By Rabbi Shmuel Wise

How does R’ Meir understand the principle of following the majority?

The discussion on Thursday’s daf this week (86) provides us with an insight into this question. In the Mishnah, R’ Meir rules that if shechitah of a chaya-animal or bird was performed by a mentally incompetent person, it isn’t necessary to perform the mitzvah of covering the blood. R’ Ami explains that in R’ Meir’s view, when an incompetent person performs the shechitah, there is a positive assumption that the shechitah was done in an invalid manner. Since we’re not even concerned with the possibility that the shechitah was valid, there’s no requirement to cover the blood.

The Gemara questions R’ Ami by pointing out that, seemingly, R’ Meir’s view could have been explained without this assertion that the shechitah was most probably bungled. Even if the shechitah of an incompetent person is done correctly most of the time, R’ Meir holds a view which could explain why we wouldn’t go by majority here. For R’ Meir in tractate Taharos says that a majority is stopped in its tracks if it’s opposed by the chazakah, previously known status. As applied to our case, this assessment would run as follows: Though (in the Gemara’s present proposal) most shechitos of incompetent persons are valid, some of them are invalid. In addition, the animal clearly had a prohibited status prior to the slaughtering. Taken all together, these factors should overpower the majority and allow us to arrive at R’ Meir’s view that the shechitah of an incompetent person is decidedly invalid (and thus we need not cover the blood).

The Gemara answers that R’ Meir’s view that we combine the less likely possibility with the previously known status only serves to strip the majority of its ability to definitively decide the halachah — but not to definitively decide against the majority. Thus, if it were true that most shechitos of incompetent persons are valid, we would be left with an uncertainty as to whether the shechitah was valid. It was indeed necessary, therefore, for R’ Ami to explain that in R’ Meir’s ruling they will slaughter incorrectly most of the time. For this reason, R’ Meir deems the slaughtering to be completely invalid and thus does not require any covering.

I was thinking about this concept of undermining the majority on the basis of chazakah, and something bothered me. As we learned on 11a, the concept of deciding the halachah based on majority comes from the Torah’s teaching that we follow the majority opinion in court cases. Surely the majority opinion is binding even if it rules against the previously known status of the matter being judged. Does R’ Meir’s distinction that we do not follow majority where there is an opposing chazakah not then contradict the original case of majority in the Torah?

But perhaps something else that we studied on 11a can help us understand R’ Meir’s opinion. The Gemara there suggested a distinction between a majority that is here and present versus a statistical majority (an example of the former would be if a piece of meat were found, and nine out of the ten butchers in the area sell kosher meat). The Gemara (at least initially) feels that a separate source is required to derive that we can even follow a statistical majority. Now, ultimately, the Gemara says that both types of majorities are derived from the law of court cases, but, nonetheless, we see from the Gemara that not all majorities are created equal.

I would suggest that the original majority in the Torah, of court cases, is the strongest kind of majority since its power derives from an actually ruling of qualified judges. Next comes a tangible majority (like the meat example), followed by a majority of pure intangible statistics. Thus, R’ Meir makes a very clear argument: since we’re dealing with a majority that is weaker than the original majority in the Torah, it is vulnerable to opposing forces such as chazakah.

Rabbi Wise is maggid shiur of Real Clear Daf, a website and mobile app that offers free audio shiurim and other resources to assist your journey through Shas. He is also the director of Tehillim Together, a mobile app (for iOS and Android) that offers a translated sefer Tehillim and facilitates Tehillim groups. To be a sponsor or to reach Rabbi Wise, please write to rabbiwise@realcleardaf.com or call 855-ASK-RCD-1 (275-7231).

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