Monday, August 20, 2012

Brachot 19a - Speaking after the biers of Talmidei Chachamim

Don't speak after him!
This was a post from last Daf Yomi cycle, which I had posted on parshablog:

On Brachot 19a, we see the following gemara:
המספר אחר מטתן של תלמידי חכמים
מאי היא
דתנן הוא היה אומר אין משקין לא את הגיורת ולא את המשוחררת
וחכמים אומרים משקין
ואמרו לו מעשה בכרכמית שפחה משוחררת בירושלים והשקוה שמעיה ואבטליון
ואמר להם דוגמא השקוה
ונדוהו ומת בנדויו
וסקלו בית דין את ארונו
One who talks after the biers of Torah scholars {who denigrates them after their death}
What is this?
As we learn: He {Akavia ben Mehalalel} would say: we do not give the convert nor freed maidservant to drink {the bitter waters}
And the Sages say: we do give to drink.
And they said to him {Akavia}: there was a story with Karkemit, a freed maidservant in Yerushalayim, and Shemaya and Avtalyon gave her to drink.
And he {Akavia} said to them {the Sages}: as a dugma the caused her to drink
And {as a result} they {the Sages} excommunicated him {Akavia}, and he died in a state of excommunication
And the court stoned his coffin {after his death}.
Rashi gives as explanation of דוגמא השקוה - he was alleging that the reason Shemaya and Avtalyon give this woman to drink was that they were descended from converts, and they had a desire to legitimize and mainstream converts, and so they held as the Sages held1.

We see that to say this insults the character of the sage involved. That is, there is an assumption of impartiality, in which the chachamim look at the sources, and might have different schools of thought or lines of reasoning, but they approach the sources objectively. To suggest that they had in mind a result that they wanted to arrive at, and stated their opinions (and gave proofs) accordingly, insults the memory of the sages such that one who does so is worthy of excommunication.

This is interesting in that this is exactly the approach you see today in some parts of academic Talmudic scholarship. That is, they will study the biography and personality of the particular Amora or Tanna, and will look at the cultural setting, and will then say that the halachot stated by the particular person was driven by his personality or surrounding culture. The drasha or argumentation backing up the particular halacha is regarded as a pious fiction, created to justify the halacha they wished to arrive at. And from the other direction, we can surmise facts about the culture and attitude by the type of halacha they decide to create. (Without analyzing this approach in much depth, I will note that often there is an intellectual environment and history to drashot such that one does not always have such leeway, and one should therefore not jump to the conclusion that halachic conclusions are decided upon beforehand and then simply justified.) At any rate, such an approach would be have considered an insult deserving of excommunication.

It is also the sentiment that often seems to lie behind the statement "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is an halachic way." That is, halacha and sources can be read in many different ways, and the rabbis can basically arrive at any conclusion they want, or find a way to accomplish what they feel should be accomplished. (And, if they don't, it is because there is a lack of rabbinic will to, for example, help agunot in their plight.) This comes close to saying that halacha and its derivation are basically pious fiction, and halacha is up to the whims and biases of those who formulate it. Chazal would, I think, take offense at such a characterization.

I'll end with a story from yerushalmi I mentioned earlier in this blog, about teaching girls Greek.
The context is the prohibition/permissibility of teaching one's children Greek.
R Abahu said in the name of R Yochanan: A man is permitted to teach his daughter Greek for it is an adornment (tachshit) for her.
Shimon bar Bo heard and said: Because R Abahu wishes to teach his daughter Greek he attributed (this statement) to R Yochanan.
R Abahu heard and said, (Such and Such) should come upon me if I did not hear it from R Yochanan.

1 (Tosafot agrees with this suggestion, though offers up another one by the Aruch - that they gave her fake Sota water.)


  1. Note that this is only Talmudic condemnation of one particular sort of academic talmud study. This is not the same as understanding the intellectual and cultural surroundings to better understand what their assumptions were. (For example, scientific belief in spontaneous generation; or the Code of Justinian for a sense of what a legal code should be, and how to analyze texts.)

  2. based on the full breadth of scholarship (rishonim etc.) on the life and decisions of Akavia (especially with respect to Avos), isn't there basis to say that it was possibly incorrect that he was excommunicated, and he was still an honorable man to be learned from even with his opinion?
    not sure how much of a proof this is as to modern day rationalists being wrong, though it may be true that they will be subject to attack from the majority today just as some were at the time of the tannaim/amoraim (and also e.g. Maimonides, in the time of the Rishonim).

  3. does any Rishon say this?

    as far as I can tell, the Mishna's assumption is that such conduct is not positive, and that this conduct should not be learned from.

  4. sorry, have not learned this gemara b'iyun, but i am affected by my limited knowledge of other references to Akavia, which are all very positive.
    i agree with your reading in general of the negative connotation to speaking about chachamim after death, but the Gemara's assertion of applicability to Akavia is not clearly negative, but possibly just a related story of warning to show the extremes of such concept (that even where one speaks in the name of torah and halacha for which he has a tradition as being correct, bad things can happen to him). While one can definitely read the gemara to say that its point is even Akavia was wrong to do this, considering all the facts may lead one to a reconcillatory approach to this gemara.

    see e.g. expositions on mishnayot in perek 3 avot and especially eduyot perek 5 and explanations there relating to R' Yehuda saying that Akavia was not actually excommunicated, and he was unmatched in chochma (wisdom) and yiraas chet (fear of sin).

  5. that is in fact local to our gemara as well:

    "What is the case of treating with contempt the washing of the hands? — As we have learnt: R. Judah said: Far be it from us to think that Akabiah b. Mahalalel was excommunicated, for the doors of the Temple hall did not close on any man in Israel14 the equal of Akabiah b. Mahalalel in wisdom, in purity and in fear of sin. Whom did they in fact excommunicate?"

  6. Since you brought this up, one thing I was wondering is how do you understand the gemara acc. to the Arukh. Acc. to him, Akkavia ben mahalalel was saying that they recognized the halacha that a convert is not forced to drink the mei sotah. In order to strike fear into her, they forced her to drink a fake instead.

    So what is wrong with saying that as a pshat? Is that so terrible that they they would put him in Nidui?

    (Rashi I understand -- he is saying that the chachamim were dishonest or biased in their psak.)

  7. I haven't seen the Aruch inside, but only filtered through Tosafot. Here it is inside. And here. But even looking at it inside, it is unclear.

    The Aruch is citing Rav Hai Gaon in this explanation, so perhaps it we trace it further, it could become clearer.

    If I had to guess, perhaps this explanation will work according to the continuation of the gemara that they did not put him in niduy. or perhaps you could say that Shemaya and Avtalyon did this for alternative purposes (because they were gerim -- this is weak.) Or perhaps the Chachamim found the allegation of ziyuf hatorah to be terrible. (I don't see in the Aruch what Tosafot said, that they did not obliterate the Name in the waters.)

    But it is a good question.