July 21, 2024
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Sotah 39: Learning During Kriat HaTorah

Sotah 39a describes and derives the obligation to be quiet for kriat haTorah. Thus:

אָמַר רָבָא בַּר רַב הוּנָא: כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּפְתַּח סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה אָסוּר לְסַפֵּר אֲפִילּוּ בִּדְבַר הֲלָכָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וּבְפִתְחוֹ עָמְדוּ כׇּל הָעָם, וְאֵין עֲמִידָה אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהוֹחַלְתִּי כִּי לֹא יְדַבֵּרוּ כִּי עָמְדוּ לֹא עָנוּ עוֹד״. רַבִּי זֵירָא אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא, מֵהָכָא: וְאׇזְנֵי כׇל הָעָם אֶל סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה.

“Rava bar Rav Huna” is simply an alternate spelling of “Rabba bar Rav Huna,1” a third-generation Amora who took over Sura academy after his father, Rav Huna, passed away. He said that once the sefer Torah is “opened” (whatever that means), it is forbidden to speak to one another, even in a matter of halacha. His source is from sefer Nechemiah. Essentially (Nechemiah 8:2-3), on the first day of the seventh month (understood to be Tishrei 1, meaning Rosh Hashanah), Ezra made a lengthy public reading of the Torah, from first light until midday. This reading was before men, women, and really anyone who could understand, and everyone paid attention—וְאׇזְנֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־סֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָֽה.

The pesukim then relate (8:4-5) that Ezra stood on a wooden platform with certain enumerated people. And he “opened” the sefer Torah in everyone’s sight—since being on the platform, everyone could see him. And as he opened it, all the people “stood up,” whatever that means— וּכְפִתְח֖וֹ עָֽמְד֥וּ כׇל־הָעָֽם . Then (8:6) Ezra blessed Hashem, and the people responded, “Amen, amen,” with arms upraised, then prostrated themselves.

The second span (4-5), opening the sefer Torah, could be interpreted as occurring after the first span (2-3), as preparation for the blessing. However, we understand it as adding more details about the first span: this public Torah reading was on the elevated platform, and everyone “stood up” once Ezra opened up the sefer Torah.

Rabba bar Rav Huna interprets וּכְפִתְח֖וֹ עָֽמְד֥וּ כׇל־הָעָֽם to mean that the entire nation fell silent. There’s another verse to equate standing with silence, after all. And since this public reading forms the template for our Torah reading each week, we must be silent as well.

Helping Rabbah bar bar Chana in running Sura academy was third-generation Rav Chisda, who was Rav Huna’s student and colleague. And Rabbi Zeira cites Rav Chisda for an alternate derivation of the law, based on וְאׇזְנֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־סֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָֽה in span one. If everyone’s ears hearken to the Torah reading, then no one is discussing the latest Mets game or even whether you bentch on two slices of pizza.

Rav Aharon Hyman asserts that there were two Amoraim named “Rabbi Zeira.” The first was a third-generation student of Rav Yehuda who traveled to Israel and stayed there, studying under Rabbi Yochanan. The second was a third and fourth-generation student of Rav Yosef and others, who traveled between Israel and Bavel. Rava uses a different language when discussing each of them, with הָא מִלְּתָא אָמְרִי וְאִתְּמַר בְּמַעְרְבָא מִשּׁוּם דְּרַבִּי זֵירָא כְּוָתִי in Menachot 40b about Rabbi Zeira I, and אֲנִי וַאֲרִי שֶׁבַּחֲבוּרָה תַּרְגֵּימְנוּהָ וּמַנּוּ רַבִּי זֵירָא in Bava Batra 88a about Rabbi Zeira II. Rav Hyman says that Rabbi Zeira I is the one who generally quotes Rav Chisda. I’m unconvinced Rabbi Zeira II isn’t possible, and have many thoughts about Menachot and Bava Batra, which we’ll skip to save space and keep our attention focused.

Regardless, consider Yerushalmi Megillah 3:7. Tannaim disagree about how to recite the blessing on leining. One maintains he opens, looks and rolls up, then recites the blessing, while another Tanna removes the rolling up from the order. Then, the Amoraim: רִבִּי זְעוּרָה אַבָּא בַּר יִרְמְיָה רַב מַתָּנָה בְשֵׁם שְׁמוּאֵל: הֲלָכָה כְמִי שֶׁהוּא אוֹמֵר פּוֹתֵחַ וְרוֹאֶה וּמְבָרֵךְ. וּמַה טַעַם? וּכְפִתְח֖וֹ עָֽמְד֥וּ כָל־הָעָֽם. וּמַה כְתִיב בַּתְרֵיהּ. וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ עֶזְרָ֔א אֶת־ה ֨ הָאֱלֹקִ֖ים הַגָּד֑וֹל. The enumerated Amoraim don’t all directly cite Shmuel’s. It is a chain of transmission—from first-generation Shmuel, to his talmid muvhak, second-generation Rav Mattana I, to second and third-generation Rabba bar Yirmiyah (son of Rav Yirmiyah bar Abba I) to Rabbi Zeira . The proof is from our verses in Nechemiah, and the juxtaposition of the second span (opening) and third span (blessing). This may explain why he must use the first span for requiring silence.

Rav Sheshet Disagrees

Our sugya is famously contrasted with Brachot 8a: רַב שֵׁשֶׁת מַהְדַּר אַפֵּיהּ וְגָרֵיס. אָמַר: אֲנַן בְּדִידַן וְאִינְהוּ בְּדִידְהוּ. Rav Sheshet would turn his face away (during leining) and study. He would say: “We with ours and they with theirs.” This seems to be a contradiction, since here he is not being silent, and not paying attention to the leining!

The phrase אֲנַן בְּדִידַן finds a parallel in Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:1 (also in Kohelet Rabbah and Ruth Rabbah), that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were invited to a feast celebrating Elisha ben Avuya’s circumcision. While other leading Jerusalemites were dancing and clapping in another room, Rabbi Eliezer turned to Rabbi Yehoshua and said, “While they are occupied with theirs, let us occupy ourselves with ours”—עַד דְּאִינּוּן עֲסִיקִין בְּדִידוֹן נַעֲסוֹק אֲנָן בְּדִידָן. They went from Torah to Neviim to Ketuvim, until fire descended and surrounded them. Avuya asked them if they had come to burn down his house, and the story continued from there.

From the parallel, which also involved learning Torah, my assessment is that Rav Sheshet was comparing his level of Torah study to be superior to the level in which the community was learning by listening to the leining and Targum. While elitist, it is perhaps kinder. For Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, those celebrating were celebrating the performance of a mitzvah. For Rav Sheshet, the community is certainly engaged in Torah study, but we, Torah scholars, can join in—albeit at a higher level—in tandem. I think the parallel also demonstrates that אֲנַן is not the royal we, but refers to the class of talmidei chachamim.

Many attempt to harmonize Sotah and Berachot. Some point to Rav Sheshet’s blindness, so that אֲנַן בְּדִידַן refers to the class of blind people, who focus on oral rather than written law. Others restrict this to silent study, which works with an obligation not to speak. Others say that Rav Sheshet’s practice is only valid for one from whom Torah is his profession, תּוֹרָתוֹ אֻמָּנוּתוֹ. (There’s a similar idea, that one whose תּוֹרָתוֹ אֻמָּנוּתוֹ shouldn’t stop learning to daven.) Rav Sheshet was indeed exceptional; his knowledge caused even Rav Chisda to tremble. The practical ramification of that explanation would be to effectively harmonize Rav Sheshet’s practice out of existence. You think you’re on that level to act like this?! However, an alternative is simply that Rav Sheshet—of Shiloh academy—simply disagreed with the approach of Rabbah bar Rav Huna and Rav Chisda of Sura.


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 Indeed, Vatican 110 and Oxford 2675 have the Rabba spelling, while Munich 95 just attributes this to Rav Huna himself.

2 Interestingly, only Oxford 2675 gets וּכְפִתְח֖וֹ correct; printings and other manuscripts change the kaf to a bet.

3 Rabbi Zeira often quotes Rabba bar Yirmeyah in Bavli and Yerushalmi. See Berachot 43a, Pesachim 36a, Moed Katan 4a, etc. Rabbi Zeira’s lengthy description of encountering Rabba bar Yirmeyah in Sura and Rabbi Assi in Israel, in Avodah Zara 16b, might help us disambiguate.

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