At the end of the previous daf we learned that R. Eliezer never said anything he hadn’t learned from his master. Daf Kaf Het (28) continues with another baraita about R. Eliezer, including his statement that he never said anything he hadn’t heard from his master.
The baraita begins with the story of the sages asking R. Eliezer halakhic questions while he was in the Upper Galilee. R. Eliezer answers only those questions for which he already knows a tradition. If he doesn’t know a tradition, he doesn’t state his own opinion. This is an extreme version of one notion what it means to be a tannaitic rabbi. All rabbis transmit traditions that they learned from their teachers. This is the “Oral Torah” passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. However, most rabbis also use their own intellect to figure out the answers to situations for which they don’t have a tradition. They operate using both their memory and their acumen. R. Eliezer, in contrast, refuses to add his own contribution to the tradition. He sees himself as merely a conduit in the passing of the tradition from one generation to the other. The other sages ask him questions, trying to get him to answer a question for which he doesn’t have a tradition. He refuses to do so, recognizing their questions for what they are.
This is a continuation of the baraita about R. Eliezer. We can see R. Eliezer’s extreme devotion to the life of Torah study. He never discussed anything besides Torah (not even sports!). He was a pure conduit for the transmission of traditions, filling his head with what he had learned and transmitting it to the next generation.
We should note that R. Eliezer is accredited with amazing, even wondrous abilities, but he is not the model that the Talmud seems to prefer. As important as memory was, most of the time the Talmud lauds intellectual sharpness, the ability to be creative and derive new halakhot. Most importantly, overall the Talmud values dialectics, the ability to see the faults in an argument and to offer a solution. As important as memory was, the rabbis valued other intellectual abilities to an even greater degree.
The next part of the baraita is about R. Yohanan b. Zakkai the legendary rabbi who spearheaded the preservation of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. Many of the patterns of behavior attributed to R. Eliezer above were learned from his teacher, as would seem to be appropriate for such a conservative rabbi. We also learn of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai’s great humility—he never let anyone else open the door for his disciples.
In the middle of the baraita we saw that R. Yohanan b. Zakkai was also strict about the rules of cleanliness. He wouldn’t even think in his heart about Torah while he was in a filthy alleyway (they did not have proper sewage back then). This is beyong the letter of the law which only prohibits talking about Torah in such places. Indeed, we can imagine that this was no easy task. For a person who learns Torah all day long, every day, stopping oneself from even thinking about Torah could not have been easy.
Towards the end of the baraita we learn that there were only two days a year in which he left “work” early. The eve of Pesah so that he could make seder with his family. And the eve of Yom Kippur so that he could make sure that his family ate a proper meal before the fast. The rest of the year—Mrs. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai—you’re on your own. Leave a light on, but don’t wait up!
This section continues with more legends about some significant figures in the tannaitic period.
The baraita tells of the great quantity of students that Hillel the Elder (founder of Bet Hillel) had. Interestingly, some of these students were average. Good thing it doesn’t list their names.
R. Yohanan ben Zakkai was a true polymath, occupying himself with all of the branches of Jewish learning. Rashi defines most of these terms. Below follows his explanations:
Mishnah: The teachings of the tannaim divided into the six orders.
Talmud (or Gemara): The explanations that later tannaim offered to the words of earlier tannaim. Note that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai is a tanna (from the mishnaic period). Therefore, Talmud cannot refer to what we call Talmud. Other scholars have noted that “talmud” can also mean “midrash”—interpretations of verses.
Aggadot: stories and legends.
Minutiae of Torah: Deriving laws from extra letters found in the Torah (we shall see an example of this on the bottom of the page).
Minutiae of the Scribes: This refers to the rabbis, called “scribes” who made exacting laws to keep a person from sinning. Elsewhere laws such as these are called “fences around the Torah.”
Kal vehomers and analogies: These are two common techniques used to derive halakhah from the Torah.
Calendrical computations: Such as when to add a month to a year.
Gematriot: Special letter codes, including but not limited to the numerical evaluation of letters.
The speech of the ministering angels, demons and palm trees: Rashi says he doesn’t know what these things are. With regard to demons, this may refer to the “magic bowls” that Jews used to write in order to control demons, or to prevent them from causing damage. This is similar to amulet writing. “The speech of palm trees” may refer to King Solomon’s ability to speak with the trees (see I Kings 5:13).
Parables: Used by the ancients to communicate their messages.
The works of the chariot: Maaseh Merkavah, a word used to refer to speculative mysticism. The “chariot” is God’s chariot described in the first chapter of Ezekiel.
The discussions of Abaye and Rava: Abaye and Rava lived in the middle of the talmudic period. Clearly R. Yohanan ben Zakkai could not have known these discussions. What the baraita seems to say is that all of the intricate discussions that these two amazing amoraim had were already known to R. Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Yonatan b. Uzziel’s fire for Torah was so great that if he studied Torah and a bird flew overhead, the bird would be burned up. Rashi says that this was because the ministering angels would gather over head to learn his Torah. These angels were fiery seraphim.
I had a friend who once told me a joke about this he learned in his Yeshiva. He said as student once asked, if Yonatan ben Uzziel was so great that a bird flying overhead would burn up when he studied Torah, what would happen when Hillel himself studied Torah? The Rosh Yeshiva scratched his head, thought for a moment and then turned to the student and said, “Hillel’s Torah study was so great, that when he would learn, a bird would fly overhead and not be burned.” Not everyone likes this joke, but it’s one of my all time favorites.
Today’s section consists of just mishnah, specifically two mishnayot which are numbered 2:7-8 in the Mishnah itself. Since I have already explained them as part of the Mishnah Yomit project, the below explanation is taken from there.
I should note that Mishnah Seven, concerning the size of the sukkah, or the position in which a person must sit while eating in a sukkah, was already dealt with in chapter one, on pages 2-3. So the Talmud doesn’t explain this mishnah here. The passage that we will begin to learn tomorrow is on mishnah eight.
Section one: If someone has a small sukkah, one that is not capable of fitting his entire body, but only his head and most of his body, Bet Shammai declare the sukkah invalid and Bet Hillel say it is valid. Similarly, if one has a large sukkah, a sukkah sufficient to fit his entire body, but he sat with only his head and most of his body in the sukkah, while the rest of his body was out of the sukkah, he would not have fulfilled his obligation according to Bet Hillel.
We should note that the terminology of this mishnah is ambiguous. At first it sounds like the mishnah is discussing where the person sits, regardless of the size of the sukkah. However, the words “valid” and “invalid” at the end of section one describe the validity of the sukkah based on its size. Hence, in my explanation I have tried to incorporate both elements. According to Bet Shammai the sukkah must be large enough to encompass his entire body and he must sit with his whole body in the sukkah. Bet Hillel say that the sukkah need only hold his head and most of his body and when sitting in the sukkah, only his head and most of his body need be inside. The table may be outside of the sukkah.
Section two:This story illustrates the argument between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. As an aside, we can note from this story and the discussion in 2:1 that space in sukkot might have been tight. This might reflect the reality in the Second Temple period in Jerusalem when many people came to make their pilgrimage. Alternatively, it may reflect the cramped housing and living spaces of 2nd century towns in the land of Israel.
Section one: Dwelling in the sukkah is a positive time-bound commandment, similar to hearing the shofar. As such, women and slaves are exempt.
Section two: Children are exempt, as long as they rely on their mothers and need to be with them most of the time. According to the Talmud, a child who wakes up in the middle of the night and still cries for his mother is not obligated to dwell in the sukkah. Such a child sleeps where his mother sleeps—outside of the sukkah. But if he wakes up and doesn’t need his mother, then he is obligated to sleep in the sukkah.
Section two: In this fascinating story, Shammai the elder opens up a hole in the roof of his house so that his newborn grandson can sleep in the sukkah. Shammai obviously disagrees with the halakhah in the previous section. Shammai the elder is also known to have made his son fast on Yom Kippur, far before he would have understood the meaning of fasting. It seems that Shammai’s concept of commandment is not that one must perform an act with intent in order to affect one’s inner life (what we call “kavvanah”), rather the act must be performed regardless of whether one understands what one is doing. Children must perform mitzvot despite the fact the fact that they clearly don’t understand what they are doing.
Today’s section deals with the traditional exemption of women from the obligation of sukkah.
This midrash derives from an “extra” letter in the Torah the exclusion of women and minors from being obligated to observe the mitzvah of sukkah. We should note that in these situations we should not expect the midrash to be a “simple” reading of the Torah. The midrashim are creative, deriving meaning from the Torah in places that a regular reader would not find it.
The exclusion of women is derived from the letter “heh” , the word “the,” that precedes the word “homeborn” in Leviticus 23:42. Had the word just been “homeborn” women would have been included (so the sugya says), but the extra heh comes to exclude them. The word “every” includes minors in the obligation to sit in a sukkah. Below, the Talmud will ponder this—after all the Mishnah says that minors are not obligated to sit in the sukkah.
The problem with “the homeborn” excluding women from being obligated for the sukkah is that the same word is used in the context of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16:29, and the rabbis use the word to include women in the Yom Kippur obligation. So which is it—does “the homeborn” include women (as in the case of Yom Kippur) or does it exclude women (as in the case of Sukkah)?
Rabbah answers that one of these sets of midrashim is only there to bolster the traditions. In other words, the rabbis did not derive these laws from the midrash. Rather, they had a tradition and in order to support it, they created a midrash. Only one of the two cases is actually a midrash that generated a halakhah.
The main problem alluded to here is that we don’t really need a verse to exempt women from the sukkah or to obligate them for Yom Kippur. There is a rabbinic rule that women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments. Sukkah is a positive commandment (you have to do something, namely sit in a sukkah) and it is time-bound (you can fulfill the mitzvah during Sukkot only). So why would we need a verse to know that which we already know.
Second, Rav Judah already said that when it comes to negative commandments which are punishable, they all apply to men and women equally. Yom Kippur is a negative commandment (you are prohibited from doing things) and therefore women are just as liable for it as men.
So to return to our main question—if we already knew from general principles that women were liable for Yom Kippur and exempt from sukkah, what are these midrashim doing?