Today’s daf (Ketubot 104a) records the parting words of Rebbi from his deathbed who, with his ten fingers extended heavenward, proclaimed: “Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the study of Torah, but I did not benefit even with my little finger. May it be Your will that there be peace in my place of rest.”
These words are clearly heartfelt but they are also hard to understand. Firstly, what does Rebbi mean when he speaks of toiling with his ten fingers? Secondly, why does he refer to ‘not benefitting even with his little finger? And thirdly, what is the connection between these two statements and his prayer for peace?
Admittedly, many commentaries attempt to answer these questions. However, just yesterday I was leafing through Rabbi חיים נבון‘s book תיקו, and it is there where I read an insight which I believe answers most – if not all – of these questions.
Rabbi Navon, who is a descendant of the great Torah scholar Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785-1869), writes that during Rabbi Kluger’s lifetime he wrote 150 different sefarim – of which only a small number have been published. And of those volumes of Rabbi Kluger that have been published, one of his best-known works are his responsa volumes on Yoreh Deah titled טוב טעם ודעת. However, as Rabbi Navon explains, when Rabbi Kluger was in his later years, and prior to the publication of the first volume of טוב טעם ודעת, the manuscript was stolen. This upset Rabbi Kluger greatly, and it was at this moment that he said to himself that if he was somehow able to get his hands on the manuscript once again, he would ensure to publish it quickly.
Three weeks later the manuscript was found and Rabbi Kluger rushed to fulfil his promise. Yet in his introduction he writes that it was with God’s grace that the printer was lazy in the way that the book was printed, such that it was printed on poor quality paper and that it went to print with many mistakes that were not corrected. And why, asks Rabbi Navon, did Rabbi Kluger regard this as being expressive of God’s grace? Because it meant that Rabbi Kluger received no personal benefit from the publication of the book, and instead, he felt that it was therefore published לשם שמים – for the sake of heaven.
Returning back to our Gemara, what did Rebbi mean when he referred to toiling with his ten fingers? Secondly, why did he refer to ‘not benefitting even with his little finger? And thirdly, what is the connection between these two statements and his prayer for peace?
To answer, an essential fact to recall is that Rebbi is described as having edited and anthologized the Mishna. This itself was a remarkable effort of ‘toiling with his ten fingers’.
However, it is important to recall that his decision to do so – in response to the dire situation of the Jewish people at the time – was a departure from the long-standing tradition of not having a formal written record of the Oral Law (see Gittin 60b). Given this, the Mishna was written with brevity, and it contains few biblical references and little justification of why we do what we do. Simply put, the Mishna was the MVP – the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ of recording the Oral Law while, at the same time, still requiring continued conversation to make sense of it. What this means is that while the Mishna is a masterpiece, its origins stem from the difficult decision to transform the way Torah was to be transmitted, and its skeletal form emphasizes its endeavour to be just enough to do that job. Given this, just as Rabbi Kluger, knowing its flaws, received no personal benefit from the publication of his book, I suspect that Rebbi – knowing the sacrifices made to produce the Mishna – felt the same way and therefore expressed this by noting how he did not benefit even with his little finger.
Finally, what is the meaning of Rebbis prayer of ‘May it be Your will that there be peace in my place of rest’? I think it expresses how, notwithstanding the sacrifices made by Rebbi to produce the Mishna, he hoped and prayed that its existence would help preserve the Jewish people, and rather than increase disagreement, its study, its discussion and its fulfilment would help maintain a sense of unity and peace among the Jewish people.