April 18, 2024
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Nazir 28-29: Ground Control to Rabbeinu Tam

What should our attitude be towards conjectural emendations to the Talmudic text? Rabbeinu Tam, that is, Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson and French Tosafist (1100-1171 CE) was pretty firmly opposed. He wrote Sefer HaYashar, so named “because in it I wish to reconcile the old [divergent] traditions concerning the text of the Talmud with the original form of the text1.” Rashi had occasionally conjecturally corrected the text based on context, and Rashbam even more so. “Where my grandfather made one correction, [my brother] Shmuel made 20, and erased [the old readings] from the manuscripts [replacing them with new ones].” Rabbeinu Tam acknowledged that the Talmudic text did occasionally get corrupted, so could use correction, but he would do so only based on well-established variants, Rabbeinu Chananel’s texts, and old manuscripts. Otherwise, he worked to explain the text as it stood, explaining apparent contradictions by reading fine distinctions into the text.

Whether the result is a kvetch or was indeed the underlying distinction may be something to dispute. Certainly, I have sympathy for his position—it is easy to make a Gemara conform with your theory and commentary if you can just take a pen to any troublesome passage. At the same time, there are forces (such as dittography, haplography) which move a text from its original form, and are detectable or plausible based on context. Different scholars may land on different middle ground.

On Nazir 28b, a Mishna taught that a man could declare his son to be a nazir, but a woman could not. The reason for this is a matter of argument between second-generation Amora, Rabbi Yochanan and third-generation Amora, Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Chanina (henceforth RYbRC) citing Rabbi Yochanan’s second-generation student-colleague and typical disputant, Reish Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan declares the man/woman distinction a Halacha (leMoshe miSinai), while Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Chanina explains that the entire child-nezirut is a matter of chinuch, education.

The Gemara brings various sources which work well with Rabbi Yochanan’s position but need to be reconciled with RYbRC. In answer to one of these challenges, the Gemara answers that he (Resh Lakish/RYbRC) maintain that (A) shechita for birds is only rabbinically required, and (B) offering chullin in the Temple is similarly only rabbinically prohibited. There are slight variants at this point, but our printed text has that he (RYbRC) holds like Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Yehuda that A and B.

Our printed Gemara then asks: Does Rabbi Yossi indeed maintain A? But there is a brayta that Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Yehuda says etc., something involving a bird sin-offering, with the brayta ending with “the case involves two prohibitions”, the implication being bird-neveilah (thus not-A) and non-sacrificial food (thus B), on a biblical rather than rabbinic level. The idea then is not to attack RYbRC holding it, but the similarly-named Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Yehuda saying it. For the latter is a sixth-generation Tanna, contemporary with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

An Earlier Variant

While this account matches some manuscripts, an alternative and indeed earlier girsa was that RYbRC maintains A and B, rather than saying RYbRC maintains like Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Yehuda that A and B. And the Gemara then queries, does RYbRC indeed say this? But there is a brayta, where RYbRC (not the ambiguous Rabbi Yossi, or non-ambiguous Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Yehuda) says something which implies the opposite. We find this girsa (with just קסבר, and with RYbRC in the question and brayta) in Fragm. ebr. 169.

Tosafot take issue with this earlier girsa, for how could RYbRC appear in a brayta!? He’s a third-generation Amora, Rabbi Yochanan’s student! However, Rabbeinu Tam champions this earlier girsa. He suggests that there is RYbRC I, a Tanna, and RYbRC II, an Amora. His evidence for this, aside from RYbRC appearing in this brayta, is that throughout, Reish Lakish is citing him. It is Rabbi Yochanan on one side of the dispute, and Reish Lakish mishum RYbRC. Now, Rabbenu Tam notes, in Sanhedrin 30b we see that Rabbi Yochanan ordained RYbRC. So he should cite Reish Lakish, not the reverse! It must be that this is an earlier, Tannaitic Sage.

This evidence confounded me for a while, because throughout our Gemara we had רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ, not the reverse. Fragm. ebr. 169 is unhelpful, having only Reish Lakish throughout, just like Vatican 110. However, Munich 95 races to the rescue! Repeatedly through the sugya, it has the flipped order, Reish Lakish amar RYbRC.

This is great, simultaneously aggravating at the same time. Rabbenu Tam argued against one conjectural emendation, based on other textual evidence. But, that textual evidence was quite possibly also conjecturally edited out of existence, because of its seeming anachronistic nature. I’d add that Rabbenu Tam cited it as Reish Lakish mishum, rather than amar, RYbRC. I can’t show a nice manuscript, but that word is compelling. As I demonstrated in my earlier Link article about “On Behalf Of” (September 1, 2022), mishum is used particularly in citation which crosses into the generation of Tannaim or even the transitional Tanna/Amora generation. This suggests the existence of RYbRC, a transitional Tanna/Amora.

Other Appearances

In Toledot Tannaim vaAmoraim, Rav Aharon Hyman believes that there is only one RYbRC, the third-generation Amora. However, he notes that in Tosefta Arachin 5:4, Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Chanina says “Come and see how harsh the dust (recompense) of violating shemitah is, then showing how a person’s material situation degrades through a progression of biblical verses. This is cited in RYbRC’s name in Arachin 30b and Kiddushin 20a. (Also, portions of that brayta are cited in Bava Kamma 113b and Bava Metzia 71a.) Rav Hyman’s suggestion is that what was written in the Tosefta was “RYbRC” as a shorthand for Rabbi Yehuda beRabbi Chanina, and that was erroneously expanded from the Tosefta and from there into the Gemara. Alternatively, he is willing to agree to Rabbenu Tam’s suggestion that there were two different Sages. I’d add that transitional Tannaim/Amoraim can appear in the Tosefta. Rav Hyman also addresses Rabbi Yossi beRabbi Chanina appearing in the beginning of Sifrei Devarim, about the Ten Tests in the wilderness, explaining that it is rather Rabbi Yehuda bRabbi as we have it (without beRabbi) in Arachin 15a.

If there are two RYbRC, we might try to disambiguate based on what they say, e.g. reward and punishment, like the Tosefta, or who cites them and who they cite. For instance, consider Berachot 10b. There are a series of praise or condemnation-oriented statements from RYbRC citing Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (probably the second REbY, a fifth-generation Tanna). This culminates in: Rabbi Yitzchak (third-generation) cites Rabbi Yochanan (second-generation) cites RYbRC who cites mishum (fifth-generation) Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov: one who eats and drinks and then prays, upon him the verse states “and Me you have cast behind your back.” The place in the chain indicates a sixth-generation Tanna or transitional Tanna/Amora, and the content is precisely what we’d expect from RYbRC I.

In sum, at least in our sugya, I’m heavily pro-Rabbeinu Tam. He made sense of the original text, and had good textual support which, alas, soon disappeared. Finally, his conjecture of two Sages named RYbRC is further sustained by a Tosefta and a Gemara in Berachot he didn’t know about.


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 This translated quote as well as other details drawn from Jewish Encyclopedia.

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