March 5, 2021

Pesachim 104

Today’s daf (Pesachim 104b) tells a story that contains many layers and many messages:
We are told how the great Ulla once came to Pumbedita over Shabbat and how Rav Yehuda – the head the local academy – told his son Rav Yitzchak to take a basket of fruit on Motzei Shabbat to the home where Ulla was residing as a pretext in order to observe how Ulla performed the Havdalah service. However, rather than going himself, Rav Yitzchak sent Abaye in his stead who, upon returning, described to Rav Yitzchak the way in which Ulla had recited the Havdalah.
Soon after, Rav Yitzchak went to see his father who asked him about the experience of watching Ulla perform havdalah. But once he told him that he had ‘outsourced’ this mission to Abaye, Rav Yehuda was angry with him for what he believed was excess pride as expressed by sending Abaye in his place, and for making the choice to miss out on being a part of the chain of transmission in teaching how havdalah is to be practiced to future generations.
To begin with, it is clear that Rav Yehuda himself dearly wished to observe Ulla perform Havdalah and, by doing so, learn what he thought would be the authoritative manner of its recitation. However, given his role as the head of the academy he was simply unable to do so – which is why he asked his son, already a budding Torah scholar, to be his agent. The problem was that the excitement and curiosity felt by Rav Yehuda to learn from Ulla was not equally shared by his son Rav Yitzchak, and while this fact in-and-of-itself shouldn’t have been a reason why Rav Yitzchak did not do what his father had asked of him, it is an important lesson for all parents to remember that there are things that excite and inspire a parent that do not excite or inspire a child in the same way. Of course, perhaps Rav Yehuda himself could have excited or inspired his son a little more prior to sending him to observe Ulla rather than simply instruct him to be his agent. Either way, while Rav Yehuda may have thought that he and his son were on the same page, they were clearly not.
Secondly, there was a further disconnect between Rav Yehuda and his son, and this is because Rav Yehuda didn’t just ask Rav Yitzchak to ‘hear’ what Ulla said. Instead, he asked him to *see* what UIla did (חזי היכי אבדיל). For Rav Yehuda, the purpose of sending his son was to observe the experience of Ulla performing Havdalah which – aside from being incredibly valuable in terms of halachic research – would have been profoundly impactful to his son. However, when Rav Yitzchak outsourced this to Abaye, all he seemingly asked of him was to hear what Ulla ‘said’ for havdalah. What this means is that Rav Yitzchak had – either accidentally or deliberately – separated the ritual from the experiential. And, as Rav Yehuda communicated in the words of rebuke that he communicated to his son, this was a tragic lost opportunity because Judaism isn’t defined only by the words that we say, but also be the acts that we do.
Thirdly, there is a lesson here about humility and about the need for a child – no matter their age – to fulfil the wishes of their parent. Here, Rav Yitzchak only did so indirectly. Furthermore, it seems that Rav Yitzchak was also reluctant to be an observer of a senior Torah scholar and that he felt that this was, somehow, below him. But as his father then explained to him, humility is a pre-requisite to true Torah greatness and for becoming an essential part in the chain of transmission.
Finally, we come to the basket of fruit – which itself is a profound symbol of the entire story. Rav Yehuda felt that by his son, Rav Yitzchak, seeing Ulla perform Havdalah, that this would generate profound emotional, intellectual and spiritual fruit, and through having this experience, Rav Yitzchak would be inspired by this great Torah teacher; he would learn how there is more to Judaism than just words; he would learn about humility by being an observer of a Torah giant, and this would also provide a great topic of conversation between father and son and possibly bring them closer.
However, while Rav Yehuda saw the basket of fruit as representing the goals of this mission, Rav Yitzchak simply saw the basket of fruit as an item that was being used to justify entering the home of Ulla while he recited Havdalah. Rav Yehuda hoped that this mission would bear fruit, while Rav Yitzchak felt that he was being used – a little like the basket of fruit itself.
Parents often have great hopes and dreams for their children, but equally often are the times when children – for whatever reason – see things very different. I believe that this is what occurred here, and rather than the Havdalah conversation bringing them together, unfortunately this story ends by highlighting a havdalah (separation) between father and son.
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