and inimitable, and was bewildered by the sudden multiplicity. Which elephant was Elephant? Could both be equally beloved? And if not, what should we do with the other elephant? Fortunately, all of these questions are addressed in today’s daf, in the sugya about Temurat HaPesach (Pesahim 96b).

The Mishnah considers the question of what happens when a Paschal lamb is lost and another lamb is designated for the Paschal sacrifice in its stead. There is in fact an entire tractate of the Talmud, Masekhet Temura, dedicated to problems arising from replacement sacrifices. This tractate is based on a single verse in the Bible: “One may not exchange or substitute another for it [a sacrificial animal], either good for bad, or bad for good; if one does substitute one animal for another, the thing vowed and its substitute shall both be holy” (Leviticus 27:10). That is, it is forbidden to replace one sacrificial animal with another; but if someone commits this forbidden act, both animals are subject to the laws of sacrifice. If the original sacrifice was a Korban Nedava, a voluntary offering, then both animals are brought to the altar. But if the original sacrifice is one that cannot be brought twice, such as a Korban Chatat or a Pesach, then the replacement animal cannot be sacrificed and it also cannot be treated like a regular, unconsecrated animal. The only option is to let it graze until it develops a blemish, at which point it is unfit for sacrifice. Then it is sold, and the proceeds are used to buy another Korban.

In the case of a Pesach sacrifice, as the Talmud teaches, the halakha depends on when the original animal is found. If it is found before the replacement Korban Pesach was slaughtered, it is as if that animal was actively “pushed aside” when its replacement was sacrificed, so it cannot be brought as another offering but must be left to graze. If the original was found after the replacement was sacrificed, then the original can be brought as a Korban Shelamim, a similar and related sacrifice.

So what does all this mean for Elephant and elephant? In our case, the original elephant was found after the second elephant had already been consecrated – that is, Matan had already conferred all his love and affection on the replacement elephant, thereby designating it as Elephant. Drawing on the etymology of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, we might say that Matan had already become close (Karov) to the second elephant, rendering it the Korban. Thus the original elephant need not be left to graze, and both elephants are valid Korbanot. We decided, therefore, to leave one Elephant at Gan, and one at home, in the hope of avoiding similar problems in the future.

Fortunately our twin daughters, who just started their first week in a baby Gan yesterday, are not yet attached to stuffed animals. They are, however, very attached to me, which makes it hard for us to be apart. Can I leave them in the hands of a Ganenet who seems very caring and responsible, but who is ultimately not their mother? Can someone else replace me for a few hours each day? I have breastfed my daughters every few hours since the day they were born. I could have chosen to teach them to drink from bottles, but I never wholeheartedly wanted to do so. Perhaps on some level I realized that it was only breastfeeding that made me irreplaceable. It is the one task that only I can perform. And so I find myself running to the Gan twice a day to nurse them, which is not convenient, but which feels important. I arrive at the Gan and the girls grin at me from ear to ear as if they have been expecting me. I lift up each twin and draw her close – each is my one and only beloved: inimitable, irreplaceable, and unique. 

One thought on “The Sacrificial Elephant (Pesachim 96)

  1. Avi says:

    I love the way you apply the gemara to things that happen in your life. Wasn't quite sure though that I understand what the halacha is when one loses the korban pesach, designates another one and then finds the original again. Which korban is sacrificed as the korban pesach?


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