June 25, 2020

Shabbat 96

At the end of today’s daf (Shabbat 96b), Rabbi Akiva – on the basis of a gezera shava (where identical words or expressions found in different places in the Torah are used to give greater understanding or meaning to each other) – identifies the מקושש (i.e. the individual who transgressed the Shabbat laws by gathering wood on Shabbat – see Bemidbar 15:32) as Tzelofchad who died, according to the testimony of his five daughters, ‘of his sins’ (ibid. 27:3).

However, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira objected to Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation and firmly told him: ‘Akiva – whether you are right or wrong, in the future you will be judged on this matter. If your are correct (i.e. if Tzelofchad was, in fact, the מקושש), then you have revealed something that was, until now, hidden in the Torah! And if not, then you have just maligned a righteous man!’. Significantly, we find a repeat performance of this disagreement in tomorrow’s daf (Shabbat 97a) where, again based on an interpretation of the Torah text, Rabbi Akiva claims that Aharon, in addition to Miriam, was afflicted with Tzora’at, to which Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira also responds with these identical words of criticism.

According to the Gemara (see Shabbat 97a), it is possible that these particular disagreements were rooted in Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira receiving different oral traditions from their teachers. Moreover, it is also clear from various rabbinic sources that a number of Rabbi Akiva’s peers felt that he was often excessive or unrestrained in his exegesis. For example, Rabbi Tarfon criticised Rabbi Akiva with the words ‘how long with you keep gabbing with your exegesis?’ (Tosefta Zevachim 1:6), and Rabbi Yossi HaGelili once told Rabbi Akiva, ‘even if you were to expound this verse all day long I wouldn’t listen to you’ (Zevachim 82a), and so perhaps it was in this spirit that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira made his remarks. Still, even if this were so, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira’s tone seems excessively harsh.

Of course, it may be claimed that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira wished to protect the integrity and authority of Torah exegesis. However, if this were the case, we would have expected him to be dismissive like Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Yossi HaGelili rather than be so critical of Rabbi Akiva. Alternatively, while it may have been Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira’s intent to protect the reputation of Tzelofchad and Aharon, this would be hard to justify as both are identified by the Torah itself as having been engaged in some form of misdemeanour. Given all this, I believe that the answer to this conundrum can be found by thinking a little more about who Rabbi Akiva was and the type of Torah that he usually taught.

As we know, the period of Rabbi Akiva was fraught with great stress and he risked his life to teach Torah and was tortured and killed by the Romans for doing so. Yet what made Rabbi Akiva so popular as a teacher was his message of hope and his ability to see beyond the loss and destruction (see Makkot 24b). Here, however, Rabbi Akiva used his exegetical skills to find and attribute transgressions to biblical personalities, which means that rather than seeing the good, Rabbi Akiva was now seeing the bad.

For Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, this shift in tone from the positive to the negative was deeply unsettling. By this point, the Temple was already destroyed, many people had been murdered, and the only thing that remained as a source of hope to the people was their sacred Torah and their biblical role models. Now, more than ever, the people needed chizuk (strengthening and inspiration) from the hopeful Torah of Rabbi Akiva! But Rabbi Akiva was waning, and his hopeful message was being replaced by a critical one.

Given this, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira felt the need to assertively challenge Rabbi Akiva – and I believe this is evident from the words he used. He began by referring to Rabbi Akiva by name, ‘Akiva’, as if to remind him that his next words of rebuke were expressive of a bond of love and respect. He then said, ‘whether you are right or wrong, in the future you will be judged on this matter’, and in doing so he communicated the fact that whether Rabbi Akiva’s exegesis was valid or not, now is not a time for judgement, and instead, the priority must to do all that is possible to maintain hope for the future. He then reminded Rabbi Akiva of his love of Torah and that now was not the right time to reveal things that until now had been hidden in the Torah. Finally, he reminded Rabbi Akiva of his positivity, of his constant endeavour to find the good in others, and of the fact that this kind of exegesis was not reflective of the Rabbi Akiva that he knew, or the kind of Torah interpretation that the people needed to hear.

As we know from our time, in periods of challenge and difficulty our perspective can rapidly shift to such an extent that we can only see the fault rather than the merit, only the bad and not the good. I believe that for a brief period in his life this occurred to Rabbi Akiva, and that he was fortunate to have a friend like Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira who was able to remind him that hope is a powerful thing, and that – especially during times of challenge and difficulty – our task is to hold onto hope, and see the good, not just the bad.

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