Doorkeepers and Ash Jugs: Berakhot 28

The story about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel continues in today’s Daf Yomi reading (B. Ber. 28). Big changes in the academy, following his removal, include dismissing the “doorkeeper (shomer ha-petach, [שׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח])”:

תָּנָא אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם, סִלְּקוּהוּ לְשׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח וְנִתְּנָה לָהֶם רְשׁוּת לַתַּלְמִידִים לִיכָּנֵס
On that day, the doorkeeper was removed and permission granted to the students to enter.
שֶׁהָיָה רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל מַכְרִיז וְאוֹמֵר
Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed:
כׇּל תַּלְמִיד שֶׁאֵין תּוֹכוֹ כְּבָרוֹ, לֹא יִכָּנֵס לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ
Any student whose inside is not like his exterior will not enter the study hall.

Once the doorkeeper, along with this test (of character or purity), was removed, so many new students arrived that 400 (or maybe 700) new benches were required. On that day, there was no halakhah not fully explained, and even Rabban Gamliel was not absent.

But when Gamliel saw all the new students, he became alarmed:

דִּלְמָא חַס וְשָׁלוֹם מָנַעְתִּי תּוֹרָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל
He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Yisrael from engaging in Torah study.
אַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ בְּחֶלְמֵיהּ חַצְבֵי חִיוָּרֵי דְּמַלְיִין קִטְמָא
He’s shown in a dream white jugs filled with ashes.
וְלָא הִיא, הַהִיא לְיַתּוֹבֵי דַּעְתֵּיהּ, הוּא דְּאַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ
That is not the case, he was shown this to appease him.

This vision is explained by many teachers as Gamliel suspecting that the newcomers to the Beit Midrash were ones whose insides did not match their outsides (white jugs containing ashes). But the editorial voice tells us this is not true but intended to make Gamliel feel better…

…pursuing Daf Yomi means leaving such powerful points for discussion some other time. Before we speed on to the next day’s page, however, it might be worth asking ourselves:

When we notice that we have been excluding people or their perspectives and concerns from our understanding, are we tempted to diminish those perspectives or people, as a way of protecting ourselves and our worldviews?


Inside and Outside

Yesterday’s post mentioned Rabban Gamliel telling a student to wait until the “shield masters (ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין])” arrive before raising a point of contention. These ba’alei terisin are variously understood as those who battle over Torah, scholars who protect Torah from being forgotten, or some sort of officers who work in conjunction with the Romans.

Very near the end of Ber. 27, Roman rule is mentioned explicitly. Among the reasons given for choosing R. Elazar ben Azarya (Eleazar b. Azariah) as a leader is that he is rich and so can “if need be, pay homage to Caesar’s court.” Commentaries suggest this could involve travel expense, taxes, bribes, and other costs of appearing in front of Caesar, lobbying and negotiating.

Through the filter of Roman rule, the doorkeeper in today’s reading might look something like a contemporary security guard or a bouncer tasked with keeping out informants. But Rabban Gamliel’s entrance exam, so to speak, appears to function in other ways.

Rabban Gamliel seems to be demanding that students look and/or behave in certain ways in order to testify that their “insides” deserve to be included. This suggests that he, or his doorkeeper, can see character or intention. But then Gamliel visits Rabbi Yehoshua and apparently notices for the first time that Yehoshua works hard for a living.

R. Yehoshua responds: “Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, their struggles to support and sustain themselves!”

This returns to the inside/outside test Rabban Gamliel proclaimed, but turns it on its head:

You don’t even know what’s going on — It’s interesting, right? He said you have to be [inside matching outside], but he wasn’t looking on the inside of people. He had no idea what was going with the people….
— Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, Hadran
Daf Yomi: Berakhot 28

 

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