LAST WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: The Talmud’s Abstractions Live in Concrete Examples About Candles and Weasels:Daf Yomi: In textual analysis, the rabbis found biblical bases for customs and rituals that lacked them.
When I lecture on the Mishnah to my students (very few of whom are Jewish) one of the key points I try to convey is that the debates in the Mishnah are among people who agreed on almost everything. The things the rabbis discuss are thus frequently not what we might have expected. The example I use is the tractate Pesahim, from the title of which we would expect a discussion of the basic rules for Passover: the date, the biblical background, the prohibition of hametz (leaven), the foods eaten and how they are prepared, etc. But the rabbis and their readers already knew and agreed on all that, so they turned to the points of detail on which they disagreed. Then I read aloud m. Pesahim 1.1-2, which opens the tractate with a discussion of how many rows of a wine vault need to be searched for hametz and whether one needs to worry about whether a weasel has dragged hametz into the house. Somehow the weasel really gets my point across.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links. I'm now catching up on blogging after a distracting, but very successful, week of ISBL. I'll get to this week's column as soon as I can.