September 29, 2023
September 29, 2023

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Kiddushin 28a: Rabbi Yochanan Versus Reish Lakish

Vatican 120-121 manuscript, Chullin 77a.

A somewhat cryptic mishna on Kiddushin 28a seems to discuss chalipin, such as exchanging a donkey for an ox and when each is acquired. The Gemara mentions the positions of Rav Sheshet and Rav Nachman (bar Yaakov), third-generation Babylonian Amoraim, and how they can reconcile with second-generation Rav Yehuda’s understanding of the mishna.

Rav Sheshet (A) maintains that “chalipin” works not just for vessels, but for produce and animals as well. Rav Nachman (B) restricts chalipin to vessels. In an entirely separate dispute, Rabbi Yochanan (X) says that biblically, paying money affects an acquisition of moveable objects, and only by rabbinic law is pulling the item (meshicha) required, lest the seller receive the money and then tell the buyer “your wheat was burned in the loft.” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Y) says that pulling, meshicha, is explicit in the Torah, so money alone cannot acquire the moveable object. The Gemara analyzes these positions, aligning Rav Nachman with Rabbi Yochanan (A → X) and Reish Lakish with Rav Sheshet (Y → B).

In the parallel sugya (Bava Metzia 46b), the Rif discusses the halachic fallout. This alignment demonstrates that we rule like Rav Nachman, for we, generally, rule like Rabbi Yochanan over Reish Lakish. This, even though the entire exploration and alignment was within the initial assumption that מטבע נעשה חליפין, a coin can affect chalipin. Ultimately, we conclude that it cannot affect chalipin. That’s why Rosh disagrees with Rif’s reasoning, but rules like Rav Nachman for a different reason.

Similarly, in Kiddushin 14b, Rabbeinu Tam objects to Rashi’s understanding of הוֹאִיל וְכׇל קִנְיָנוֹ בְּכֶסֶף, that a gentile’s means of acquiring are all via money, as excluding meshicha (pulling), for then the Stamma would side with Reish Lakish against Rabbi Yochanan. Let us explore this general decisive principle.


The Rule of Three

In Yevamot 36a, Rava says: הִלְכְתָא כְּווֹתֵיהּ דְּרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ בְּהָנֵי תְּלָת … —“the halacha accords with Reish Lakish in these three,” against Rabbi Yochanan. The first case appears on Yevamot 35a: The Mishnah had discussed a yavam who performed chalitza on his yevama, but then it turns out that she was pregnant and she gave birth to viable offspring. This demonstrates the chalitza was invalid, so she can marry a Kohen as a widow rather than a chalutza, and they are permitted to each other’s relatives. The Amoraic dispute is if she later miscarried, where she is, thereby ultimately, still a childless widow. Rabbi Yochanan says that she doesn’t require an additional chalitza, while Reish Lakish says she does.

Second, a mishna (Bava Batra 126b) states that one on his deathbed can verbally divide his possessions among his descendants upon his death, ignoring the law of double inheritance by the firstborn. However, if he describes it not as a gift but as an inheritance, his words don’t stand, if he wrote it in his will. In Bava Batra 129b, Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Eleazar (ben Pedat) and Reish Lakish disagree about the precise wording when targeting multiple recipients, and whether gift/inheritance need be said. Reish Lakish says: “They’ll only ever acquire once he says, ‘Ploni and Ploni will inherit such and such a field that I have given them as a gift, and they will inherit them.’” The sugya is complex, with Rav Dimi and Ravin presenting different versions of Rabbi Yochanan/Rabbi Eleazer and Abaye weighing in. This dispute aligns somewhat with a dispute among the Babylonian Amoraim: Rav Humnuna, Rav Nachman and Rav Sheshet. There’s a conclusive refutation there of those who argue with Rav Sheshet, and an explanation of how this doesn’t also refute Reish Lakish.

Third, a mishna (Bava Batra 136a) states: A healthy person writes a document granting property to his sons during his lifetime, but still wants to derive benefit from it until his death. He should write that he gives his property מֵהַיּוֹם וּלְאַחַר מִיתָה—“from today and after death.” The father cannot sell the property because it is given over to the son; the son cannot sell it because they are still in the father’s possession. If the father did sell, that is just their use until the father’s death. If the son did sell, the purchaser doesn’t receive anything until the father dies.

The Amoraic dispute (also on 136a-b) discusses where the son sold, but then died before his father. Rabbi Yochanan says the purchaser doesn’t acquire; Reish Lakish says he does. The Gemara explains, Rabbi Yochanan maintains that acquiring/ownership of the fruits is essentially acquiring/ownership of the body of the land. Since the father owns it, the son didn’t sell anything. Reish Lakish disagrees and says that ownership of the produce isn’t the same as ownership of the body of the land, so the son had what to sell. They argue, and it seems like Reish Lakish prevails. There’s a parallel dispute between Rabbi Yochanan/Reish Lakish about someone who sells his field for its produce, regarding who reads the mikra bikkurim.


Rabbi Yochanan Wins

The Rishonim see Rava’s statement as a general decisive principle—that aside from these three exceptions—we rule like Rabbi Yochanan1. Why should this be? We can speculate… Recall that Reish Lakish was a brigand until Rabbi Yochanan convinced him to repent, in the incident where Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan River (Bava Metzia 84a). Thus, Rabbi Yochanan is the teacher, and we should listen to the teacher over the student. On the other hand, Reish Lakish also quotes other authorities, to the extent that Tosafot (ad loc.) says that he learned from other sages before turning to banditry. Another possibility is that this is simply how it worked out. Perhaps, Rabbi Yochanan had more students, who would agree with his positions. Or, later generations voted, and it just came out that they ruled like Rabbi Yochanan overwhelmingly. Then, as a shorthand, Rava—the fourth-generation Babylonian Amora—simply lists the three exceptions.

I’m somewhat unhappy with this approach. I made similar objections regarding holding like Abaye in yaal kagam, and like Rav Yosef in sadeh, inyan and mechtza. There is, admittedly, a commonly-accepted principle of מִכְּלָל לָאו אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵעַ הֵן, from a negative statement you can infer the positive statement (though Rabbi Meir disagrees), e.g., that which I don’t eat from you should be considered non-sacred. Should we also say מִכְּלָל הֵן אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵעַ לָאו? We rule like Abaye in these six cases. It doesn’t say, “the halacha is not like Abaye except for these six cases.” Indeed, there might be reasons for listing these particular cases. For Abaye, I suggested it was a masoretic note for the garsan (reciter) of those cases where the Talmud had stated the decision like Abaye; whereas, elsewhere it wasn’t stated, though might be unresolved like either disputant, or even resolved like Abaye by other means. For Rabba versus Rav Yosef, I suggested that again, it summarizes clear decisions and is also restricted to Bava Batra.

Could we say the same for Rava’s list? Maybe, he weighs in because Abaye takes a stand in each of these sugyot. Also, two of these disputes are in Bava Batra (8:5 and 8:7) about inheritance, where the inheritance is in a state of limbo, between the father’s declaration and his death. Yevamot was about the halachic impact of chalitza performed when the fetus and woman are in a state of limbo—ultimately, resolved with the miscarriage. Perhaps, there’s a common thread, where these were all recently studied in Rava’s beit midrash; but we’ll side with Reish Lakish elsewhere, for instance, in cases where the Gemara mentions that a baraita supports him.

The big problem is that the Talmudic narrator clearly understands this as a general rule favoring Rabbi Yochanan. In Chullin 76b-77a, certain soft sinews (giddin) that combined with flesh to cover the majority of broken bone came before Rava2. Rava said: “What concern is there with sinews here? First, because Rabbi Yochanan says that (edible) sinews which will, eventually, harden, one can, nevertheless, join a group for a Paschal offering. And secondly, the Torah spared the money of the Jewish people.” Rava’s student, Rav Pappa, objected: “But Reish Lakish disagrees! This is a biblical prohibition, and you’re going to say, ‘What concern is there with sinews?’” Rava was silent. The Talmudic narrator asks: “Why was Rava silent? Doesn’t he say, ‘The halacha is like Reish Lakish in these three?’” The narrator answers: “This is different, since Rabbi Yochanan retracted.”

Still, later Amoraim such as Rav Ashi (as Talmudic redactor) might legitimately disagree with Rava about when Reish Lakish wins. Further, if we’re willing to disagree with the (post-Amoraic) Talmudic narrator about the implication and extent of Rava’s principle, the sinew case actually supports a restrictive reading. Reish Lakish may still sometimes win; we should consider each sugya carefully.

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.

1 I could likewise point to Eruvin 67a, where Rava says, “One who doesn’t know how to explain Tannaitic sources could raise such refutations against Rabbi Yochanan.”

2 It is Rava in all manuscripts—while printings have Rabba in error—the third-generation Rabba wouldn’t interact with a fifth-generation Rav Pappa/Pappi.

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