July 15, 2024
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Nedarim 41a: Rabbi Yosef Forgets

In Nedarim 41a, Rabbi Yosef interprets a verse in Tehillim, “His entire bed, You overturn in his illness,” as referring to one who forgets his learning due to illness. The Talmud notes that Rabbi Yosef, himself, became ill, and that’s why in “all places,” we say that Rabbi Yosef said: לָא שְׁמִיעַ לִי הָדָא שְׁמַעְתָּא — “I didn’t learn this halacha,” and Abaye responds, “You taught it to us, and from/ regarding this Tannaitic source, you taught it to us.”

Well, not in all places… The phrase occurs — mutatis mutandis — in eight distinct discussions, about the two basic topics of niddah and eruv. These are Niddah 39a, 63b; Makkot 4a; Eruvin 10a, 41a, 66b, 73a, 89b. Rabbi Yosef has opinions about all manner of halacha, but his memory-loss is either localized — or more likely — he taught these two topics after his illness. Makkot 4a is about invalidating a mikvah into which drawn water fell, so it is niddah-related. Eruvin 41a is about completing a fast which occurs on erev Shabbat, but appears in Masechet Eruvin associated with a mishna in Eruvin.

In Toledot Tannaim va’Amoraim, Rabbi Hyman takes these incidents as evidence that Abaye studied with Rabbi Yosef for many years, both in Abaye’s youth when he grew up in his uncle Rabba’s household in Pumbedita, and in Rabbi Yosef’s old age when he reminded him of what they had studied previously. In contrast, Rava’s father was the head of Mechoza, so he received most of his Torah there from Rabbi Nachman. Only afterwards, when Rabbi Yosef became blind, did Rava study from him, yet Rabbi Yosef was also reckoned as Rava’s primary teacher1. Thus Abaye — not Rava — reminds Rabbi Yosef. Rabbi Hyman also points to Rava never citing Rabbi Yosef as evidence, that Rava only came before him after becoming a gadol hador. Reinforcing this, he notes in Bava Batra 22b, that both Abaye and Rava had individual academies with many students in Rabbi Yosef’s lifetime.

Master of Abraham!

Aside from those eight instances, Rabbi Hyman expands the impact of Rabbi Yosef’s illness to four other instances. In Ketubot 2a, Rabbi Yosef cites Rabbi Yosef who cites Shmuel about the reason the first mishna mentions betulot (maidens) marry on Wednesday — it’s important to know because of the mishna on 57a, about the man’s financial obligations of support if that time arrives and the wedding is postponed. Rabbi Yosef exclaims “Master of Abraham!” expressing surprise at this, because the first mishna itself gives a reason for Wednesday — so that, if there is a ta’anat betulim (claims of maidenhood), they can arise the next morning and come to court. The Talmudic narrator deals with Shmuel’s statement at length — harmonizing these two causes — so, now there’s an answer to Rabbi Yosef’s confusion. While the Gemara doesn’t mention it, Rashi explains why Rabbi Yosef would express surprise at something he, himself, quoted his teacher, Rabbi Yehua, as saying. Rashi writes that this was after Rabbi Yosef’s illness, and he was confounded by his earlier statement.

Similarly, in Eruvin 75a, the mishna stated that while in typical cases of an inner and other courtyard — where the residents of the inner courtyard need to pass through the outer courtyard to exit — an eruv is needed, this isn’t the case if there is only one individual in the inner and outer courtyard respectively. The mishna describes this as, וְאִם הָיוּ שֶׁל יְחִידִים. Rabbi Yosef stated that with this, Rabbi (Yehuda HaNasi, author of the Mishna) teaches us that if there are three people in the two courtyards — it’s forbidden without an eruv. At this, Rabbi Beivai pipes up and tells the other Pumbeditan sages not to heed that account. For Rabbi Yosef heard it from me, and I said it in Rabbi Adda bar Ahava’s name, and the reason is that we’d call this case “many” — רַבִּים, living in a single outer courtyard (rather than in two separate courtyards). At this, Rabbi Yosef exclaimed: “Master of Abraham! I confused ‘rabbi’ with ‘rabbim!’ Rashi explains this confusion as forgetfulness, resulting from Rabbi Yosef’s illness.”

In Shabbat 22a, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is asked whether one may make personal use of sukkah decorations during Sukkot. He resolves it via an analogy not to make personal use of Chanukah lamps to count money. Rabbi Yosef reacts in astonishment (“Master of Abraham!”) — because there’s an explicit baraita allowing use of sukkah decorations only with prior stipulation, whereas Chanukah lamps aren’t a baraita.

Additionally — in Bava Batra 134b — Rabbi Yosef cites Rav Yehuda citing Shmuel, that a man is believed to identify someone as his son (as per the preceding mishna, thus exempting his wife from chalitza), because he’s believed to say he divorced his wife (thus, exempting her from chalitza). Rabbi Yosef, then, exclaims “Master of Abraham!” This bases the mishna upon a credibility, which doesn’t appear in Tannaitic literature. The statement is amended (by Rabbi Yosef or the Talmudic narrator) to address the difficulty. Rashi died before writing commentary on this portion of Bava Batra, but Rashbam explains that Rabbi Yosef forgot the correct formulation due to his illness.

Pathologizing an Expression?

Are these four actually incidents of forgetting? Eruvin 75b clearly matches, because Rabbi Beivai related the original statement and Rabbi Yosef explained his confusion. Also, the domain is the eruv! But using the expression “Master of Abraham” is just a unique expression, just as Rabbi Safra often said, “Moses, did you speak well?” That a Tannaitic idea shouldn’t depend upon an external idea might reflect his scholastic approach, so its appearance in many of these passages needn’t indicate forgetfulness. Particularly, in Shabbat 22a, there’s nothing in his objection to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi indicating an error on Rabbi Yosef’s part. Nor is muktza regarding sukkah a forgetful domain.

Ketubot 2a and Bava Batra 134b seem possible. Wednesday marriage/asserting male progeny both deal with marriage laws — perhaps, forming their own new domain. Further, Rabbi Yosef cites Rabbi Yehuda citing Shmuel, and then Rabbi Yosef, himself, attacks the idea’s logic. This seems self-questioning … Also — in both — someone says אִי אִתְּמַר הָכִי אִתְּמַר, amending the citation. Especially if Rabbi Yosef amends the quote, he’s admitted to having mangled the original. Even if the Talmudic narrator amended it, the original quotation is then deemed as inaccurate/forgotten.

The alternative is that Rabbi Yosef was always surprised, but still relayed the tradition he received from his teacher, Rabbi Yehuda, together with his own objection. Intellectual integrity and transparency in transmission demands no less. Since he didn’t hear directly from Shmuel, he or the Talmudic narrator may be saying that Rabbi Yehuda erred.


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 For Rav Yosef’s blindness and the honor Rava accorded him when he was blind, see Yoma 53a-b and Nedarim 55a.

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