Towards the end of today’s daf (Ketubot 69b), and as part of a demonstration of his Torah knowledge, Ilfa proclaims that he can find a hint in a Mishna to any detail found in a Beraita.
To explain what this is all about, ‘Beraita’ (singular) or ‘Beraitot’ (plural) are oral traditions from the Tannaitic period that were not incorporated in the Mishna but which are oftentimes quoted as proof during the Gemara’s discussion of a point of Mishnaic law that is unclear or is subject to debate.
And in terms of the Mishna – which was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (otherwise simply known as ‘Rebbi’), it is a distillation of the legal teachings of the oral law (which, until then, had not been formally recorded in writing) in the most condensed version possible, which is why discussions in the Gemara on questions of Mishnaic law regularly reference beraitot in order to furnish additional details.
Significantly, there are those who are of the opinion that notwithstanding the great efforts of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, the endeavour of compiling the Mishna in such a succinct manner meant that certain details had to be left out – which is precisely why the Gemara often quotes beraitot to provide those missing details. However, Ilfa claimed that the Mishna was so carefully crafted that while beraitot do provide further information not explicitly stated in the Mishna, he could trace every explicit detail found in a beraita to the words of the Mishna. By doing so, not only did Ilfa demonstrate his great Torah knowledge, but he also emphasised the unique qualities of the Mishna as being a form of ‘super-text’ whose careful study can lead to the knowledge of every major point of law.
Interestingly, I first came across this teaching of Ilfa over 25 years ago when learning Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky’s introductory essay to ‘Emet L’Yaakov’ where he discusses the duty to study Tanach while, at the same time, he also considers why there are those who spend much more time learning Torah and less time studying Nach (Nevi’im and Ketuvim). And what is the connection between Ilfa’s statement and the relationship between Torah and Nach? It is a teaching in Gemara Ta’anit 9a where Rav Yochanan proclaims, ‘is there [truly] anything found in the Ketuvim that is not hinted to in the Torah?’ which Rashi explains to mean that, ‘the Torah is the foundation of the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim and [consequently], whatever [lessons] are found in them (i.e. the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim) are alluded to in the Torah’.
What this means is that according to Rav Yochanan, the Torah is a ‘super-text’ to Nach, just as Ilfa is of the opinion that the Mishna is a ‘super-text’ to the Beraita. Yet while no-one disputes the hierarchy of Torah over Nach, just as few – if any – dispute the hierarchy of Mishna over Beraita, only a gifted few like Ilfa and Rav Yochanan were capable of such close readings of Torah and Mishna whereas, as evident from the Gemara itself, we must learn Nach and we must rely on Beraitot to teach us what is not clear to us in the Torah or Mishna respectively.
Yet – and this is a point not so clearly addressed by Rav Kamenetsky – while there are many who recognise that most of us are not Ilfa’s and we must therefore rely on Beraitot, there are also many – from that same camp – who seemingly consider themselves to be as skilled as Rav Yochanan who therefore don’t invest sufficient time and effort studying Nach.
Given all this, as we approach a new year and make new commitments to ourselves and to others, we should ask ourselves what we are missing in terms of our Torah knowledge. This may be aspects of Jewish law. Or it may be an understanding of foundational Jewish philosophy. It may be our knowledge of Mishna. Or it may be a knowledge of Tanach. Yet whatever it may be, now is an ideal time to commit ourselves to learning what we don’t know and to making a plan in order to grow in our knowledge during the coming year.