June 25, 2024
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Behold, a Caravan of Yishme’eilim: Yevamot 104

In Yevamot 104a, both Rabbi bar Chiyya of Ctesiphon (the capital city of the Sassanian dynasty, on the Tigris River, near Mechoza) in Shmuel’s time, and the fourth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, each acted alone as an officiating judge in conducting a chalitza ceremony at night with a non-leather slipper. Upon examining the plain reading of Devarim 25 it says that while yibbum is performed privately, if the levir wishes to refuse the levirate marriage, the widow then complains to the elders at the city gate (thus, the court), who summon him and try to persuade him to perform yibbum. If he insists, the widow removes — in the presence of these elders —  his shoe (נַעֲלוֹ) from his foot, spits and says, “so shall be done to the man who refuses to build up his brother’s house,” and he’s subsequently known as “the house of the loosened shoe.” Thus, chaliza seems to require a real and typical leather shoe, before three real judges (as a typical court), and is done during the daytime when cases are usually adjudicated.

However, various rabbinic positions validate relaxing each of these requirements, either as a minority dissent or as a widely accepted majority position. The Torah might be describing the typical case, and a process of attempted suasion to do the right thing, but less than that might still work. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yochanan the Cobbler allow for just two judges (who are still plural “elders”), and a case actually came before Rabbi Akiva, where the levir and widow conducted the chalitza ceremony while alone in prison, and Rabbi Akiva validated it.

We also know of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha’s actions in conducting the chalitza ceremony via the firsthand testimony of another Yishmael, namely the late sixth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Yishmael beRabbi Yossi. This was the son of the famous fifth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Yossi (ben Chalafta). Interestingly, he himself originated via yibbum. Yerushalmi Yevamot 1b sets this out: “דִּרַבִּי יוֹסִי בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא יִבֵּם אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו. חָמֵשׁ חֲרִישׁוֹת חָרַשׁ וְחָמֵשׁ נְטִיעוֹת נָטַע וְדֶרֶךְ סָדִין בָּעַל. אֵילוּ הֵן רַבִּי  דִּרַבִּי יוֹסִי בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא יִבֵּם אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו. חָמֵשׁ חֲרִישׁוֹת חָרַשׁ וְחָמֵשׁ נְטִיעוֹת נָטַע וְדֶרֶךְ סָדִין בָּעַל. אֵילוּ הֵן רַבִּי  יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֵּי ר’ יוֹסִי ר’ לְעֵזֶר בֵּי ר’ יוֹסִי ר’ מְנַחֵם בֵּי ר’ יוֹסֵי וְר’ חֲלַפְתָּא בַּר’ יוֹסִי רַבִּי אִבְּדִימוֹס בֵּי ר’ יוֹסִי.” Compare this to Shabbat 118b, which omits the yibbum part, and gives the sons in a different order, though still lists Yishmael first. Tosafot in Shabbat contrasts the different assumed intents between the Bavli and Yerushalmi, and suggests that each son originated from a separate brother’s widow. Rav Hyman, in Toledot Tannaim Amoraim, asserts that as Yishmael was listed first, he was “beno hagadol — the greatest of his brothers,” not just in years but also in Torah.

An intriguing idea is how yibbum could warp scholastic generations. Usually we consider a cohort, a group of scholars who are roughly the same age (though some decades older or younger), and who study in the same academy and then become teachers in their own right. These scholars, in turn, then have their own students and children, who form the next cohort. There are some extreme outliers such as Rabbi Yochanan (considered last week) who spanned generations and who had teachers, colleagues and students from various generations. Now, consider what happens with yibbum … A levir might have his own children, with a wife he married in his relative youth. Then, a childless brother dies, perhaps after many years of marriage. When the levir marries the widow, their children might be offset by half a generation.

Rabbi Yishmael beRabbi Yossi learned from Rabbi Yossi and eventually took his father’s place in leading Tzipori (see Eruvin 86b and also Shabbat 51a, where Rav Pappa says “דִּמְמַלֵּא מְקוֹם אֲבוֹתָיו הֲוָה”). He later studied with  the sixth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (that is, “Rabbi” (see Yevamot 105b, Shabbat 51a). His colleagues included the transitional Tannaim/Amoraim, Rabbi Chiyya (Eruvin 80a) and Rabbi Chama bar Bisa (Niddah 14b).

Tosafot wondered how Rabbi Yishmael beRabbi Yossi could witness the conduct of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. After all, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was executed by the Romans before Rabbi Akiva. (See Semachot, Perek 8, where Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava react to the report of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yismael’s execution.) Indeed, Rabbi was born when (or before) Rabbi Akiva died (Kiddushin 72b) and furthermore, Rabbi Yishmael beRabbi Yossi sat subservient before Rabbi! Thus, this youngster would have to have been older than Rabbi (to have seen conduct of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha prior to Rabbi Akiva’s death), and have yet sat subservient to him. The girsa therefore bothers the Ri. Tosafot answered this that firstly, Rav Pappa says (Shabbat 51a) that even Rabbi Yossi, had he been alive, would have sat subservient before Rabbi (“כָּפוּף וְיוֹשֵׁב לִפְנֵי רַבִּי”), so that’s not a valid age indicator. Furthermore, as the Ri answers, there were likely two Rabbi Yishmael ben Elishas. Number one was the Kohen Gadol, and the grandfather of number two who conducted the chalitza. And, perhaps number two  lived well after Rabbi Akiva! That would make number one the frequent disputant of Rabbi Akiva practically and methodologically.

Scholars agree that there were two Rabbi Yishmael ben Elishas, with the grandfather being the Kohen Gadol. However (looking at Dr. Satlow’s list), number one was a second-generation Tanna and number two was a fourth-generation Tanna, thus a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and presumably his disputant. I’m not sure which of the two Rabbi Yishmaels was martyred by the Romans, since the midrashic and poetic accounts vary even in the membership, and for dramatic effect, anachronistically place all Ten Martyrs in the same era.

Finally, let us say the Ri is right and we should change the girsa. For what? Both Vatican 110 and Cod. hebr. 419 have רבי ישמעאל בן אלישיב instead of בן אלישע. I’m unaware of any such Yishmael ben Elyashiv, but perhaps he’s otherwise unknown. Under lectio difficilior potior, it would be more likely to have been changed from the unknown Tanna to the well-known Tanna, so this seems possible. Also, the Krupp 3894 manuscript has “רבי ישמעאל בן אליע” with a diacritic over the “ayin” to indicate a final letter “reish”. A scribe, seeing “אליע” (and perhaps the next word’s initial “shin”), erroneously restored the “shin”, producing the famous “בן אלישע”בן אלישע. Rabbi Yishmael ben Eliezer can then be Rabbi Akiva’s fourth-generation contemporary, namely Rabbi Eleazar bar Arach’s son.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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