Learning from the young (Daf Yomi Eruvin 28)

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“The law is determined in accordance with the common custom of most of the world and not with the practice in one particular place.”

Rabbi Zeira, like many of us, is very tired. He has a portfolio of Rabbinic duties that he is responsible for in addition to publishing deadlines and his daily Torah study. There are a lot of demands of the Rabbi from his fellow faculty, students and his family. He has not been sleeping well lately and dreams of a good night sleep when he can close his eyes with the knowledge that all his chores are done. He is known for his piety and was referred to by his colleagues as the “pious Babylonian.”  But frankly, it is tiring to be so reverent all the time. Sometimes, a Rabbi needs a break from all it.

The Rabbi has found himself dozing off lately between his lectures and meetings with colleagues and students. He decided to sit outside the yeshiva under the bright Israeli sunlight and close one eye for a few moments of rest and conjure happy memories of his childhood in Babylonia. In addition to being known for his piety, he is also a traditionalist and never misses an opportunity to honor his senior colleagues. He kept one eye open when he sat outside the yeshiva melting into the warmth of the sun so that he would be aware when one of the sages passed through the entrance. When this happened, he would stand and acknowledge their presence. In this way, we are told that Rabbi Zeira, who was too tired to push ahead with his Torah study, found a way to rest “while fulfilling a different mitzva at the same time.”

The great Rabbi, however, might have been so tired that he was not at the top of his game. He ruled on the proper blessing for the dodder plant, which is a parasitic concoction of nature that wraps itself around other plants and feeds off their roots for nourishment. A precocious child encounters the Rabbi in the yeshiva and shows off his knowledge by reciting that the proper blessing for the dodder plant is “who creates the fruit of the ground” and the proper blessing for green grain (which is unripened grain fed to animals) is “by whose word all things come to be.” The tired Rabbi corrects him by looking down his reading glasses and says “on the contrary, the opposite is more reasonable, as this, the green grain, derives nourishment from the ground, whereas that, the dodder, derives nourishment from the air, and it is fitting to recite a blessing over each item in accordance with its source of nourishment.”

The young scholar is crest-fallen and dejected after being corrected by the august Rabbi. But the voice of the Gemara concludes that Rabbi Zeira is mistaken. Afterall, how can the parasitic dodder plant be derived from the air? We are told that “the dodder, is fully ripened produce, and that, green grain, is not fully ripened produce.” Accordingly, the dodder can only derive nourishment from the ground, for when its “prickly shrub is cut off, the dodder attached to it dies.” The Gemara concludes that the dodder plant, like the green grain, also derives its nourishment from the ground, and the Rabbi stands corrected.

This story, which appears in the middle of a Daf Yomi mostly devoted to foods that are allowable for creating a form of eruv, is a reminder that there is much to be learned from the young. Anyone who has taught any subject, knows that the learning that takes place always goes both ways and the teacher’s knowledge base only deepens through dialog and contact with students. I have been thinking a lot about this lately, because as someone who has was born at the tail-end of the baby boomer generation, I have a grave fear that we are leaving the planet to the younger generation in much worse shape than we found it. We had such hopes for change when we were young and advocating for gender and racial equality.

Does anyone remember the 1970s and the belief that we carried deep within us that we were working to create a better world? Where has this led us? Our planet has become hotter and more disease-ridden than ever. The young child who Rabbi Zeira quickly dismissed brought a different perspective to the discussion on blessings. It is easy to talk over the young generation and write them off as not having the perspective of age and wisdom and experience, but maybe it is time to listen to a new generation of voices and ideas. The month of September is when school starts up again and this year is unlike any most have ever experienced. It should be a reminder that we can learn from the young who have the energy and the optimism to carry on.

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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