Achieving the hard grade (Daf Yomi Pesachim 62)

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“Rabbi Yohanan took a clod of dirt and threw it at him

In the middle of the today’s exposition on the details of sacrificing the Paschal lamb is an instructive story involving a tenacious but somewhat arrogant student who pursued a certain curmudgeon of a Rabbi for elucidation of all the knowledge contained in the Book of Genealogies. The notes in the Koren Talmud  indicate that the book contained the genealogies of the powerful families at the time, including some that had sordid histories and the proverbial “skeletons in the closet.” It was a book that must have only been shared with trusted scholars who would not misuse the information contained within it.

Rabbi Simlai was hungry to know what was in the book. He thrust himself before Rabbi Yohanan who was an expert in the mysteries contained within it. It is unclear what Rabbi Simlai’s motives were, but it might have been the type of curiosity that drives our compulsion today to read about celebrity gossip (even if we never admit to doing so), or perhaps his family secrets were contained within its pages. He badgered Rabbi Yohanan who dismissed the request outright until he inquired where the younger Rabbi was from.

Rabbi Simlai answered that he was from Lod. Lod was not the right answer. Rabbi Yohanan next asked Simlai where he currently resided. Rabbi Simlai answered that lived in Neharde’a in Babylonia. That was also the wrong answer. In response Rabbi Yohanan said “I have a tradition that we teach these subjects neither to Lodites nor to Neharde’ans, and certainly not to you who comes from Lod and your residence is in Neharde’a, such that you have both shortcomings.” I suspect that whatever towns Rabbi Simlai cited as his hometown and current residence, he would have been told they precluded him from studying the mysterious book.

But a curious, tenacious student cannot be dissuaded if he is intent on unraveling a mystery. Rabbi Simlai pressured Rabbi Yohanan until he agreed to teach him the secrets of the great book. But Rabbi Simlai overstepped his boundaries when he said he wanted to learn everything in it within three months and lost his chance. This brings to mind young students who are so anxious to get on with their lives and advance quickly, that they want to acquire a lifetime worth of learning in a short period. And they push and push and push, without fully understanding that what you learn requires “seasoning” from real life.

And here is the wonderful part of this story: Rabbi Simlai threw a “clod of dirt” at Rabbi Simlai and told him that Rabbi Meir’s wife Berurya who “was so sharp and had such a good memory that she learned three hundred halakhot in one day from three hundred Sages, and nonetheless she did not fulfill her responsibility to properly learn the Book of Genealogies in three years because it is especially long and difficult.”  We encountered Berurya previously in the Eruvin Tractate when she kicked a student for being languid in his response to his studies. Here is a link to my posting on her.

As a result of what was perceived to be arrogance, Rabbi Simlai lost his opportunity to discover what was within the covers of the Book of Genealogies from Rabbi Yohanan. And here is where we return to the thread of the narrative on the paschal lamb. Rabbi Yohanan agreed to teach the code of disqualification that distinguishes the difference between one who offers a paschal lamb for its intended purpose and one who offers it for another, and one who sacrifices it for those who can eat from it and those who cannot. Rabbi Simlai may not have received the lesson he wanted but he got the one that he needed at the time.

I was one of those young students who loved studying with the scary, intense, demanding teachers that everyone else feared. When I was in college if a particular professor was on the list of “hard graders” I would sign-up for their section.  I imagine Rabbi Yohanan was a hard grader in the yeshiva who did not look kindly on the students who did not entirely and with every cell in their bodies apply themselves to their studies. He would become so frustrated with them that he would throw dirt or perhaps kick them like Berurya.

I was an intense student who spent my free time on the floor of the college library pulling poetry books off the shelf. It was a euphoric experience to read the great poets for the first time. I was attracted to the hard graders – the Rabbi Yohanans – because they were not persuaded by the fast-talking students who always had a story to tell on why they did not complete their assignments on time. And in these professors’ “hardness” was an integrity of learning that I have carried with me throughout my life. And let’s face it, real life is one long course in achieving the hard grade.

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
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