When I learn daf yomi and other texts, I see my task as trying to understand both the content of the text and its context; both what is being taught in a text and what is going on in that text. Sometimes this is easily achieved. While other times it involves considerable investigation and the occasional imaginative leap.
Today’s daf (Nedarim 57b) is a good example of this where we are taught:
‘Yishmael, a man of Kfar Yamma (literally ‘sea village’), and some say, a man of Kfar D’yama (literally ‘village of the sea’), brought in his hand an onion (הֶעֱלָה בְּיָדוֹ בָּצָל) that had been uprooted in the seventh (Shmitta/Sabbatical) year which he then replanted in the eighth year, with its growth [in the eighth year] exceeding the size of what he’d uprooted [in the seventh year]. And this is what he then asked: “Its growth [of the eighth year] is permitted, and what was originally uprooted [in the Shmitta year] is forbidden. Do we or do we not say that since its new growth [from the eighth year] exceeds what was originally uprooted [in the Shmitta year], the permitted growths override and nullify the forbidden root?” He went before Rabbi Ami [with his question], but Rabbi Ami did not have an answer in his hand (לָא הֲוָה בִּידֵיהּ). He then went before Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha, and he resolved it for him.’
Perhaps, on first glance, this narrative doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; it is a story of someone who asks a halachic question, who then goes to one Rabbi who can’t answer it, and who then goes to another who can. However, what isn’t explicit in the text, but which becomes evident from the remarks of some of our classic commentaries, is that there is a fundamental question about who is this ‘Yishmael’ – with this question being played out in how they translate a particular phrase referenced above. But before we get to that, we should examine the conflicting pieces of evidence within this story.
To begin with, Yishmael doesn’t have a title (eg. Rav or Rebbi). Admittedly, some great Torah scholars didn’t have a title either (eg. Hillel, Shamai, Abaye). Still, ‘Yishmael a man of Kfar Yamma, or Kfar D’Yamma’, isn’t a famous Torah scholar and he is only quoted here.
Moreover, whatever the name of where he was from, it seems that Yishmael lived in 3rd century Israel in a village near the sea –away from where the great Torah scholars were living at that time.
At the same time, he asks an important and technical halachic question, which suggests that he was well versed in halacha.
Beyond this, it seems that this question bothers him enough not only to visit one Torah scholar (R’ Ami), but then, upon not receiving an answer, he went to visit another (Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha).
Now we get to the key issue, because the Gemara informs us that ‘Yishmael…brought in his hand an onion (הֶעֱלָה בְּיָדוֹ בָּצָל) that had been uprooted in the seventh year’. This is a literal translation of the text. But this isn’t how this phrase is translated either by Artscroll or Steinsaltz. The reason for this is that most commentaries presume that for someone to ask such a question, which generates so much discussion, it must be that they are a Torah scholar. This is why Rashi translates the phrase הֶעֱלָה בְּיָדוֹ as ‘he brought a teaching or this question into the Beit Midrash’ – meaning that Yishmael wasn’t physically holding an onion in his hand. Instead, he was holding onto a teaching or question. Similarly, the Ran asserts that Yishmael was holding onto this question in his mouth – meaning that he’d wanted to ask this question for a while. Naturally, both these explanations also then fit with what we are later taught that ‘Rabbi Ami did not have an answer in his hand’ (לָא הֲוָה בִּידֵיהּ).
However, it is quite possible that this phrase about Rabbi Ami is meant to parallel what we were told that Yishmael had an onion in his hand. And notwithstanding the insights of these great teachers, we can’t ignore the fact that the Gemara uses a phrase which very much implies that Yishmael is physically holding an onion about which he is asking a question. So what do we do with texts like this which contain apparently conflicting messages?
I think that the answer to this question comes from us reflecting on our own presumptions and stereotypes both when reading texts and when judging situations.
For example, many of us have an image of what a Torah scholar looks like, but there are many men and women who are Torah scholars but who don’t fit that image.
Similarly, many of us presume that where someone lives determines their level of religious knowledge and observance, but this too isn’t true.
Many of us think that only certain types of very learned Jews are driven enough to ask a halachic question, but this is false (as I can attest from the various questions I get as #theVirtualRabbi).
And many of us imagine that someone who comes to a Rabbi while holding an onion, about which they have a query, is somehow a simpleton. But this is ridiculous!
Fundamentally, this text is only difficult if we feel that it makes no sense when read literally. But, upon reflection, is there really any part of the text that cannot be understood literally? Personally, I am deeply inspired by the incredible questions that are asked from people near and far. And this is why a major lesson that I think we can learn from all here is to be careful about our own presumptions and stereotypes when reading texts and when judging situations, because sometimes it is the someone you don’t know, from a place you’ve never heard of, asking a question you’ve never thought of, who teaches you the most.