A meeting of dissenting scholars (Daf Yomi Shabbos 108)

“A great man is coming from the West.”

I have been fascinated with the relationship between Rav and Shmuel since we were first introduced to them. They agree on almost nothing, and yet, they appear to complement each other with their ongoing discourse. I envision them walking side-by-side, always arguing over some fine point of Talmudic law. They were great friends and Rav is said to have mourned profoundly the death of Shmuel because there was no one else who he could verbally spar with him in quite the same way.

Shmuel was a man of science who had deep knowledge of the natural world. Today’s Daf Yomi reading also says he was a medical doctor. Rav was a famous scholar. He was so famous that we were told in an earlier text that he only needed to be known as “Rav.” Today we are presented with what I imagine might have been the introduction of these two men to each other. It was not an easy introduction.

One day Shmuel was sitting on the bank of the Malka River with his friend Karna when he saw a ship approaching from afar. The water was murky and thick with debris and as it rose, Shmuel announced that a great man was coming. Karna was sent ahead to see who it was and when he came upon Rav he appeared to have little a wareness that he was in the presence of a great scholar. He had the audacity to test the great Rav’s knowledge of the Torah. He posed a series of questions to Rav, all of which were answered skillfully.  When Rav lost his patience with these questions he said to Karna: “May it be the will of God that a horn [karna] will emerge in his eyes.”

We are told that Shmuel had empathy for Rav who had traveled a long way and likely suffered from drinking bad water while on his journey. He invited him to his house and served him a carefully chosen meal of barley bread, small fried fish and beer. We are told that Shmuel selected the meal in order to assist with relieving Rav’s intestinal issues. Denying Rav access to his bathroom was part of his treatment. Rav, displaying his temper, was irritated and issued a curse on Shmuel’s children. He eventually realized that Shmuel was well-meaning, but sadly, we are told did that Shmuel’s children did not survive long.

I keep returning again and again to the relationship between Rav and Shmuel because it is the quintessential lesson of the Talmud and represents the back and forth discourse that defines it. Today’s Daf Yomi suggests that their initial meeting was not an easy one. But they were able to overcome their difficulties with each other. Their lifelong friendship serves as a lesson in not just respecting those that have disparate opinions from our own, but in honoring them. And it is a reminder of the importance of listening, truly listening to each other. Rav and Shmuel provided a model for how friendship can grow from respecting each other’s points of view.  (For a comparison with the friendship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia, see https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me/shabbos/shabbos-59)


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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