The Mishnah (8:8) discusses the how to deal with a barrel of terumah wine, where there is a doubt whether it became tameh. The Bartenura explains that the case of doubt is where there were two barrels and a sheretz came into contact with one of them.1 The Mishnah records three opinions regarding how the matter should be resolved. R’ Eliezer maintains that one should continue to takes step to ensure that it does not become tameh – move it to a more secluded area and cover it. R’ Yehoshua however argues that the opposite is true - it should be moved to an open and unprotected area and the barrel should be uncovered. Rabban Gamliel however argues the current status should be maintained.
We have previous looked at the opinion of Rabban Gamliel (Volume 7, Issue 30). In this article we shall focus on the opinion of R’ Yehoshua.
The Bartenura explains that that the debate between R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua is based on the following pasuk (Vayikra 18:8): “Hashem spoke to Aharon: And I – behold! I have given you the safeguard of My heave-offerings (terumotai)…”. The translation above follows how the word terumotai is read with it referring to many terumot. Accordingly, R’ Eliezer understands that the kohanim were instructed to guard both tahor and this case of safek tumah, from becoming tameh. R’ Yehoshua however understands that the word is written “terumati” – a singular term – therefore no prohibition applies in this case of doubtful tumah.2
Rashi (Pesachim 15a) understands that according to R’ Yehoshua since this case is not covered by the mitzvah of guarding terumah, one is allowed to place the questionable terumah in a vulnerable location. Important to note is that, according to Rashi’s understanding, one can choose to do so.
The Rambam (Peirush Mishnahot) however understands that R’ Yehoshua maintains it is not optional. Instead one must do so to enable the terumah to be disposed of. To explain, if it is wine and left uncovered, the decree requiring such liquids to be poured away would apply (8:4). Otherwise it should be left in place so that it can definitely become tameh. The Tifferet Yisrael explains the reason why this is an obligation is because while it is in a state of doubt there is nothing that can be done with the terumah. It cannot be consumed in case it is tameh and one cannot directly cause it to become tameh in case it is tahor, e.g. even by handling it with unwashed hands. Consequently, leaving it in this state for an extended period of time would likely lead to mistakes and one consuming the terumah in error.
Rabbeinu Chananel (Pesachim 15a) however explains that R’ Yehoshua’s motivation is so that “he can benefit from it”. As mentioned previously, while it is in a state of doubt, nothing can be done with the terumah. When it is (definitely) tameh, he can use it to fuel a fire for cooking or if it is wine it can be used for ziluf (sprinkling, see Rashi Bechorot 33b). In order for him to fulfill the mitzvah of benefiting from the terumah it is necessary for him set up the environment such that the terumah will become definitely tameh.
The Mishnah Rishona however notes that we have learnt if terumah wine is left uncovered, it must be poured away. He adds that according to this last explanation, it must be in a situation whether there is no concern for snakes so that the gezeira of uncovered liquids would not apply. The intention of uncovering the barrels in the Mishnah was simply be to make it more capable of becoming tameh.3
1 The importance of constructing the case in this way is that if it was a case where there was a doubt whether a single barrel of terumah came into contact with tumah, then since the case is in a private domain, the rule would be that it would be considered tameh.
2 See also Bechorot 33b, where the Gemara there provides a different basis for the debate – R’ Eliezer maintains that it must still be guarded since Eliyahu may come and resolve the doubt that it is indeed tahor.
3 The Mishnah Rishona however finds this understanding of the Mishnah difficult and prefers the explanation we brought in the name of the Rambam.
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