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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Okay, just who's in charge now? / Yerushalmi 11b-12a

Who’s in charge – God or the Rabbis? Which is more authoritative – Torah or the laws of the Rabbis? The answer in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) may surprise many of us.

Did the Amoraim (the Sages of both Talmuds, from the time of the compilation of the Mishnah in ~200 C.E. until the end of the 6th century) have the authority they claimed over the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the 3rd and 4th centuries? Or did they operate and adjudicate as if they had the authority, and thereby in the course of time, establish it for their successors?

Was the enterprise of the Rabbis – Rabbinic Judaism, including Mishnah, Gemara, and midrash – a translation and extension of the Judaism of the Second Temple period to post-Temple rabbinic Judaism, or was it a complete transformation? Evolution or emergent phenomenon?

To answer the third question (and thereby gain insight into the first two questions) we might investigate rituals and practices. We might scrutinize how service to God was carried out. Or, we might examine who claimed authority and how it was wielded.

The first chapter of Berakhot in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) discusses when to say the Shema – morning and evening – as well as who must interrupt their activity to recite it precisely on time, in the first two mishnayot. Mishnah 3 records a disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning the proper position for reciting the Shema in the evening. Bet Shammai say one should recline because the Shema specifically states, b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha, which Bet Shammai take to mean “in your lying down and in your rising up.” Bet Hillel, however, say you may recite Shema however you choose, because it also states, u’v’lekh’t’cha va’derekh, “when you go on your way.” Bet Hillel understands b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha to be temporal, not positional: “when you lie down and when you rise up.” This occasions an excursion in the fourth mishnah to discuss Rabbinic authority vis-à-vis the Torah, and more particularly Bet Hillel versus Bet Shammai.

Mishnah 4 is an anecdote concerning R. Tarfon who followed the opinion of Beth Shammai with nearly tragic consequences:
Said. R. Tarfon, “I was traveling and I reclined to recite the Shema in accordance with the opinion of Bet Shammai. [As a result] I placed myself in danger of [attack by] bandits.” They said to him, “You have only yourself to blame [for what might have happened to you] because you violated the opinion of Bet Hillel.”
This story precipitates a discussion in which the Rabbis aver the supremacy of rabbinic authority over even the Torah. Shocking? Let’s take a look.
The colleagues in the name of R. Yochanan, “The words of the scribes [i.e. rabbinic teachings] are as precious as the words of Torah and as dear as the words of Torah.” And your mouth [=rabbinic teachings] is like the best wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 7:9).

Shimon bar Va in the name of R. Yochanan: the words of the scribes are as precious as the words of Torah and more dear than the words of Torah, [as it says] For your love [=Rabbinic teachings] is better than wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 1:2).
R. Ba bar Kohen in the name of R. Yehudah b. Pazi: You will know that the words of the scribes are more dear than the words of the Torah, for if R. Tarfon had not recited [the Shema] he would only have violated a positive commandment [for which there is no punishment]. But because he violated the words of Bet Hillel [i.e. the opinion of the Sages] he was liable for death [at the hands of bandits] according to [the principle] And a snake will bite him who breaks through a wall [i.e. one who violates a rabbinic regulation will be severely – or perhaps lethally – punished] (Kohelet 10:8).
The gemara opens with R. Yochanan’s assertion that rabbinic teachings are as precious (i.e. authoritative) as Torah. Shimon bar Va in his name claims that R. Yochanan went further: rabbinic teachings are more authoritative than Torah. How do we know? Because had R. Tarfon failed to recite the Shema altogether, he would have violated only a positive commandment of the Torah and would therefore not have been subject to the death penalty. In purposefully following the opinion of Bet Shammai, however, R. Tarfon violated the opinion of Bet Hillel, and was therefore liable – or at least deserving of – death.

What an incredible and audacious claim!

Our passage ends with the claim that with in the world of the Sages, Bet Hillel has greater authority than Bet Shammai:
This [rule that Bet Hillel’s authority trumps all others] applies only after the heavenly voice went forth [to decree that the law follows the view of the Bet Hillel].

But before the Heavenly voice went forth anyone who wanted could be stringent with himself and follow the stringencies of Bet Shammai and the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Concerning this one it is said, The fool walks in darkness (Kohelet 2:14).

One who follows the leniencies of this one and that one [i.e., both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel] is called wicked.

Rather, [one should follow] the leniencies and stringencies of this one, or the leniencies and stringencies of that one. This was before the heavenly voice went forth.

But after the heavenly voice went forth, the halakhah forever followed the words of Bet Hillel. Anyone who violated the words of Bet Hillel was liable to death.
The declaration of the bat kol (heavenly voice) alluded to here is found in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud):
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, the former saying, “The law follows our views,” and the latter saying, “The law follows our views.” A bat kol [heavenly voice] proclaimed: “Both are words of the living God, but the law follows Bet Hillel." (Eruvin 13b)
Our last passage from the Yerushalmi explains that prior to the bat kol promulgating heaven’s decision that Bet Hillel has the final say in all halakhic matters, people had options. They could take upon themselves stringencies, or follow only the stringencies of both schools, or choose one school to follow consistently. However, they could not follow only the leniencies of both schools. Since the bat kol alluded to in Eruvin 13b, all options are off the table save following the decisions of Bet Hillel.

It is irresistible to compare this passage with the famous passage in the Bavli (Baba Metzia 58-59) which also discusses divine authority versus rabbinic authority, and which prominently features a bat kol (heavenly voice). I mentioned this passage in my previous posting. Amidst a disagreement among the Rabbis, a heavenly voice declares that heaven concurs with the decisions of R. Eliezer in all matters, but the Sages say, “…Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We no longer pay attention to a Heavenly Voice.” Judaism – as interpreted by the Rabbis – has emerged from its adolescence, strong, independent, and capable of making its own decisions, with the wisdom of what my kids call “the parental unit” informing them but in the background. The “parental unit” is delighted: “My children have defeated Me!” God laughs with joy.

In our passage in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) we do not meet God as a participant or witness. God has no role in this story because, it appears, the Rabbis have assumed sole authority. One could claim – and rightly so – that the very same situation pertains in the Bavli. There is both a difference and a similarity. Baba Metzia paints a picture of transition, God ceding authority willingly, and delighting in the Rabbis assuming their new role. That is absent in our Yerushalmi passage. What is more, the Yerushalmi presumes that Rabbinic authority trumps Torah and moves on to the internal struggle between the opinions of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Both, however, ironically find license to claim authority over Torah – which they understand to be God’s word – from God! It is the bat kol who proclaims their authority.

While the Bavli paints a scene of transition of authority, the Yerushalmi paints a scene of complete transformation: out with the old, in with the new.

Perhaps the Sages of the Yerushalmi are more honest about what they are doing: creating something radically new, different from the Second Temple Judaism that came before both in structure, content, and authority. Perhaps because they live in the Land of Israel and therefore maintain that powerful connection to the past, they are freer to assert what is radically new. The Sages of Babylonia, 1000 miles from the Land, lack that powerful connection, and seek to portray their enterprise as arising organically from the earth of pre-Temple Judaism.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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