Today’s daf (Nedarim 41a) relates how Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi) – who would learn his Torah out loud (nb. on the importance of learning out loud and not just in silence see Bruria’s teaching on Eruvin 53a) – created a system of identifying thirteen different ways to make sense of any given halacha. Unfortunately, when he took ill, his memory suffered, and he forgot these thirteen different approaches.
Fortunately, Rebbi had taught Rabbi Chiya seven of these approaches, and so Rabbi Chiya then taught these back to Rebbi. However, as our Gemara relates שִׁיתָּא אַזְּדּוּ – ‘[the remaining] six [approaches seemed to] have gone’.
But then, perhaps after requests were made for anyone who was familiar with the remaining six approaches to make themselves known, a קַצָּרָא (laundryman) who, we are told, would come to where Rebbi lived and would listen every day to Rebbi learning out loud, said that he knew what these remaining six approaches were.
Delighted, Rabbi Chiya then visited this man, he learnt the missing teachings, and he then taught them back to Rebbi. The next time Rebbi saw this קַצָּרָא he exclaimed: אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ אוֹתִי וְאֶת חִיָּיא – ‘you made (i.e. restored) me and Chiya!’ (or, as others recorded it, אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ אֶת חִיָּיא וְחִיָּיא עָשָׂה אוֹתִי – ‘you made Chiya, and Chiya made me!’).
Were this story to end here I think that we would conclude three things. Firstly, even when you think people aren’t listening to you they oftentimes are. Secondly, you may be teaching students and growing followers even when you don’t realize it. And thirdly, don’t lose hope when it seems like something has been lost – because perhaps it can be found in the most unexpected of places.
However, while the story in Nedarim 41a ends here, it continues in Ketubot 103b where we are told about what happened on the day on which Rebbi died.
‘There was a certain laundryman (כּוֹבֵס) who would come to Rebbi every day… and when he heard [that Rebbi had died], he went up to the roof, threw himself off the roof, and died. At that point a heavenly voice came forth and said: “This laundryman is also destined to life in the world to come”’.
This is clearly a shocking and tragic outcome. However, there is a further layer to all this as suggested by the Maharal (in his Chiddushei Aggadot to Ketubot 103b) who asserts that this laundryman was previously someone who had lived a bad life and had sinned in many ways and that his title ‘laundryman’ (כּוֹבֵס) was not just a description of what he did as a profession, but also a description of his attempts to try and cleanse himself from the sins of his past.
Given this, I would like to pull all these parts together and suggest as follows: One day, when this laundryman (קַצָּרָא) was simply doing his work, he overheard Rebbi learning. It interested him, and he listened, and when Rebbi took ill he was able to repeat back those missing teachings to Rabbi Chiya.
However, it was through this encounter with Rabbi Chiya, and his subsequent encounter with Rebbi who praised him for ‘making’ him and Rabbi Chiya, which then inspired this laundryman to do teshuvah. This is, in my opinion, why in the first story he is referred to as קַצָּרָא (which literally means ‘shortener’ – perhaps because when we wash clothes they often shrink, and perhaps because at that point in his life he saw himself as someone whose contribution to society was negative rather than positive), while in the second story he is referred to as a כּוֹבֵס (literally, ‘washer’ or ‘cleanser’ – because this was the path that he then adopted for himself).
From then on this כּוֹבֵס was a daily visitor to Rebbi (who, given his past misdeeds, may quite possibly have been the first person, or at least the first Rabbi, who ever said anything nice to him). In fact, we are told in Bava Batra 8a of a time when everyone else left town yet this כּוֹבֵס continued to come every day to Rebbi!
But then Rebbi died, and with this, this כּוֹבֵס lost a beloved teacher and father figure who’d shown faith in him when others had not, and who’d built up his confidence with those incredible words of עָשִׂיתָ אוֹתִי.
There may be those who feel that they can judge this כּוֹבֵס about his actions. But it is essential to understand that he wasn’t just ‘sad’. Instead, he was broken for his loss and likely afraid that he might slip and go back to being who he was (קַצָּרָא). This fear gripped him to such an extent that he then took his own life – and the very fact that the Gemara then tells us how a heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed that, אַף הַהוּא כּוֹבֵס מְזוּמָּן הוּא לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא – ‘this laundryman is also destined to life in the world to come’ comes to teach us that his actions came from a point of loss, pain, as well as dread and fear for his future.
Personally, I am deeply moved by this story. True, it ends in loss. But is also includes a deep message about hope and possibility: Rebbi lost his Torah but it was restored, and while this holy laundryman may have thought that he was destined to remain a קַצָּרָא, he was able to change and become a כּוֹבֵס. Yet embedded in this story is the greatest lesson of all – which is that when we tell someone words that are comparable to אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ אוֹתִי, we can change their life forever.