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Shmuel’s Tannaitic Status: Chagiga 10a

Dissolution of vows by consulting a Sage, while absolutely legitimate Torah law, seems to levitate in the air, without any firm support from the Torah text. So states the Mishnah on Chagigah 10a. While Parshat Matot describes a father nullifying his daughter’s vows and a husband nullifying his wife’s vows, it doesn’t mention dissolution by a Sage. From a technical halachic standpoint, anything requiring daat, it doesn’t work if in error1. Specifically for unclear instances of erroneous assumptions, where had one known he wouldn’t have vowed, a Sage or court can effectively rule that it was indeed made in error. Still, there isn’t a hint of these mechanics in the Torah.

Several Tannaim take this levitation declaration as a challenge and discover the Scriptural basis for dissolution. Rabbi Eliezer (b. Hyrcanus, third-generation) notes that expressing a vow is mentioned in both Vayikra and Bamidbar, as “[a man/a man or a woman] when they clearly utter.” One is a clear utterance of one’s intention for taking the vow, while the other is a clear utterance for dissolution, delineating details of the mistaken assumption. His contemporary, Rabbi Yehoshua (b. Chanania) as well as Rabbi Yitzchak (fifth-generation Tanna of Bavel) and Chananya (Rabbi Yehoshua’s fourth-generation nephew, emigrated to Bavel, to Nehar Pekod) each proffer alternative Scriptural support.

Rav Yehuda then cites his teacher Shmuel, a first-generation Amora who declares: Had I been there, I’d proffer Bamidbar 30:3, “he shan’t nullify his word,” implying that others might. Rava (fourth-generation) endorses Shmuel’s explanation, detailing how only Shmuel’s proof is unassailable. Rava’s fifth-generation student, either Ravina I or Rav Nachman b. Yitzchak, cites an aphorism that one spicy pepper is better than a basketful of squash.

Two other sugyot share this structure, in which Tannaim provide Scriptural basis for a shaky concept, Rav Yehuda cites Shmuel wishing he were there to proffer an alternative basis, Rava explains how only Shmuel’s basis is unassailable, and Rava’s student applies the aphorism. The other topics are Divine inspiration for Megillat Esther (Megillah 7a) and violating Shabbat to save a life (Yoma 85a). Shmuel’s self-insertion into Tannaitic debate is thus not a one-off. Now, Amoraim generally interpret rather than argue with Tannaim, and are refuted if their position is contradicted by a Tannaitic source2. Does Shmuel feel empowered to regularly argue with Tannaim, or is it the tenuous nature of the derivations that grants him this opening?


Modus Operandi

We’d assume that Shmuel was born too late to be a Tanna and participate in the conversation that included late and Babylonian Tannaim. Born in Nehardea, Bavel, circa 165, he visited Israel and interacted with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. He was a first-generation Amora, born at the end of the transitional period of quasi-Tannaim/quasi-Amoraim like Rabbi Chiyya. Meanwhile, his contemporary, Rav, also born in Bavel circa 160, had semi-Tannaitic status. Rav occasionally appears in Tosefta as “Rabbi Abba.” Six times in the Talmud we see the concept of רַב תַּנָּא הוּא וּפָלֵיג, but we don’t see this for Shmuel. Still, I suspect that in several sugyot, where Shmuel is contradicted by an anonymous brayta, Shmuel is conducting himself as a Tanna. We also occasionally find תָנָא דְּבֵי שְׁמוּאֵל; Rav Aharon Hyman cites Rashi to Beitza 29a, that Shmuel arranged a Tosefta from the Tannaim before him, just as Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Oshaya. This brayta collection often supports Shmuel’s own position (e.g., Moed Katan 18b). Alternatively, he and his academy had access to some braytot that differed from the norm, and these guided his unique positions.


Scholastic Social Network

Shmuel’s non-Tannaitic status probably has to do with his scholastic circle. Rav Hyman argues that Rav and Shmuel weren’t in Israel simultaneously, based on Shabbat 108a, which describes their first meeting when Rav visited Bavel in 218 CE. Rav studied and served under Rabbi (Yehuda HaNasi) for many years, unlike Shmuel. Rav thus had opportunity to interact with Rabbi and various quasi-Tannaim. Further, Rav’s uncle Rabbi Chiyya (author of Tosefta) was the student/colleague of Rabbi. It was Rabbi Chiyya who prevailed upon Rabbi to grant Rav semicha, when the latter descended to Bavel (Sanhedrin 5a). With the right introductions, Rav could operate as a Tanna. Shmuel’s father did interact with Rabbi, but perhaps Shmuel interacted more with Amoraim.


Internal/External Assessments

According to a likely Savoraic3 story in Bava Metzia 85b, Shmuel told Rabbi to not be upset/guilty for not having successfully ordained Shmuel, for his lack of ordination was preordained. Shmuel had seen Adam HaRishon’s book, in which the leaders of each generation were inscribed. He saw therein that Shmuel will be called chakim (wise) but not rabbi; that Rabbi and Rabbi Natan were the end of the Mishnah; and that Ravina and Rav Ashi were the end of hora’ah (instruction). While often cited regarding ordination of Rav vs. Shmuel, this story also has Shmuel placing himself and his generation as post-Tannaitic.

Finally, Sanhedrin 33a discusses the judge who erred and improperly awarded money to a litigant, and distinguishes between טוֹעֶה בִּדְבַר מִשְׁנָה and טוֹעֶה בְּשִׁקּוּל הַדַּעַת. Presumably in defining erring in a matter of Mishnah , last-generation Amoraim sought to establish a boundary. Ravina asked Rav Ashi  whether that includes Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Hoshaya (who were transitional Tannaim). Rav Ashi affirms. Ravina then inquires about Rav and Shmuel (first-generation Amoraim), and Rav Ashi affirms. Finally, he asks about themselves, to which Rav Ashi asks, “Are we mere reed-cutters?” Implicit in Ravina’s second query is the assumption of a qualitative difference between transitional Tannaim, and Rav/Shmuel as first-generation Amoraim, as a “dvar Mishnah.”

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 See Rav Schachter on Bava Batra 5782 #39, 34:00.

2 See Rav Shachter on Bava Batra 5782 #41, “Arguing with Tannaim”, at length. He first considers that there is a firm date cutoff between Tannaim and Amoraim, based on Rabbi and Rabbi Natan being sof Mishnah vs. Ravina and Rav Ashi sof hora’ah (discussed below) coupled with 2000 years of tohu vavohu, 2,000 years of Torah, and 2,000 years of Mashiach, where Amoraim simply aren’t empowered to argue. He ultimately rejects that in favor of Amoraim self-assessing that they aren’t on a level to argue with explicit contrary Tannaitic sources, except where an Amora such as Rav self-assesses otherwise.

3 It is anonymous, Aramaic, and refers to preordination of Ravina and Rav Ashi as sof hora’ah, which makes sense to a Savoraic audience.

4 Thus Rashi. But טוֹעֶה בְּשִׁקּוּל הַדַּעַת can alternatively mean erring in thought process and applying the law, or (as some assert) erring in weighing and deciding competing positions. Ravina might then inquire who is authoritative enough that selecting the wrong authority is deemed erroneous. Still, the gemara’s following statement is הֵיכִי דָמֵי שִׁקּוּל הַדַּעַת.

5 Note Rif’s girsa is Rav Hamnuna (second-generation Amora) asking Rav Sheshet (third-generation), giving slightly less of a Tanna/transitional/Amora/Savora vibe. 

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