June 21, 2024
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Rabbi Zeira and an Ashkenazic Rabbi of a Sephardic Congregation

Rabbi Zeira’s 100 Fasts

Daf Yomi participants recently learned an astounding report about Rabbi Zeira (Bava Metzia 85a). When this great (and colorful) Amora made aliyah from Bavel, he fasted 100 taaniot, beseeching Hashem to forget the Talmud Bavli he had learned beforehand. Rashi explains that the Talmud Yerushalmi is much more straightforward than the Talmud Bavli. The Yerushalmi has much fewer disputes, as Eretz Yisrael’s Torah scholars collaborated instead of competing with each other (Sanhedrin 24a). Rabbi Zeira fasted so he would forget his Bavli methodology and fit into the Eretz Yisrael learning style.

 

A Large Question on Rabbi Zeira

However, Rabbi Zeira’s fasting is shocking in light of the mishna (Avot 3:8) that strongly condemns one who forgets his Torah learning. If the mishna is so critical of one who forgets his learning, how could Rabbi Zeira seek to deliberately forget the Torah he imbibed before his aliyah? Perhaps even more surprising is Hashem acceding to Rabi Zeira’s request. Why did Hashem grant Rabbi Zeira if his request was wrong-minded and inappropriate?

 

An Ashkenazic Rabbi of a Sephardic Congregation

As an Ashkenazic-born and trained rabbi serving a Sephardic kehillah for nearly 25 years, I believe I understand Rabbi Zeira’s thinking. While the core of Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice is the same, there are many differences to which one must adjust. Sephardic halacha and customs must be understood on their terms and not viewed in light of Ashkenazic practice. One does not measure Ashkenazic practices with a “Sephardic yardstick” and vice versa. Here is an example … A relative once joined our kehillah for Shacharit one Shabbat morning. He complained that “the Sephardic davening is all mixed up.” Of course, the Sephardic tefillah is not mixed up. Rather, my relative was locked into the style of tefillah in which he was raised and had difficulty adjusting to a somewhat different way of doing things. Rabbi Zeira fasted (a form of tefillah, as seen in Esther 4:16) to transcend such limitations.

 

Explaining Rabbi Zeira

I believe Rabbi Zeira did not want to literally forget the Torah he learned in Bavel. Rather, he begged Hashem for psychological agility and to be open to a different style of Torah learning. He would have to adjust to a new language and approach, which many cannot do.

My favorite shelichei tzibbur are the ones who can lead both Sephardic and Ashkenazic tefillah. Hashem blessed them with the mental dexterity to do both. In baseball, we call this a “switch-hitter,” someone who can bat both righty and lefty. Rabbi Zeira wanted to be a “switch-hitter.”

 

Reading the Torah in a Sephardic Style

When I am honored to read the Torah, haftarah or Megillat Esther in a Sephardic context, I keenly experience Rabbi Zeira’s feelings. My default reading style is the Ashkenazic one where I was raised. My greatest challenge—when reading the Torah at a Sephardic synagogue—is not to slip into my native Ashkenazi way. It takes me a lot of psychological energy to “forget” the Ashkenazic tune and read it in the Sephardic melody.

 

Different Languages

Many people experience similar challenges. Often, as a get administrator, I deal with attorneys who request me to “serve with the wife with a get.” They have difficulty grasping that “serving papers” is a concept that has nothing to do with a get ceremony. Similarly, sides to a get sometimes assume they will come to the rabbinic court to “sign papers.” Once again, although signing papers is most relevant when executing a will or civil divorce, it has little to do with a get.

An adjustment needs to be made from the language of civil procedures to that of halacha. Otherwise, one remains stuck in the wrong system and cannot function in a different framework.

We need to be open-minded and ready to operate outside the frame of references in which we have operated in the past. Otherwise, we act like someone using a map of Manhattan to try to find his way in Chicago.

 

Conclusion

Rabbi Zeira did not believe that the Eretz Yisrael learning style was superior or inferior to that of Bavel. Rather, it is simply different. Hashem allowed him to appreciate and embrace Eretz Yisrael’s learning style in the same way he continued to cherish the Torah he learned in Bavel in his youth. Sometimes, when a passage in the Gemara seems puzzling, life experiences can shed invaluable light. Once one experiences something similar to that described in the Gemara, he is positioned to grasp its rich lessons better. When visiting an Orthodox synagogue with different practices than one is accustomed to, come with an open mind, and you will experience similar success as Rabbi Zeira after his aliyah.


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 18 books may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.

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