Shields, Their Masters, and the Community: Berakhot 27

Today’s reading in the Daf Yomi cycle is Berakhot 27, and My Jewish Learning’s commentary focuses on a famous incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua. The essay highlights how the learning community stopped Gamliel’s attempt to publicly bully Yehoshua:

First they take away Gamliel’s microphone, instructing Hutzpit the translator, tasked with repeating and amplifying Gamliel’s words, to stop his repetition. Then they remove him from his post. Their goal isn’t to silence Gamliel, but to break his grip on the debate. The beauty of the Talmud is its many voices — reflecting the conflicting and complex views we hold as individuals and encouraging minority voices that may have fallen silent. Acting to protect that must have required considerable bravery on the part of the rabbis. But their actions were essential to preserving the multivocal, multilayered text we have today.
— “Berakhot 27,” Elaina Marshalek

The essay asks us to imagine “what might have happened to the Talmud if the rabbis had yielded to Gamliel’s culture of authority, devoid of argument and protest,” and concludes that “deposing Gamliel has the effect not only of removing a teacher who had abused his authority, but of changing the entire culture of the study hall.”

This incident includes important material relevant to how the ancient Sages make decisions. Within this story is an interesting expression, “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” which translates literally as “masters of the shields.” And just prior to this incident are a few words which lead to a less dramatic, but powerful, method of decision-making by the community.

Obligatory Option

Two important pairs of teachers disagree about whether the evening prayer is obligatory or optional: In 1st Century Palestine, Rabbi Yehoshua, in opposition to Rabban Gamliel, rules that it is optional; in 3rd/4th Century Babylon, Rava, in opposition to Abaye, also ruled optional (B. Ber 27b). By the 11th Century CE, however, the North African teacher Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen Alfasi (Rabbi Isaac of Fez or “RIF“) wrote that Maariv was obligatory based on widespread adoption of the optional practice.

Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, of Hadran, explains this as a “hazakah,” something the community voluntarily takes on as an obligation. (The Daf Yomi lesson for Hadran,” lesson for Berakhot 27; more about Hadran.) This process is not nearly so dramatic as the conflict that leads to Rabban Gamliel being deposed. But it is a powerful example of Jewish communities determining, through simple repetition, what is and is not accepted practice.

Shield Masters

As the story of the public dispute unfolds, Rabban Gamliel tells the student who inquired about the evening prayer’s status to bring the matter before “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” “masters of the shields”:

אָמַר לוֹ: הַמְתֵּן עַד שֶׁיִּכָּנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ.
He said to him: Wait until the “masters of the shields” enter the study hall

כְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין עָמַד הַשּׁוֹאֵל וְשָׁאַל: תְּפִלַּת עַרְבִית רְשׁוּת אוֹ חוֹבָה
When the masters of the shields entered, the questioner stood before everyone present and asked: Is the evening prayer optional or obligatory?

“תָּרִיס taris” is a shield, and ba’alei terisin is translated as “shield-bearers, i.e., great debaters [Jastrow dictionary]” or “champions, i.e., great scholars (NOTE: The Rabbis often applied warlike terms to halachic discussion) [Soncino Talmud].” Cohen Farber (see Hadran above) stresses the alternative suggestion that ba’alei terisin are “shield holders” in the sense of “protecting the Torah from being forgotten, which was exactly their concern in those days.”

An 11th Century Italian teacher, known as the Arukh, reads ba’alei terisin as “soldiers or police officers who were appointed by the government to support the Jewish leadership” [Steinsaltz.org] or “tough officers appointed by the Romans to give the Nasi the power to enforce their decrees [DafYomi.co.il]. This translation suggests that Rabban Gamliel did not want to pursue his dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua until security was in place.

…Although no security guards are evident in this GodCast version of the incident in Ber 27b, the overall dynamic and the mood of the “faculty meeting” seems not inconsistent with the Arukh’s reading —



Enforcement

Prior to exploring this day’s Daf Yomi, I do not think I ever considered physical enforcement of Sanhedrin decrees. And I know very little about the history of collaboration between the Sages and occupying forces. Moreover, I suspect that the Arukh’s translation of ba’alei terisin may be more about Jewish life in 11th Century Rome than in 1st Century Palestine. But the mere hint of a suggestion of policing as part of this story adds new perspectives to ponder.

Here, just by the way, is a Baal Terisin “image was taken from the Hebrew edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot, page 163” found in Aleph Society glossary.

BaalTeresin

from Aleph Society