As the cases concerning ketubah law become more and more complex, with the Mishna (Ketubot 10:5) in today’s daf (Ketubot 93b) discussing how the estate of a man should be divided if he was married to four wives, it is noteworthy that our Mishna quotes ‘Ben Nanas’ – which is a name that we’ve encountered once before in our Massechet (see Ketubot 90b), and that we will encounter once more (see Ketubot 102a) – yet is certainly not among the most familiar of rabbinic names nor amongst the most famous of Tana’im.
‘Ben Nanas’, which is a shortened version of ‘Rabbi Shimon Ben Nanas’, was likely not the actual name of this scholar who was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael. Instead, according to Shmuel Klein (in his article ‘L’Heker HaShemot VeHaKinu’im, Leshoneinu Vol. 1 No. 4 5689), this was a nickname given to him because he was short in stature. Yet while Ben Nanas is only quoted in 11 Mishnayot throughout the Talmud, what is said about him by Rabbi Yishmael (as recorded in the final lines of the final Mishna in Massechet Bava Batra 10:8) is of great significance: ‘One who wants to become wise should become involved in דיני ממונות (monetary law) because there is no subject in Torah that is greater than this, and because they (i.e. these laws) are like a flowing spring. And whoever wants to engage in the study of monetary law should observe and serve [and thereby receive mentoring from] Shimon Ben Nanas (ישמש את שמעון בן ננס).’
What this tells us is, as noted in an article by R’ Yaakov Meir*, is that unlike some of his better known contemporaries who were bold and brilliant in many areas especially when it came to rabbinic discussion and analysis in the Beit Midrash, Ben Nanas’ expertise was in answering real-life questions in דיני ממונות including the most complex of such questions. And it is precisely because Ben Nanas was not a teacher in theory but a teacher in practice which is why those who wish to study דיני ממונות are not advised to hear lectures from Ben Nanas. Instead, they are advised to have ‘shimush’ with him – meaning that they are advised to watch, to serve, and thereby to receive mentoring from him, because what Ben Nanas taught could only be truly learnt while observing him as he offered halachic guidance to people grappling with real-life and often complex and emotionally fraught questions. Having now explained all this, it makes sense that the opinion of Ben Nanas is included in our Mishna which, as noted, discusses some of the most complex questions relating to ketubah law.
As you may know, this is not the first time I have emphasised the importance of ‘shimush’ in rabbinical training. However, notwithstanding how essential such mentorship is, I oftentimes find that rabbinical students view ‘shimush’ as an added extra rather than a core element of their training. The problem with this is that a psak (halachic ruling) offered by someone who has not had ‘shimush’ may be correct in theory but is oftentimes incorrect in practice, and a lack of consideration for the range of factors that must be considered when ruling halacha in practice can produce halachic outcomes that are not reflective of the totality of halachic sensitivities and sensibilities.
Today, we live in an age when we think that everything is ‘on demand’. But ‘shimush’ is not ‘on demand’. Instead, it is an experience that is ‘on request’ where one is humbled to sit alongside someone more experienced than you and observe them as they wrestle with the challenges that come their way while – at the same time – you learn the difference between halacha in theory and halacha in practice. Personally, while I wish I could have had more time and more shimush with my rabbinic mentors, I was blessed to spend significant time with them in such moments, and as I get older and am asked to address various questions, I realise more and more that no matter how many books I study, whatever I know of the art of pesika ultimately stems from those special moments.