This Sunday* I will be speaking alongside a number of other disciples about Rabbi Sacks zt’l, and while preparing my talk last night, I was reflecting on the concept of discipleship and what this means in terms of the responsibilities of a disciple to continue sharing the wisdom they have received from their teacher.
I mention this in light of the end of today’s daf (Pesachim 23b) where, embedded in the intense ongoing discussions on the question of whether it is prohibited to derive benefit from something that is prohibited from consumption, we read a conversation between – or more accurately, an intense examination of – a nameless student of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi by Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani.
To give some context, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi was a first century Amora (nb. some even consider him a final generation Tana – see Rashi on Pesachim 23b) who lived in Eretz Yisrael and who was active circa 220-250ce. He was a bold, original and spiritual scholar who emphasised the role of ethics and the timeless messages of Torah. But in addition to this, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi believed that the way to secure the future of the Jewish people was to actively raise many students. Significantly, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi was the first to ordain his students, and in so doing, he placed his faith in his students – which led them to have faith in themselves.
Living two generations later (circa 290-320ce) was Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani who, in his youth (he lived over 100 years), had learnt from Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi (amongst others), but whose generation in Eretz Yisrael was one of relative spiritual decline – which meant that he personally felt a great responsibility to clarify Torah laws and, in particular, core Jewish beliefs, for the future of the Jewish people.
Having explained all this we can return to our daf where we are told that ‘a certain scholar sat before Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani, and while seated [and seemingly while sharing a variety of other teachings], he said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “From where is it derived with regard to all the prohibitions in the Torah that just as it is prohibited to eat them, so too, it is prohibited to benefit from them?”’
Immediately, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani interrupts and challenges this student, asking ‘why did Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi interpret as he did (and not in accordance with Chizkiya or Rabbi Avahu)’? to which the student offers a robust reply. This occurs again – to which the student responds, and once again, to which, the student again offers a compelling answer.
On first glance, it seems that Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani simply doesn’t agree with the approach of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. However, the very speed with which he challenges and interrupts him suggests that something else is happening.
As mentioned, the question of whether it is prohibited to derive benefit from something that is prohibited from consumption was an ongoing discussion amongst the Amoraim, and then, amidst a conversation with one of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi’s closer disciples, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani is told that Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi had held an alternative view which he had, until then, not encountered.
Having heard this, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani wished to know more. He interrupted the student at every moment – not as a sign of disrespect – but because he was hungry to learn more about a position offered by one of his teachers which he was not yet acquainted with. And what is remarkable is that every challenge presented to this student is answered with clarity and with ease.
And why? Because this disciple had so carefully absorbed the words of his teacher that even when asked questions which his teacher himself may not have explicitly addressed, he was able to confidently answer them. Suffice to say, whoever this nameless student was (and this itself is curious as to why we are not told his name), not only was he a great scholar, but he was also a great disciple too.
In one of his stunning tributes capturing both how I and so many others feel, Rabbi Alex Israel observed that ‘it is impossible to know where the ideas of Rabbi Sacks’ end, and where ours begin’, and this itself is a profound insight of discipleship – namely ‘attachment’ to the ideas and personality of a teacher.
Like Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, Rabbi Sacks zt’l was a bold, original and spiritual scholar who emphasized the role of ethics and the timeless messages of Torah, and who placed his faith in his students – which led them to have faith in themselves. And just like this student of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, I hope that the many disciples of Rabbi Sacks continue to share the great wisdom they have received from their teacher – because it is wisdom that is more precious than rubies, diamonds or pearls.