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Thursday, May 19, 2022
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Rabbi Akiva (ben Yosef) and Rabbi Yishmael (ben Elisha), two fourth-generation Amoraim, famously have different approaches to Biblical interpretation. While both developed hermeneutical rules—e.g., Rabbi Akiva expounding miut/ribuy and Rabbi Yishmael expounding kelal/prat (Shevuot 26a)—Rabbi Yishmael is often deemed the more pshat-oriented. For instance, Rabbi Akiva will interpret doubled phrases such as שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח, “you shall surely send away,” Rabbi Yishmael asserts that דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם, the Torah employs natural human speech patterns (Sanhedrin 64b) and won’t derive novel law from such phrases.

In Sanhedrin 51b we see a similarly aligned dispute. Vayikra (21:9) lays out a more severe execution (burning) for an adulterous bat kohen than for a typical adulterous Jewish woman. Rabbi Akiva extends this execution method to a fully married bat kohen, because the verse employs וּבַת֙ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּהֵ֔ן with a prefix vav. “Yishmael, my brother, I’m expounding בת vs. ובת. Rabbi Yishmael responds, “Because you interpret bat/uvat, you’ll take this woman out to be burnt?” He goes on to attack the logical extent and directionality of the inference, but it seems Rabbi Yishmael will fundamentally not interpret extraneous vavs.

The Talmudic Narrator (Stamma) then asks what Rabbi Yishmael will do with the extraneous vav, answering that he’ll use it for Rabbi Avin’s father’s (a third-generation Amora of Israel; cross out printed “Shmuel”) exposition; this counters an erroneous derasha that daughters of blemished kohanim would be excluded from execution by burning. This would seem to blunt Rabbi Yishmael’s earlier rhetorical point, for now he too would sentence a woman to burning because of the vav! It also seems at odds with the Talmudic Narrators of other sugyot, who imply that it’s Rabbi Akiva’s disputants here who don’t interpret the vav.

Derasha Chains

My evaluation is that an overarching principle held by the Stamma is that each Biblical law has a unique derasha from a Biblical phrase, and each Biblical phrase is interpreted to produce a unique Biblically derived law. In mathematical terms, the mapping of Biblical phrases to laws is a bijective function. However, see Sanhedrin 34a, where Abaye, and more importantly, a brayta from the aforementioned Rabbi Yishmael’s academy, relax that restriction, such that one verse can produce multiple expositions. The Stamma requires the bijection, so once a disputant rejects a verse’s interpretation, he must provide a different interpretation and law for that verse. And once a disputant utilizes a verse for his interpretation, if he wants to also maintain a different law that had been derived from that verse, he must provide a different verse.

This leads to long Stammaitic sections that I call “derasha chains,” in which verses and laws are continuously provided for the opposing disputants. The derasha chain ends when the one disputant doesn’t maintain one of the desired laws (X doesn’t hold A is forbidden), when one disputant rejects the midrashic method (X doesn’t interpret an extra vav), or when the Stamma runs out of steam. Because the Stamma holds this principle paramount, or because it’s difficult to keep track, sometimes he’ll attribute a midrashic principle to a Tanna or Amora who explicitly maintains the opposite elsewhere, e.g., interpreting the consonantal vs. vocalized Torah text. Tosafot, who operate on a global Talmudic scale, often will note the difficulty and propose resolutions, but the correct resolution might be to disagree with the Stamma, either to reject the systematic approach of derasha chains or the particular explanation of that Tanna’s position.

Rav’s and Derivative Derashot

In Yevamot 87a, the Mishnah provides a case: an Israelite’s daughter who had been married to a kohen and had a son, then married a Levi, then divorced the Levi, she may eat terumah because of her kohen son. Rav derives this from Vayikra 22:13 (a different verse than above) that stated וּבַת־כֹּהֵן֩ about a kohen’s daughter who was divorced or widowed without offspring. His derivation is from the vav of ובת. The Stamma suggests that this is only in accordance with Rabbi Akiva who interprets vavs, not the Sages, meaning Rabbi Akiva’s disputant(s). The implied disputant is Rabbi Yishmael. The Stamma answers that here even they’d agree, because the entire וּבַת is superfluous (since, as Rashi notes, the immediately preceding verse also began וּבַ֨ת־כֹּהֵ֔ן).

In Yevamot 68b, the Gemara seeks a Biblical source for the idea that not the daughter of a kohen, but also of a Levi or Israelite, who engaged in intercourse with an unfit man, is excluded from eating terumah even if she marries a kohen. The Talmudic Narrator seldom makes his own derashot but will lean on existing statements by named Amoraim to derive something. Here, citing Rav’s derivation on 87a based on בת ובת, he looks to immediately preceding Vayikra 22:12, וּבַ֨ת־כֹּהֵ֔ן, about a kohen’s daughter who is with an ish zar. The vav includes a female Levite or Israelite. Again, the Stamma suggests it’s only with Rabbi Akiva, but resolves that וּבַת is entirely superfluous. (Here, Rashi points to an even earlier verse that brought her in scope.)

Then, Rabbi Yishmael asserts that a woman who had intercourse with a servant or gentile, even without having a child, is invalid from marrying a kohen, interpreting Vayikra 22:13. The Stamma (Yevamot 69a) again seeks a source, not just for a kohen’s daughter (the verse’s subject) but for a Levite’s/Israelite’s daughter. He again patterns himself on Rav’s derasha (87a) about בת ובת, suggests this is Rabbi Akiva, and says it’s even the Sages since וּבַת is entirely superfluous.

Inconsistent Midrashic Methodology

Tosafot (on the 68b sugya) notice a problem. Rabbi Akiva’s disputant in Sanhedrin is Rabbi Yishmael, and that gemara elaborates what Rabbi Yishmael himself deduces from the vav! They note that their first nuanced answer, based on the specific ideas deduced by each Tanna from the vav, doesn’t work well with our sugya (Yevamot 69a) where we try to find support for Rabbi Yishmael himself! They suggest that since Rabbi Akiva is contrasted with the Sages, it is Sages other than Rabbi Yishmael. (I’d counter that רבנן is typically used to indicate one’s disputant in that dispute, so this suggestion seems forced.) Alternatively, they suggest that in Sanhedrin 51b, Rabbi Yishmael wouldn’t actually interpret the vav; the intent is to assist someone who always interprets but also wishes to adopt Rabbi Yishmael’s legal conclusion. (While I agree Rabbi Yishmael never would say this, that’s not how the gemara is phrased, or how derasha chains work.)

Finally, see Sanhedrin 14a, where Rabbi Yehuda argues with Rabbi Shimon. The Stamma initiates a derasha chain, concluding it with Rabbi Yehuda interpreting a superfluous vav and Rabbi Shimon not interpreting such vavs. (Rabbi Shimon could be “the Sages” for Tosafot’s answer!) However, Tosafot ad loc. conduct a Talmudic survey. In Sotah 6b and Menachot 51b, Rabbi Shimon doesn’t interpret vavs. However, elsewhere Rabbi Shimon does interpret a vav! (Bava Kamma 65b; Temurah or perhaps Bechorot 28b; Sanhedrin 51b following Rabbi Akiva.) So too, Rabbi Yehuda sometimes doesn’t interpret a vav (Temura 2b, Yoma 45a).

Tosafot suggest this “not interpreting vavs” means that Rabbi Shimon/Rabbi Yehuda don’t interpret vavs in each singular instance this is stated, rather than an overarching approach. I’d note that these instances are often in derasha chains, and in positions attributed to them by the Stamma, who might not be as concerned for consistency as for the bijection. Where these Tannaim take an explicit cited position on this (or other hermeneutical) principle, we should take these as establishing their actual beliefs.


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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