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Monday, February 13, 2017

Respect and Deference (part 1) — BT Sanhedrin 24a — #71

Come and see how much [the sages of Eretz Yisrael] value one another, such as [the instance when] Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] was sitting [and teaching] and said, “It is forbidden to insulate cold [water on shabbat].” R. Yishmael the son of R. Yose said before him, “My father permitted insulating cold [water on shabbat].” Rabbi said to them, “An elder has already ruled [on this matter] [i.e., his opinion overrules mine].” Rav Pappa said, “Come and see how how [the sages of Eretz Yisrael] value one another, for had R. Yose been alive, he would have bent [in submission to the authority of Rabbi] and sat before Rabbi; since R. Yishmael the son of R. Yose fills the place of his father and he sat [in submission to the authority] of Rabbi, yet Rabbi said, ‘An elder has already ruled [on this matter].’”

This unusual interchange between R. Yehudah ha-Nasi and R. Yishmael, as well as Rav Pappa’s observation about it, is part of a larger conversation inspired by a mishnah attributed to R. Meir. The mishnah lists people who, because of their profession rather than individual character, are excluded from serving as witnesses in court: gamblers, money-lenders who take interest, and those who sell sabbatical year produce. Gemara records that Resh Lakish vociferously disagreed with R. Meir’s view because it amounts to an arbitrary rejection of valuable witnesses, Gemara quotes Resh Lakish as saying: “Can a holy mouth [such as R. Meir] say such a thing?”  

How remarkable, Gemara notes, that Resh Lakish, who would routinely “uproot mountains and grind them against one another” in the bet midrash (study house) when arguing halakhah, would speak with such deference of R. Meir. Not remarkable at all, Ravina responds, since R. Meir argued his opinions in precisely the same manner. 

This leads directly to the passage above, which provides an anecdote illustrating how deeply the sages of Eretz Yisrael valued one another and, as a result, treated one another with respect and deference, even when they strenuously disagreed on matters of halakhah.

It helps to understand who the players are:

R. Yose b. Chalafta was a fourth generation tanna who lived in Eretz Yisrael. He, a student of R. Akiba, the “second Moses” who crafted the principles of halakhah, founded a school in Tzippori that attracted many students, among them R. Yehudah ha-Nasi. R. Yose was a highly regarded scholar in his own day and is extensively quoted in the Mishnah. This is not surprising given both his own erudition and the fact that the Mishnah’s compiler was R. Yehudah ha-Nasi.

R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, whom the Talmud refers to as “Rabbi,” was a second century nasi (“prince”), and leader of the Jewish community. He was the son of Shimon b. Gamliel II.

R. Yishmael b. R. Yose, the oldest son of R. Yose b. Chalafta, lived in the beginning of the third century CE. By the time the incident described in the Gemara occurred, R. Yose was no longer alive, but his son R. Ishmael was present for R. Yehudah ha-Nasi’s lesson about keeping water cool through shabbat.

The incident recounted in Sanhedrin 24a concerns a halakhic disagreement that was ameliorated by the exceptional respect the sages of Eretz Yisrael had for one another and the gracious way they treated one another. One day, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi taught that it is forbidden to insulate cold water on shabbat. (Rashi explains this to refer to a prohibition of placing a water jug in cold sand in order to keep the water cool throughout shabbat.) R. Yishmael was present on that occasion and stated that his father, R. Yose, who has been Rabbi’s teacher, permitted it. Rabbi immediately deferred to R. Yose’s ruling, declaring, “An elder has already ruled [on this matter].” That is the entire anecdote.

We are hear Rav Pappa’s observation that this incident demonstrates the extent to which the sages of Eretz Yisrael valued one another (the Hebrew term is m’chab’vim). How do we know this? Had R. Yose been alive, he would have accepted the ruling of Rabbi, his student, out of deference to the authority of Rabbi’s superior position as the Nasi. R. Yishmael, Rav Pappa notes, operates as did his father: he is prepared to accept Rabbi’s ruling out of respect for his position, even though his father had taught the halakhic rule differently. Rabbi, however, so respects and values his colleagues—both his teacher, R. Yose, and his student, R. Yishmael—that he defers to R. Yose’s opinion and elevates it above his own. Therefore, the halakhah is as R. Yishmael reports his father, R. Yose, ruled. This anecdote, Rav Pappa tells us, is paradigmatic of how the sages of Eretz Yisrael valued one another.


  1. Have you ever deferred to the opinion of someone else out of respect for their position, even  though you disagreed in principle with their view? Has someone who disagreed with you ever deferred to you out of respect for the authority invest in your position? How did that impact your work, and personal, relationship?
  2. Maya Angelou is reported to have said, “If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.” When and where do you believe this is true? Is her observation reflected in society today?
  3. When is it more important to show respect and deference, and when is it more important to promote what you believe to be correct and true?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Humiliation and Retaliation — Yoma 22b-23a — #70

R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yehotzadak: “Any Torah scholar who does not avenge himself and retain anger like a serpent is not a [true] scholar.” But it is written: You shall not take vengeance and you shall not bear a grudge (Leviticus 19:18)! That refers to monetary affairs, for it was taught [in a baraita]: What is taking revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If one person said to another, “Lend me your sickle,” and the other replied, “No,” and on the following day the second comes and says [to the first], “Lend me your axe,” and [the first] says, “I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle” — that is revenge. And what is bearing a grudge? If one said to another, “Lend me your axe,” and the other said, ‘No,” and on the following day the [second person] said, “Lend me your garment,” and [the first person] said, “Here it is for you. I am not like you who would not lend me [what I requested]” — this is bearing a grudge. Doesn’t this [prohibition] apply to personal suffering? Has it not been taught [in a baraita]: “Concerning those who suffer insults but do not inflict them, who hear themselves reviled but do not respond, who perform [mitzvot] out of love and rejoice in suffering, Scripture says, May those who love [God] be as the sun rising in might (Judges 5:31).” (BT Shabbat 88b) Actually, he [R. Shimon b. Yehotzadak meant ] that [a Torah scholar] should keep it [revenge and anger] in his heart. But Rava said, “The one who passes over his measure [of retaliation], all his transgressions are passed over (forgiven).

In TMT #67 and #68, the Rabbis’ grapple with humiliation as a consequence of competition (in the academy) and ego needs (humorously, the sun and moon). A reader asked if Talmud counsels not taking offense. The short answer is: Yes. But let’s first back up a bit.

Catholicism holds up envy as one of the famous “Seven Deadly Sins” while Judaism views envy in  more nuanced terms. Envy can propel us in a worthy direction. Envious of someone who is a good student? Study harder. Envious of someone’s professional or personal success? Invest in your own.

Humiliation can be tied to self-esteem, but also to envy, frustration, and retaliation. Seeing others surpass us in achievement can propel us into the arena of competition that is overt and public or entirely in our own minds. Adding embarrassment arising from within, or humiliation provoked from without, results in a potentially toxic mix. Desire for retaliation all too frequently finds its expression through vengeance.

Not surprisingly, the Rabbis launch their discussion of humiliation and vengeance from the vantage point of the academy (see TMT #67). Humiliation can inspire introspection and self-improvement, particularly if it comes from within (here’s an example) rather than when it caused by someone else.

R. Yochanan (in the name of his teacher) claims that the thrust and parry of verbal argument in the bet midrash (academy) is essential for a thorough elucidation of Torah. He conceives of “revenge” in the form of scholarly arguments to intellectually “defeat” one’s “opponent.”

The anonymous Gemara responds to this idea by noting that it contradicts the Torah’s prohibition against seeking vengeance and carrying grudges, and then proceeds to define both—but only within the financial sphere of life. These are useful definitions because we are apt to deny that what we’re doing is either “vengeance” or “bearing a grudge” by demonstrating that it doesn’t fit the definition, but when both are presented side-by-side, honesty compels us to  acknowledge that if we’re not engaged in the one, we’re engaged in the other. Revenge is retaliation: If you do X, I also do X. Bearing a grudge is refusing to forgive: If you do X, I will not do X but will forever remind you that you did. 

The Gemara then enlarges the sphere of vengeance and grudges to encompass all human suffering, quoting a beautiful baraita (found also in BT Shabbat 88b) that expresses the ideal and appeals to the “better angels of our nature”—or perhaps encourages us to cultivate those better angels. The baraita presents those who do not respond to being insulted or maligned as truly powerful, on par with the might of the sun.

The Gemara now amends the teaching that launched the conversation about vengeance and grudges to say that R. Shimon b. Yehotzadak, the source of R. Yochanan’s teaching, did not mean that one should “avenge himself and retain anger like a serpent” in the public realm, but rather in the inner sphere to inspire great accomplishments. In the public realm, we should follow the wisdom of the baraita, which seems to suggest that the anger and desire for revenge are natural and can be acknowledged, but it is inappropriate to act on them. Rava supports this view, adding that when we let our anger pass without acting on it, Heaven will not retaliate for our sins.


  1. Can you recall and describe occasions when you bore a grudge or sought vengeance? What was the outcome for you? For others?
  2. Have you “suffered insults” without retaliating and resisted responding to negative statements made about you? What contributed to your success? What were the short term and long term consequences? If you find it impossible to sustain insults and barbs without retaliating, what would help you to do so?
  3. When Rava says God rewards our resistance to seeking vengeance with forgiveness, is he suggesting that we forgive offenders in our own minds so that we don’t feel the need to retaliate? Would doing so make it easier for you to resist retaliation?