Sometimes you can look at the same text many times, each time thinking that you have understood it, but then a new observation nudges you to thinking about it from a different perspective, and along with some further reflection and study you can then reach a completely different understanding of a familiar text.
Specifically, I am referring to the debate in today’s daf (Moed Katan 16a-b) about teaching Torah in the marketplace, which is a debate that I have previously explored from a range of angles, where Rebbi (i.e. Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi) decreed that Torah teachers should not teach their students in the marketplace. Yet notwithstanding this decree, Rabbi Chiya defied Rebbi and taught Torah to his two nephews, Rav and Rabba bar Bar Hana, in the marketplace.
Until now, I thought that the reason for Rebbi’s decree may have either been due to a question of rabbinic authority, or alternatively, due to the respect he felt that needed to be accorded to Torah (i.e. he felt that it was not befitting of Torah to be taught in the market), although mention should also be made of the theory, referenced in Dov Zakheim’s recently published ‘The Prince and the Emperors: The Life and Times of Rabbi Judah the Prince’ (p. 154), that some rabbis simply had a ‘disdain of the unlearned’ and thus felt that sophisticated Torah study should be kept away from the masses.
However, I would like to offer a different, and I believe simpler, interpretation of this passage, while also providing an explanation of the evolution of a part of this text.
To understand what I mean, let us look a little closer at the exchange between Rebbi and Rabbi Chiya who, upon being challenged by Rebbi for teaching Torah in the marketplace, responds by saying that he did so based on the message inherent in the verse: חָכְמוֹת בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָּה בָּרְחֹבוֹת תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ – ‘wisdom will sing out in public and give forth her voice in the squares’ (Mishlei 1:20).
To this, Rebbi responds by telling Rabbi Chiya that: ‘If you read [this verse once], you [certainly] did not read it a second time; and if you read it a second time, you [certainly] did not read it a third time; [and] if you read it a third time, then it was not adequately explained to you’. Until now, I thought that this statement was simply part of Rebbi’s rebuke. However, I believe that it is the first layer of Rebbi’s explanation.
Then, the Gemara implies that Rebbi continued in his response to Rabbi Chiya by quoting a teaching of Rava who said – apparently while explaining the above-mentioned verse from Mishlei – that: ‘whoever engages with Torah from the inside (i.e. within the study hall), their Torah will cry out about them from the outside’ – as if to mean that ‘wisdom will sing out in public and give forth her voice in the squares’ not because Torah should be directly taught in the marketplace, but because if Torah is effectively learnt in the study hall, it will then spill over into rulings and policies that apply ‘in public’ and ‘in the squares’. However, the problem with this is that Rava was born around 50 years after Rebbi died, and as such, it would have been impossible for Rebbi to quote a teaching of Rava. So what is going on here?
This question is raised by a number of scholars such as Rabbi Chanoch Yosef Zundel in his Etz Yosef commentary to the Ein Yaakov (on Moed Katan 16b), who suggests that Rebbi interpreted the verse in the same manner that Rava interpreted it some years later. The problem with this is that the Gemara should have attributed the teaching to Rebbi and not to Rava.
In attempt to answer this specific point, Rav Ovadia Yosef writes in his Maor Yisrael (Vol. 1 p. 313) that even before this exchange between Rebbi and Rabbi Chiya, the principle of ‘whoever engages with Torah from the inside (i.e. within the study hall), their Torah will cry out about them from the outside’ was already known, and it was the basis for Rebbi’s position and his critique of Rabbi Chiya. However, in the years that followed, this teaching and its provenance was forgotten by most rabbinic leaders. Given this, Rava – who had heard this teaching but who was unsure of its originator – felt a duty to teach it and emphasise its importance, and from then on, it became associated with Rava.
Before proceeding further, it should be noted that this is not the only time where Rava does this. As Rav Ovadia Yosef points out, a similar example is found in Niddah 61a where Rava says, concerning the prohibition against listening to malicious speech that even though one should not accept the malicious speech as true, one is nevertheless required to be concerned about the harm that might result from ignoring it. Yet immediately afterwards, we see that this idea was known and taught by Rabbi Tarfon who died around 150 years before Rava was born. On this point, the Maharitz Chiyot notes that Rava was gifted with ‘remembering the teachings that had been [almost totally] forgotten’.
Having explained all this, I would like to offer a new understanding of this Gemara which does not relate to authority, or even respect for Torah, but instead, to the value of listening and asking questions as an essential part of Torah study.
As mentioned, Rabbi Chiya quotes Mishlei 1:20 which states that ‘wisdom will sing out in public and give forth her voice in the squares’. But while Torah is often compared to a song, it is a song of many voices, the voice of the teacher and that of the students, and both need to hear each other effectively. As such, I believe that one explanation for Rebbi’s decree is that when you teach Torah in the marketplace, with all the noise that is found there, the students don’t always hear everything the teacher is saying, and the teacher cannot always hear all the questions of the students, and as such, the Torah learning is compromised (nb. while it may have been the case that Rabbi Chiya was fully understood by his two nephews when he taught them in the marketplace, they had the advantage of being family and therefore, if there were things that Rabbi Chiya didn’t explain so well or they did not fully understand, the two students could follow-up with questions about what their uncle had taught them which is not always possible with a teacher who is not a close relative).
In fact, Rebbi alludes to the problem – that ideas can still be taught and still be misunderstood – when he says ‘if you read this verse once, you certainly did not read it a second time; and if you read it a second time, you certainly did not read it a third time; and if you read it a third time, then it was not adequately explained to you’ – meaning that ideas can seemingly be clearly presented, yet we can still miss things that have been said.
And now this brings us to Rava, because the very fact that the teaching of ‘whoever engages with Torah from the inside (i.e. within the study hall), their Torah will cry out about them from the outside’ is attributed to Rava is due to the fact that ideas – or at least the names of the originators of ideas – can be easily misheard, misinterpreted, or forgotten. As such, given the choice, we should choose to teach Torah in an environment where ideas are best heard and where students can ask questions, which – at least for Rebbi – isn’t the marketplace.
Overall, this new way of interpreting our Gemara leads us to the conclusion that when we think about Torah teaching, the question isn’t about whether a specific place is right for the words to be said per se, but rather, whether that place is effective for the words to be heard, and whether the noise and distractions of a given setting disrupt the effective flow and transmission of Torah.