Beitzah 29

Science and Health

In a mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s daf, we learn a fairly straightforward rule:

A person may not say to a butcher on a festival: Weigh for me a dinar’s worth of meat. But the butcher may slaughter an animal and apportion it without stipulating a price.

As has been well established by our tractate so far, the rabbis were fairly permissive when it came to acquiring and preparing food on a festival. But they drew a firm line at commercial transactions. While purchasing meat from a butcher on a festival is a clear no-no, one could take the meat on a festival and pay up later — provided, as this mishnah makes clear, the exchange of meat on the festival itself doesn’t appear like a regular sale. Hence, the prohibition on talking price. 

On today’s daf, the Gemara inquires how this actually worked in practice. How did people order meat on a festival from a butcher if they couldn’t stipulate the worth of the meat they wanted to buy?

As they would say in Sura: (Give me that cut of meat called a) tarta or half a tarta (without naming a price). In Neresh they would say: A part or half a part. In Pumbedita they would say: An uzya or half an uzya. In Nehar Pekod and in Mata Mehasya they would say: Give me a quarter or half a quarter.

Essentially, the workaround hinged on ordering by the particular measure of animal that was wanted — not its cost. Which might not seem like much of a workaround at all, since that’s precisely how most of us typically order food at the deli counter today — we usually ask for the poundage or volume we want, not the dollar amount we want to spend. But that seems not to have been the practice in the days of the rabbis. And yet, the practice is still a curious one. Regardless of how the specific quantity is denoted, the rabbis are still allowing a practice that looks an awful lot like the purchase of meat on a festival. 

And as we know, appearances matter. Marit ayin is the principle that certain otherwise permissible actions may be barred solely because they might appear to be impermissible. Apparently for the rabbis, going to pick up meat from the butcher on a holiday doesn’t create a marit ayin issue, but mentioning the price to be paid when you do skirts too close to the line. 

We also know that intention matters. Earlier in this tractate, we encountered the rule that if someone designates a bird prior to a festival to be eaten on the festival, one has to be sure it’s the exact bird that eventually becomes lunch. Which bird you intended to eat matters. The very permissibility of eating it on the festival rests on that intention. And there are literally countless other comparable examples. As we saw back in Tractate Sukkah, some rabbis argue that intention is critical to the proper performance of any mitzvah. 

Here we find something sort of like the opposite. For all intents and purposes both parties to the transaction know precisely what’s going on — they know the intention is a sale, even if only one half the exchange occurs on the festival. But in this case, the rabbis allow it provided some verbal vagueness is maintained. (A cynic might call it plausible deniability: Money? What, money?) Everyone knows what’s transpiring, but because no money exchanged hands — indeed, money isn’t even mentioned — we can all pretend that what transpired isn’t technically part of an act of commerce.

Of course, it’s meaningful that the case here is a butcher. Food is a special category of leniency on festivals. Surely, the rabbis wouldn’t have allowed transactions of non-foodstuffs on festivals even if the cash exchanged hands only after the festival was over and no price was mentioned. But the case does draw attention to the fact that there’s some flexibility around when intention truly matters — and when it doesn’t.

Read all of Beitzah 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 29th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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