April 19, 2024
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After fifth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Meir died, his contemporary Rabbi Yehuda didn’t want an influx of Rabbi Meir’s students, whom he considered troublemakers (Nazir 49-50). He told his students not to admit any of Rabbi Meir’s students. “They aren’t coming to study, but to overwhelm me with halachot.” Nevertheless, one of Rabbi Meir’s students, the sixth-generation Sumchos—that is Symmachus ben Yosef—pushed his way into the beit midrash. Sumchos said to them: This is how Rabbi Meir taught me. A nazir (is rendered impure and) shaves עַל הַמֵּת וְעַל כַּזַּיִת מִן הַמֵּת, from a corpse and for an olive’s bulk from a corpse. This provoked Rabbi Yehuda, who exclaimed: Didn’t I tell you not to admit Rabbi Meir’s students, because they’re troublemakers? If a nazir has to shave because of a kezayit, then certainly he must shave for an entire corpse!

At this, Rabbi Yossi (another of Rabbi Meir’s contemporaries), said to himself: Now they’ll say, “Meir is dead, Yehuda is angry, and Yossi remained silent.” He then suggested why the corpse case is necessary—one that doesn’t possess a kezayit.

The Talmudic Narrator dislikes Rabbi Yossi’s suggestion, because it doesn’t address why it’s necessary given that a single limb will render him impure (as listed in the Mishna). The Narrator, both humble and bold, doesn’t proffer its own explanation of why it’s necessary, instead channeling Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation in a different context. Thus, אֶלָּא כִּדְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן … הָכָא נָמֵי, “rather, as Rabbi Yochanan says (elsewhere), we can explain the distinction here, that it includes the נֵפֶל שֶׁלֹּא נִתְקַשְּׁרוּ אֵבָרָיו. Rava meanwhile relies on a distinction set forth in a brayta on Nazir 44a, though his explanation needn’t be inspired by the Narrator’s objection.

The objection seems strange, for Sumchos hadn’t mentioned limbs in his quote of Rabbi Meir. That’s why Rabbi Yossi’s distinction works! However, admittedly a single limb is mentioned in the Mishna, alongside עַל הַמֵּת וְעַל כַּזַּיִת מִן הַמֵּת. Recall that an unattributed Mishna is assumed to be Rabbi Meir; perhaps Rabbi Meir wrote an earlier version, then edited by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.


Primary Sugya?

Where is Rabbi Yochanan’s “elsewhere”? Rav Steinsaltz simply glosses “with regard to a different issue,” while Artscroll, basing itself on the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yitzchak in Tosafot on 49b, tag the Mishna in Ohalot 2:1, which discusses which items convey tumat ohel, impurity by overshadowing. Yet there’s no Gemara on ohalot. This seems to be an assumption, given that there must be a related yet different issue upon which Rabbi Yochanan comments.

We take a closed-canon approach, in which every reference to elsewhere should ideally appear explicit elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmudic corpus. Yet, consider Chullin 89b. והתנן על אלו טומאות הנזיר מגלח על המת ועל כזית מן המת. וקשיא לן על כזית מן המת מגלח על כולו לא כל שכן ואמר רבי יוחנן לא נצרכה אלא לנפל שלא נקשרו אבריו בגידין. It cites the Mishna, rather than Suchos. It refers to the question of kezayit, (portion) from a met, (body) obviating a full met, then notes Rabbi Yochanan’s answer. Chullin 100b contains the identical text, quoting the Mishna, the question, and Rabbi Yochanan’s answer. These sugyot postdate and rely upon Nazir 50a.

Tosafot on Chullin 89b are confounded by that sugya’s language, ואמר רבי יוחנן, which implies that it refers to Nazir 50a, since Nazir’s language of כִּדְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן implies he didn’t speak to the issue. They resolve it with a conjectural emendation, putting כִּדְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן there as well, thus again referencing ohalot. None of our many printings and manuscripts have this, though.

My inclination would be that the “elsewhere” is the Mishna in Nazir 49b. It was “elsewhere” because Rabbi Yochanan was resolving an issue in the Mishna, which actually had the language of a limb, while the Talmudic Narrator was applying it to Sumchos’ citation of Rabbi Meir and the necessity of both kezayit and met. If so, where do we see Rabbi Yochanan explicitly saying it?

First, my candidate’s no worse than ohalot, where Rabbi Yochanan doesn’t explicitly say it. Second, I suspect that “shadowing” and haplography occurred here. I’d conjecture that Nazir 50a initially had Rabbi Yochanan’s explicit statement on the Mishna. In close proximity, the Talmudic Narrator harnessed his statement to another purpose, for Suchmos. Rabbi Yochanan’s standalone statement seemed extraneous and was eliminated, or was erroneously deleted as a scribe skipped from one instance of Rabbi Yochanan’s statement to the next.

Because of the closed canon, I doubt that elsewhere is the parallel Yerushalmi Nazir 35a, but there, upon the aforementioned Mishna, an elder asks Rabbi Yochanan precisely Rabbi Yehuda’s question, that mentioning a kezayit renders mentioning a corpse unnecessary. Rabbi Yochanan responds with a nefel, which lacks a kezayit. The elder then asks about the limbs mentioned in the Mishna, obviating the full corpse. Rabbi Yochanan responds with הנפל שלא קרשו איבריו. To this, the Amora Rabbi Yossi comments that this elder wasn’t wise, for one question obviates the other. Next, the Yerushalmi notes that the students of Rabbi Yossi ben Chalafta asked (following Korban HaEdah’s emendation) the first (kezayit) but not the second (limb), attributing this to obviation. While the Yerushalmi lacks the Sumchos story, this pattern matches our Bavli’s question by Rabbi Yehuda (on Sumchos) and answered by Rabbi Yossi (ben Chalafta). We have our own reason they didn’t ask the second question—Sumchos never mentioned limbs! Regardless, this strengthens my supposition that the “elsewhere” is the Mishna in Nazir.


Consistently Troublesome

The Mishna in Kiddushin 52b discusses how kohen who attempts to betroth a woman with his priestly portion, either with קׇדְשֵׁי קֳדָשִׁים or קֳדָשִׁים קַלִּים doesn’t successfully betroth. A brayta employs the same language, recounting Rabbi Meir’s death and Rabbi Yehuda barring Rabbi Meir’s students. Again, only Symmachus pushes his way in, here retelling this halacha of a kohen attempting betrothal with a korban. Rabbi Yehuda is upset, as this shows that they don’t come to learn, but to be vexatious. Where would a woman appear in the Temple courtyard?!

Rabbi Yossi thinks the same thoughts to himself and steps up, giving three answers: A man can accept for his minor daughter; A woman may designate a male agent; And what if a woman pushed her way into the Temple courtyard and accepted? This third answer is exceptionally poetic, as it harnesses the precise case, and language, of Suchmos pushing his way into the beit midrash!

There’s more to say about Sumchos, his relationship to Rabbi Meir and their extreme sharpness which led to rejection by others, but we’ll leave that for another day. For now, we can appreciate different approaches to Torah study and recognize how each has its value.

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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