April 13, 2024
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Reish Lakish and Short Utterances: Nazir 20b

I’ve got a weird and unique interpretation of an exchange between Rabbi Yehuda Nesia and Reish Lakish on Nazir 20b.As background, the Mishna describes a nazir-chain, each hearing the previous person accept nezirut and saying “me too!” The Gemara describes how Reish Lakish sat before Rabbi Yehuda Nesia, and said: וְהוּא שֶׁהִתְפִּיסוּ כּוּלָּן בְּתוֹךְ כְּדֵי דִיבּוּר. וְכַמָּה תּוֹךְ כְּדֵי דִיבּוּר – כְּדֵי שְׁאֵלַת שָׁלוֹם, וְכַמָּה כְּדֵי שְׁאֵלַת שָׁלוֹם – כְּדֵי שֶׁאוֹמֵר שָׁלוֹם תַּלְמִיד לָרַב. “And this was where each of them associated with the prior (or first) person within an utterance. And how much is an utterance? Enough for greeting someone. And how much is greeting someone? Such that a student would say “shalom” to his teacher. To this, Rabbi Yehuda Nesia said to him: תּוּב לָא שָׁבְקַתְּ רַוְוחָא לְתַלְמִידָא! “You have provided no advantage/space/relief to a student!” Finally, a brayta in accordance with Reish Lakish: תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי: מִי שֶׁאָמַר ״הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר״, וְשָׁמַע חֲבֵירוֹ וְשָׁהָה כְּדֵי דִבּוּר, וְאָמַר ״וַאֲנִי״ – הוּא אָסוּר, וַחֲבֵירוֹ מוּתָּר. וְכַמָּה כְּדֵי דִבּוּר – כְּדֵי שְׁאֵילַת שָׁלוֹם תַּלְמִיד לָרַב.

Interpretations abound as to the nature and implication of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia’s comment. Tosafot Rid interprets it as an objection. If each has to associate within an utterance span of the first speaker (as the Gemara understands Reish Lakish), then there is a difference between a student speaking to a teacher (Shalom Alecha Rabbi) and a teacher to a student (Shalom Alecha), and then, we should have three people associating by saying “and I,” rather than the Mishna’s two people. Tosafot say he’s noting that if the student’s rebbe were to pass by, he’d have to greet him and wouldn’t be able to associate to become a nazir. The Mefaresh doesn’t take it as an objection, but a tangential statement.

End Quote

My first question is where to place the end quote in Reish Lakish’s statement. Did he say it all, including the exposition and definition of “within an utterance” or did he only say the rather short statement, וְהוּא שֶׁהִתְפִּיסוּ כּוּלָּן בְּתוֹךְ כְּדֵי דִיבּוּר. A brief, apodictic statement, as Rav Halivny would put it. And we might expect this more up to the third Amoraic generation. Indeed, looking at Rav Shteinsaltz’s Hebrew commentary, he adds ומסבירים, meaning that the Gemara explains the meaning of “within an utterance.” The English Koren translation follows his lead, inserting a few “the Gemara asks” and the Gemara “answers.”

Meanwhile, Artscroll puts the entire statement in a single translated paragraph, and inserts no such reference to “the Gemara” even though they will in other contexts (see the continuation on the next page), so I suspect they consider it a single utterance by Reish Lakish. I’d favor Artscroll’s parsing here. If this is the Gemara’s interjection, then there was a lot of context (involving students speaking to their teacher) left to run through Rabbi Yehuda Nesia’s mind in order to make his objection (again, depending on interpretation). Who ever mentioned greetings, students and teachers?

My strange interpretation is, then, as follows. Reish Lakish began with his apodictic statement. But, rather than leave it at that, he defined an utterance-span as a greeting-span. And rather than leaving it as a greeting-span, with ambiguity for speaker and target, he elaborated and defined it as a student greeting his teacher. This is uncharacteristic of a second-generation Amora. Rabbi Yehuda Nesia comments that Reish Lakish is over-defining. תּוּב לָא שָׁבְקַתְּ רַוְוחָא לְתַלְמִידָא! You haven’t left anything over for the students to argue about, to expand upon and define!

As support for this explanation, consider the תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי, the brayta’s support. It not only accords with Reish Lakish’s opinion, in slightly different language (of a pause invalidating), but it also provides a definition of an utterance-span as a student greeting his teacher. My assumption is that it’s support for the name Amora rather than the Stamma.

Note that Halivny would say that early Amoraim actually did speak a lot, but for the sake of oral transmission, only shortened excerpts of their words were distilled and preserved, while the implicit reasoning/argumentation could be deduced. I’m suggesting something different, that these Amoraim themselves (additionally?) formulated short statements, with room for students to expand upon. Compare Nazir 19a, where Shmuel explains a Mishna and Rav doesn’t. When asked by his students why he didn’t similarly explain, he says he thought the students could figure it out by themselves.

Student or Study?

Another surprisingly important question is whether the word is לְתַלְמִידָא with a yud or לְתַלְמוּדָא with a vav. The classic commentators (Mefaresh, Tosafot, Tosafot Rid) cite it as talmida, while Rosh cites it as talmuda (though to no pragmatic difference). Our Vilna printing, as well as the Munich 95 and Regensburg manuscripts, have לְתַלְמִידָא. However, the Venice printing, as well as Vatican 110, have לְתַלְמוּדָא.

What is the difference? לְתַלְמִידָא would mean “to a student” while לְתַלְמוּדָא would mean for study and delving into the topic. Indeed, the Aruch has לְתַלְמוּדָא and puts it in the section for “Talmud,” study, rather than the following section, “Talmid.”

Let’s leave off by noting two or three related sugyot. In Temurah 25b, Rav Pappa explains that a Mishna, about changing his mind, isn’t obvious because it deals with changing his mind within an utterance-span. A parallel in Bava Kamma 73b has the Talmudic Narrator explicitly cites this, and then, attributed to אמרי, “they said,” answers by distinguishing between an utterance-span of student to teacher vs. teacher to student.

Finally, in Makkot 6a, after the Mishna had mentioned even rendering one hundred witnesses as edim zomemim, conspiring witnesses, (fourth-generation Amora, Mechoza academy) restricts this to them all speaking within an utterance-span. To this, seventh-generation Rav Acha of Difti (Mata Mechasya academy) objects to Ravina II (sixth / seventh-generation, Mata Mechasya) that given that an utterance-span is a greeting-span from a student to a teacher, there isn’t enough time for one hundred witnesses to testify. Ravina replies that Rava meant that each witness testified within a greeting-span of the immediately prior witness. We’d expect this is Reish Lakish’s meaning as well. Indeed, on Nazir 21a, in addressing a posing inquiry of whether each bases himself on the preceding nazir, or on the very first nazir, and juggling sources, finally based on explicit brayta concludes that it’s based on the preceding nazir. Yet, the Gemara doesn’t then transfer that same analysis to Reish Lakish’s statement about defining an utterance-span. If we reinterpret Rabbi Yehuda Nesia’s objection in my curious way, then we have the רַוְוחָא, flexibility and space, to understand Reish Lakish in this intuitive manner.


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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