The final chapter of masekhet Shekalim, which I completed today, is entitled “all the spittle,” and refers to spit found in Jerusalem. Do we assume such spit belongs to someone who is in a state of purity or impurity? Reading this chapter after a year of wearing a mask over my face and nose every time I go out into the streets of Jerusalem, I have to say that I’m not sure whether to be more or less concerned. According to some rabbinic opinions, it depends on whether the spit was found in the middle of the street or on the sides; we assume that most people are impure and walk in the middle of the street, whereas those who are concerned about purity make sure to keep to the sides. The only exception is the pilgrimage festivals, when everyone takes care to ascend to Jerusalem in a state of purity; then the masses of people streaming through the streets are pure, and those who are impure are relegated to the sidelines. It is only recently that Jerusalem has begun to fill again after a year of quarantines and lockdowns, and though it would certainly be disgusting to find spittle on the streets, I am filled with hope now that the infection rates are down, the weather is warmer, and the streets are streaming with people again.
The Mishnah’s discussion of spittle is immediately followed by a question about vessels found in the streets of Jerusalem. Do we assume such vessels are pure or impure? The rabbis consider the case of a slaughtering knife found in the streets of Jerusalem on the fourteenth of Nisan. They reason that we can assume such a knife is pure because it was surely prepared in advance for the slaughtering of the korban Pesach on this day. This case, which also appeared in Masekhet Pesachim—the pervious daf yomi masekhet – if of course particularly apt today, on the twelfth of Nisan, in the height of our Pesach preparations.
The final Mishnah in the tractate is about which Temple-related mitzvot remain in effect even in the absence of the Temple. We learn that it is no longer necessary to donate the annual half-shekel tax or to bring the first fruits, but it is still necessary to tithe one’s animals and redeem the firstborn. The rabbis explain that we need no longer bring the Bikurim, the first fruits, because the Torah explicitly says “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God” (Exodus 34:25). As the קרבן העדהputs it, “When there is a House, there are Bikurim; when there is no House, there are no Bikurim.” Nonetheless, we keep the mitzvah of Bikurim alive every year at our Seder tables, because the Haggadah uses the formula recited by the individual bringing Bikurim as the core text to expound upon midrashically in the Magid section. We retell the story of the exodus by using the same words spoken by the individual bringing Bikurim to the Temple, and so we invoke this mitzvah each year on Pesach.
May our study of the verses about Bikurim this Pesach remind us of the power of learning to keep our traditions alive – may we look forward to the day when all the spittle in Jerusalem is pure and all the inhabitants of the city are healthy and vaccinated. לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה