Silence equals death (Daf Yomi Eruvin 63)

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“I am young, and you are very old; therefore I held back.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading returns to the discussion of not just respect and deference, but entire yielding of authority to one’s teacher. It is this respect for scholarship that sets Judaism apart from many other religions, and learning is as much an intellectual as a spiritual endeavor. In today’s reading abiding by the rulings of one’s teachers becomes a matter of life or death. We are told that if one deems to pass a ruling in his teacher’s jurisdiction, he could be subject to the death penalty.

It might be that after all these months I have become inured to some of this life and death drama, but I am less disturbed by the lack of proportionality of the crime to the punishment than I was when I first read about stoning for religious transgressions back in the happy days of the Berakhot Tractate. My study partners managed to convince me when I first became agitated over the mention of the death penalty, that the Rabbis hardly ever enforced it, and it was for the purpose of being dramatic in order to keep people on the observant path. Still, the phrase “hardly ever” disturbs me and even the idea of a spiritual death or an ex-communication for some of these transgressions seems needlessly cruel. But I don’t suppose the Rabbis lived in a gentle world where people were encouraged to share their feelings and discuss in a therapy-type setting why they transgressed.

I am also aware that nuances of meaning are lost in the English translation, but I would never be able to keep up with the daily readings if I attempted to tackle the Daf Yomi with my rudimentary Hebrew (which I intend to study one day when I am retired.) But still there is a statement from Rava that indicated that one is “liable to receive the death penalty” if he issues a ruling in his teacher’s actual presence. He is still liable for punishment if he issues a ruling that is not in his teacher’s presence, but he is spared the death penalty.

The Talmud is rich with the measurement of things and established limits. This is especially true of the Eruvin Tractate, which has the concept of boundaries at its core. There is a measure to determine the distance from a teacher’s domain before a disciple can issue his own ruling. The measure is three parasangs, which is the approximate equivalent of nine miles; if my estimate is correct that would be approximately two-thirds the length of Manhattan, which would mean that an up-and-coming scholar would have to leave the city if he wanted to set up shop on his own. Can you imagine all the Judaic scholars in New York City yielding to one teacher’s point of view and deferring to his rulings? (And let’s face it – there is no room for women scholars in this ancient order.)

I never miss an opportunity to comment on a woman who has a name and a voice in the Talmud because it is so rare. In today’s text we meet Rabbi Eliezer’s wife Imma Shalom. A disciple of Rabbi Eliezer issued a ruling in his presence and the Rabbi responded that the young scholar would die within the year. And it was so. He did not live to see the year end. His wife inquired in what I would like to think is a tone that suggested her husband was needlessly cruel when she asked him “are you a prophet?” I imagine it was asked in a tone of voice that might have included the qualifier now, as in “are you a prophet, now.” The Rabbi answered that he is no prophet, but the law is the law.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Gurya went as far as to explain how one would die if a student issued a ruling in the presence of his teacher: it would be by poisoning from the venom of a snake bite. The reference to the snake hearkens back to the story of the Garden of Eden, when it was a snake that first tempted Eve to taste the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It is the serpent that set off the series of events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the idyllic garden where they had been destined to live forever in a state of bliss without the worry of illness and hunger and encroaching death. And here, it is death by snake bite if a student oversteps himself.

In a comment that deeply saddens me we are told that a young scholar, Elihu, who attempted to speak in his teacher’s presence, apologized out of fear of being bitten by a snake. I gather from today’s reading that the study halls were not the rambunctious seats of learning that I like to think are the ideal with back and forth questioning between students and teachers, but rather quiet spaces where the young scholars were terrified to speak up.

I had the great privilege of spending a year studying lterature at a Scottish university. One of my lecturers announced on the first day of class that he intended to conduct his classroom in the “American style” and expected robust participation from the students. I do not know if things have changed since then or if it was just that class, but his “American experiment” was not a great success with his constant prodding for debate and a mostly silent response from the students. I cannot remember if I contributed, but expect I did because I was used to the American style of challenging one’s teachers and having classroom participation comprise some portion of the overall year-end grade. The class was on the novels of Dickens, and I would have had a lot to say.

There are different cultural styles of learning and interacting between students and lecturers. I have mostly attended American universities where it is expected that the lecturer will be challenged by the students. This dialog between teacher and student over the course of a semester is where the real learning takes place. It is also through this discourse that teachers have the opportunity to deepen their own knowledge in order to better serve the next semester’s students. It saddens me that the young were so silenced in the ancient yeshivas.

It is worth remembering the slogan of the AIDS movement which is more relevant now than ever: silence equals death.

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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