Something Borrowed, Something Blue: prayer shawls and fringes

Rami bar Tamri, a traveler from another town, engaged in behavior contrary to local custom and apparently contrary to Jewish law. He was brought before R. Hisda. After inquiring into several other matters, R. Hisda asked Rami bar Tamri why his coat was missing tzitzit [required ritual fringes].

[Rami] replied. ‘The coat is borrowed, and Rab Judah has said. A borrowed coat is, for the first thirty days, exempt from the zizith.’ While this was going on a man was brought in [to the court] for not honouring his father and mother. They bound him [to have him flogged], whereupon [Rami] said to them. ‘Leave him alone, for it has been taught. Every commandment which carries its reward by its side does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court below.’** Said [R. Hisda] to him. ‘I see that you are very sharp.’ He replied. ‘If only you would come to Rab Judah’s school I would show you how sharp I am!’
— Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 110a-110b

**The commandment to honor parents is listed with its reward “by its side”: “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12)

Leaving for another day’s discussion the relationship of tzitzit, commandment and reward…
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Legends of Luz

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), opens with Jacob, en route from his parents’ home to the land of his mother’s people. He stops for the night and dreams of a ladder, its top in heaven and its bottom on earth, with angels traveling up and down. In the dream, God is “standing over him” and speaking to him. Upon awakening, Jacob names the place “Beth-El [House of God].” The Torah adds: “but previously the name of the city had been Luz.”

Rabbinic and later Jewish tradition offer a variety of comments on the two place names and their connection to Jacob’s experience. This post and tomorrow’s briefly explore two of these name-threads:
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Thirty worthy of Divine Spirit, 30 worthy of stopping the sun, 30 repetitions of previous teachings

The number 30 appears thrice, as it happens, in a brief Talmudic discussion of the Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching style:

Our Rabbis have taught: It happened that R. Eliezer passed the Sabbath in Upper Galilee, and they asked him for thirty decisions in the laws of Sukkah. Of twelve of these he said, ‘I heard them [from my teachers]’; of eighteen he said, ‘I have not heard’…. They said to him, ‘Are all your words only reproductions of what you have heard?’ He answered them, ‘You wished to force me to say something which I have not heard from my teachers. During all my life [I may tell you] no man was earlier than myself in the college, I never slept or dozed in the college, nor did I ever leave a person in the college when I went out, nor did I ever utter profane speech, nor have I ever in my life said a thing which I did not hear from my teachers.’
— Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 28a

The passage goes on to describe a similar set of habits ascribed to Eliezer’s teacher, R. Johanan ben Zakkai, concluding: “…so did his disciple R. Eliezer.” This is followed by more background on Eliezer’s teacher:

Our Rabbis have taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples, thirty of whom were worthy of the Divine Spirit resting upon them, as [it did upon] Moses our Master, thirty of whom were worthy that the sun should stand still for them [as it did for] Joshua the son of Nun [cf. Josh. 10:12ff], and twenty were ordinary. The greatest of them was Jonathan b. Uzziel, the smallest of them was Johanan b. Zakkai. They said of R. Johanan b. Zakkai… [see below]… And if the smallest of them was so great, how much more so was the greatest?

“They said of R. Johanan ben Zakkai” that he did not neglect the following areas of study:

  • Scripture,
  • Mishnah [teachings of the Rabbis],
  • Gemara [explanations of mishnah],
  • Halakhah [decisions of law],
  • Aggada [homilies, legends, etc],
  • details of the Torah,
  • details of the Scribes,
  • inferences a minori ad majus,*
  • analogies,*
  • calendrical computations,
  • gematrias [teachings based on numerical equivalents of words],
  • the speech of the Ministering Angels,
  • the speech of spirits,
  • the speech of palm-trees,**
  • fullers’ parables***
  • and fox fables.****

This eclectic list includes additional mystical and exegetical areas (a very similar list appears in Baba Bathra 134a.)

It is interesting to compare Rabbi Eliezer’s extreme conservatism — refusing to teach anything not received directly from his teacher — with the description of his teacher’s varied background. In particular, several forms of exegesis are within R. Johanan’s expertise, while R. Eliezer refuses to engage in his own decision-making, in the passage above and elsewhere in the Talmud.

It’s noteworthy, too, that “Our Rabbis” are recalling these teachers, presumably from some distance. Rabbi Louis Jacobs suggests that generations after R. Eliezer viewed him with some suspicion, noting Eliezer’s famous excommunication as a result of his failure to abide by majority decision.

See also: The essay on Wikipedia about Talmudic Hermeneutics and this additional note on R. Eliezer.
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