We are told in today’s daf (Yoma 43b) that when Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish delved into the topic of the Parah Adumah with the intention to better understand the biblical verses of this passage and their practical application, they were ‘unable to produce more than what a fox can bring up from a ploughed field’ – meaning that they were unable to discover any ‘chiddush’ (original thought) which could shed light on the difficulties that they found in this topic.
Interestingly, we find this same phrase used about Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish when they delved into a specific aspect of Hilchot Niddah (see Niddah 65b), and since then, it has been invoked by countless Rishonim and Acharonim when offering a disclaimer that while they have attempted to make sense of a given topic, they have been unable to discover any great chiddush. But why is this particular metaphor used?
According to Rabbi Ephraim Oved in his ‘Torat Ha’agadah’ (on Yoma 43), the reason for this is because the fox is cunning and is generally able to identify clever ways to discover what it is looking for, and in a similar fashion, so too were Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish in terms of their Torah scholarship. Yet notwithstanding the skills of the fox, it came up from the ploughed field with nothing, and notwithstanding the skills of Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish, they too were unable to discover any chiddush. According to this explanation, when Sages are ‘unable to produce more than what a fox can bring up from a ploughed field’, this invokes a feeling of frustration like a fox that was unable to find food in what it thought was going to be fertile ground.
However, the Maharsha (in his commentary on Makkot 24b) adds further meaning to this metaphor by referencing Yirmiyah 26:18 (‘Zion will be ploughed like a field), Eichah 5:18 (‘over the desolation of Mount Zion, foxes prowl on it’) and the story of the sighting of a fox emerging from the ruins of the Kodesh Kodashim by Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua & Rabbi Akiva (Makkot 24b). According to this explanation, when Sages are ‘unable to produce more than what a fox can bring up from a ploughed field’, this invokes not feelings of frustration, but instead, a feeling of deep sadness.
In terms of the former sense of frustration, this occurs when it is clear to a scholar that notwithstanding their best efforts, there is nothing that they – at least on their spiritual and intellectual level – can find as a chiddush. However, in terms of the latter feeling of sadness, this occurs when it is clear to a scholar that –in one way or another – their failure to discover a chiddush is due to their or their generations spiritual failings.
As mentioned, this phrase has been invoked by countless Rishonim and Acharonim. In some instances, it has expressed the former feeling of frustration, and in others, the latter feeling of sadness. As for me, when I learn the daf each morning I certainly don’t see myself as a fox, and unlike a ploughed field, each daf is like a field rich with ripe produce ready to be picked. Given this, while the discovery of chiddushim is enthralling, I only hope I can do justice to the thin slices of ready-available produce that I attempt to serve each day.