The Mishna (Ketubot 3:6) in today’s daf (Ketubot 40a) invokes the opinion of Rabbi Elazar about the fines that should be given to an orphan, with the subsequent Gemara then noting how Rabbi Elazar ruled in accordance with his teacher Rabbi Akiva. The Gemara then informs us that Rabbi Zeira said in the name of Rabba bar Shila, who said in the name of Rav Hamnuna the Elder, who said in the name of Rav Adda bar Ahava, who said in the name of Rav, that the law is in accordance with Rabbi Elazar. Moreover, Rav also said of Rabbi Elazar that he was טובינא דחכימי – which, though literally translates as ‘the best of the Sages’, is explained by Rashi to mean ‘the happiest of the Sages’.
Significantly, this praise of Rabbi Elazar is referenced in two further places in the Gemara (see Gittin 26b & Keritut 13b) but, as the Rashba points out, it seems strange for this praise to be directed towards Rabbi Elazar since, as the Gemara explicitly notes, his ruling is the same as that of his teacher Rabbi Akiva. Given this, why does Rabbi Elazar, rather than Rabbi Akiva, deserve the praise of טובינא דחכימי?
To begin answering this question, Rashi reminds us that Rabbi Elazar is a shortened version of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua who was among the 5 new students that Rabbi Akiva taught after thousands of his previous students had died (see Yevamot 62b). Moreover, he also points out how – prior to Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah to Rabbi Elazar and his four other colleagues (Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi & Rabbi Shimon) – there was a concern that the Torah in general, and specifically the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, wouldn’t have successfully been passed onto the next generation.
Consequently, by ruling as his teacher Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Elazar not only showed honour to his teacher, but he also ensured that the Torah of his teacher (and his teacher’s teacher etc.) would be passed on from generation to generation.
But I believe this idea goes further still. This is because to be a true student, one shouldn’t merely repeat the words of your teacher. Instead, one should learn from them, while continuing to think independently. Yet the fact that Rabbi Elazar learnt from Rabbi Akiva, and examined this question independently, and nevertheless reached the same conclusion meant that he was ‘the happiest of the Sages’, because in these particular instances (and likely many more!), his mind and the mind of his teacher were in alignment.
Finally, this teaching hits close to home especially given a message I received from a client just a few days ago on Erev Shabbat. But to explain why, a little background is necessary.
My primary teacher – meaning the individual who taught me the most in terms of Torah knowledge and halachic decision-making – was Dayan Lopian zt’l, and a central theme in all his halachic guidance was ‘Shalom Bayit’ (i.e. how to help couples and families maintain peace and harmony in the home). In fact, on his third yarzheit I delivered a talk titled ‘Shalom Bayit lessons from the Dayan zt’l’ (see https://bit.ly/3zVV8Dc). This is why, whenever individuals and couples turn to me, I also adopt the approach that Shalom Bayit must be a central consideration in halachic decision-making.
This now brings me to last Erev Shabbat when I received an unprompted message from one of my clients who wrote to thank me for the help and support I have been giving them – and how this help and support has significantly enhanced their Shalom Bayit. And when I received this message I simply burst into tears of joy – both for this couple, but also because, in that moment, I felt a deep closeness to my teacher who, over many years, had taught me the importance of doing whatever possible to help individuals, couples and families with Shalom Bayit.