May 19, 2024
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 Ketubot 17a

On Ketubot 17a, a Baraita discusses traffic situations and right-of-way. A funeral procession yields to (or, reroutes before) a wedding procession, and both funeral and wedding procession yield to a king of Israel. The Baraita continues that King Agrippa I (of the Herodian dynasty, 10 CE-44 CE) yielded to a wedding procession, for which the Sages praised him. The Talmudic narrator wonders at this. Rav Ashi had elsewhere (Kiddushin 32b) declared that even those who say a Nasi can effectively relinquish his honor, maintain that a king cannot effectively do so. As proof of text (דְּאָמַר מָר), it cites an exposition from Devarim 17, “you shall surely place a king over you — that his awe should be upon you.” Why should the Sages then praise King Agrippa? The Talmudic narrator explains that the incident occurred at a crossroads. (Rashi explains that it would appear that he wished to take the path to which he turned.) It wasn’t obvious to onlookers that he had yielded, so the king’s honor wasn’t impinged.

Yet, King Agrippa is consistent. A Mishnah in Sotah (41a) describes how, though the law is that “a king receives the Torah scroll while standing and then reads from it while sitting,” King Agrippa read from it while standing, for which the Sages praised him. The Talmudic narrator (41b) asks from Rav Ashi’s statement that a king cannot effectively relinquish his honor, and the accompanying exposition, which then answers that for a mitzvah, it is different.

A Mishnah in Sanhedrin (18a) records a dispute: The first Tanna says that a king may not perform chalitza (because it doesn’t accord with his honor), while Rabbi Yehuda allows him to do so. Again, the Talmudic narrator (19b) brings up Rav Ashi’s assertion and the exposition, which then answers that for a mitzvah, it is different. Tosafot in Ketubot, Sotah and Sanhedrin explain why different reasons are provided —isn’t it a mitzvah to honor the bride? Regardless, these exceptions somewhat weaken the assertion that everyone agrees a king may not effectively forgive his honor. These rather seem like solid proofs against Rav Ashi, if not for the Talmudic narrator explaining them away. Does Rav Ashi indeed maintain this opposite stance, seemingly against three Tannaitic sources?

 

Rav Ashi in Context

The original context for Rav Ashi’s statement is Kiddushin 32. Rav Yitzchak bar Sheila (a fifth-generation Amora) quoted (a fourth-generation Amora) Rav Mattana II, who quoted Rav Chisda (a third-generation Amora from the Sura academy) that a father can effectively forgive his honor, but a rav cannot. In contrast, Rav Yosef (a third-generation Amora of the Pumbedita academy) says that a rav can effectively forgo his honor, and he proves it via the exposition of a verse in Shemot about Hashem leading out the Israelites. Rava (a fourth-generation Amora of Pumbedita, and Rav Yosef’s student) objects. Regarding Hashem, the world is His and the Torah is His, so He can forgo His Honor. But the honor accorded to a rav is that of the Torah, and is the Torah his? Upon reflection, Rava retracted what he said, interpreting the possessive pronoun “and in his Torah — וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ —as ‘he mediates day and night,’” (Tehillim 1:2) which refers to “the Torah scholar,” rather than “Hashem.” Thus, Rava agrees with Rav Yosef.

The Gemara questions whether this is so; for Rava served drinks to guests at his son’s wedding feast. His students, Rav Pappa and Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, stood before him, while Rav Mari and Rav Pinchas, the sons of Rav Chisda, didn’t. Rava grew angry at them. “Are these (latter) Sages and these (former) not Sages?” he said. A similar incident occurred with Rav Pappa at his own son’s wedding; where Rav Pappa served drinks at his son’s wedding, and when a rabbi didn’t stand before him, Rav Pappa grew angry.

The Gemara answers that while the rav can forgo his honor, they still have to have some reverence. Rashi explains this as a slight move indicating they wish to rise before him — the half-rise that my classmate in Rav Schachter’s shiur would refer to as “the tuchus salute.” Alternatively, perhaps this isn’t a compromise position. Rava (and Rav Pappa) forewent his honor in terms of the act of serving, and felt that he wasn’t causing others to sin by their accepting the drinks —thus maintaining like Rav Yosef’s opinion. Still, as regards to their own actions, students should arise before their teacher. This is then the consistent Pumbeditan position.

Then, Rav Ashi (a fifth-generation Amora, who was Rav Pappa’s student and was located in Sura and thus was grappling with both Suran and Pumbeditan positions) says that even those who say a rav can effectively forgo his honor, a Nasi cannot. The Gemara objects to this from a Baraita, where Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tzadok were reclining at the wedding of Rabban Gamliel’s son. Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, wished to serve them drinks. Rabbi Eliezer demurred, while Rabbi Yehoshua accepted. Rabbi Yehoshua justified his actions based on the verse describing Avraham attending the angels, whom he thought to be Arab travelers. So too, they could be served by someone greater than themselves. Rabbi Tzadok gave a stronger proof, noting that Hashem makes the wind blow, brings rain and causes the earth to sprout, thus setting the table before every creature, so certainly the esteemed Rabban Gamliel could serve them drinks. This proves that at least some say that a Nasi can effectively forgo his honor.

In light of this, the Talmudic narrator says: “אֶלָּא אִי אִיתְּמַר הָכִי אִיתְּמַר — if it was stated, what was stated was as follows,” and then he changes Rav Ashi’s statement to be: that “even those who say a Nasi may forgo, a king may not forgo,” and then he brings the verse from Devarim as a proof of this.

 

Difficulties

This reimagining of Rav Ashi’s statement is by Kiddushin’s Talmudic narrator. That narrator isn’t Rav Ashi himself, who would have known how to quote himself correctly in the first place. The other sugyot (Ketubot, Sota and Sanhedrin) are derivative of Rav Ashi’s amended statement in Kiddushin, and so are from that stratum or later.

Rav Ashi’s amended statement seems difficult. His original statement easily refers to“ מַאן דְּאָמַר הָרַב שֶׁמָּחַל עַל כְּבוֹדוֹ כְּבוֹדוֹ מָחוּל” for Rav Yosef employed this language (and Rava andRav Pappa may follow this lead). Furthermore, “even though those who allow X won’t allow Y,” echoes the stepping-stone language of Rav Chisda. It all builds on an existing conversation. In the amended language or position where the Nasi can forgo his honor, Rav Ashi would need to refer to the Tannaim (Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tzadok) of the cited Baraita.

Furthermore, Rav Ashi lacks real proof of his text. Though several sugyot (including the source of Kiddushin) seemingly present this as a Rav Ashi’s quote (by continuing with“ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר”), Ketubot accurately separates the text of the proof as “דְּאָמַר מָר.” This exposition occurs in full (the verse plus“ שֶׁתְּהֵא אֵימָתוֹ עָלֶיךָ”) in a Mishnah in Sanhedrin (22b) to establish that these acts are prohibited because of the king’s honor (e.g. riding his horse), though it does not establish whether or not he can forgo them. Also, in the dispute between the Amoraim and Tannaim about whether or not a king can really act harshly (such as taking people’s sons and daughters to serve him) or whether (as per Rav and Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion) these Biblical rules were merely written to scare the Israelites. The Talmudic narrator has extended (or reinterpreted) it to eliminate the option for the king to be able to forgo them.

Also, why should we amend Rav Ashi’s statement because of one Baraita (Rabban Gamliel’s son’s wedding), but not amend it back in the face of three Tannaitic sources (the bridal party, the Torah reading and the act of chalitza)? At least, the original version should be recalled!

 

Salvaging the Original

I think it’s possible to salvage Rav Ashi’s original statement. Firstly, while we may imagine a continuum of (father, rav, Nasi andking), with the king being the most stringent; this isn’t necessarily so. A Nasi (e.g. of Hillel’s descendants) isn’t just a watered-down king of the Davidic line recognized as a political figure by the Roman government. A Nasi is also the head of the Sanhedrin, and thus a rav representing halachic power. A Nasi has both the aspects of a rav and a king, while separately the rav and a king don’t possess each other’s aspects. A Nasi therefore may be more stringent than a king. If so, King Agrippa acted within bounds, and no harmonization is required.

Secondly, Rav Tzadok’s exposition that Hashem sets the table for every creature; so in this case, certainly Rabban Gamliel could serve them drinks, as it can be understood differently than as Hashem forgoing His Honor. Rather, providing beneficently is a Godly-virtue (and an Abrahamic virtue), and itself honors the host as a provider. Refusing hospitality in Mediterranean culture could be considered a personal insult. Further, this is Rabban Gamliel and Rava’s, (as well as Rav Pappa’s) own son’s wedding, so the honors extended are not for the Sages’ sake, but to enhance the ambiance of his son’s wedding. (See Meiri on Ketubot 4a, about postponing the father’s burial for the son’s wedding,“ שאין זה אלא כמלינו לכבודו שלא יתבזה בנו בחתנתו.”) Finally, Rava’s students honored him and his son by accepting the drinks, but some dishonored him by misinterpreting this as forgoing his honor, and so didn’t arise.


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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