September 20, 2021

Beitzah 20

Today’s daf (Beitzah 20a) recounts a dramatic story where the elderly sage and disciple of Shammai, Baba ben Buta, prevented Shammai’s opinion concerning semicha (the leaning upon an animal sacrifice prior to their slaughter as described in Vayikra 3:2 which Shammai ruled was forbidden on Yom Tov) from becoming a rule of law by protesting within and blockading the Azarah (Temple Courtyard). This is because Baba ben Buta was convinced of the correctness of Hillel’s opinion who permitted the practice and because, had he not done so, Shammai’s opinion would have been adopted.
To say this in a different way, Baba ben Buta publicly protested for the adoption of a rule that was not reflective of the ‘camp’ to which he belonged because, in this instance, he sincerely believed that the opinion held by the other ‘camp’ was the right one.
Clearly, Baba ben Buta was not someone who decided what was right or wrong based on personal connections or partisan loyalties. Instead, he boldly stood up for what he believed was right – even if this meant taking a different position to those in his ‘camp’.
Significantly, elsewhere in the Gemara we see further examples of the wisdom, insight and humility of Baba ben Buta. For example, in Gittin 57a we read how his smart thinking and detective work saved a woman from leaving her marriage without a Ketubah, and in Nedarim 66b where he suffered physical abuse from a woman but overlooked this for the sake of the Shalom Bayit between her and her husband.
It should be noted that from the first story in Beitzah 20a we get the impression that Baba ben Buta is bold and unbending. Yet from the story in Nedarim 66b it is clear that he is profoundly humble and is prepared to suffer for doing the right thing.
This blend of boldness and readiness for self-sacrifice is essential for all Dayanim. However, as noted in the parting letter of Dayan Shlomo Deichovsky to his fellow Dayan upon his retirement from the Beit Din HaGadol in Jerusalem (see, there are times when Dayanim – especially in our generation – lack one or both of these qualities. Given this, he instructed his fellow Dayanim, while making reference to Sanhedrin 7a, that: ‘A judge must be prepared to enter Gehinnom and be wounded by the sword because of his judicial rulings’.
Moreover, while quoting the words of the Maharshal, he added how, ‘The Sages were ready to die, in order to demonstrate the fitness of a family about whom a false rumour had spread. All the more so in our day… that we must act with all our strength to silence and nullify such rumours’. Then, again directing his words to his fellow judges, Dayan Deichovsky wrote, ‘we must not fear disagreement, the law must be decided, and not always in accordance with the more stringent position. A judge cannot always follow the path of ‘glatt’. He must often rule for a time of pressing need or as an emergency measure, in order not to cause a greater calamity’ (while then adding – with respect to the laws of gittin, that ‘a bill of divorce given under duress frightens me less than the state of no bill of divorce. There are ways to deal with a coerced bill of divorce, and it is often valid, at least after the fact. But there is no way to deal with the situation of no bill of divorce’).
I mention all this because Baba ben Buta inspires me, and also because I recently experienced an unpleasant reaction from a particular individual as a result of previously taking the necessary steps to help protect people in my neighbourhood. And the reason for me sharing this is to highlight the fact that doing the right thing doesn’t always bring honour, glory or guarantees of security. On the contrary! Oftentimes, doing the right thing means taking a stand that is different to others for the sake of justice, morality, and truth. And it is when things like this occur, I think of people like Baba ben Buta, Dayan Shlomo Deichovsky (and many other heroes and heroines from whom I draw significant inspiration). Admittedly, these individuals may not be famous in quite the same way as others. But for me, they are my heroes, because they remind me that there is a price to everything – including, and especially, when doing the right thing.
Wishing you all a Chag Sameach!
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