The Meaning of Gadol and Other Significant Talmudic Descriptives

At times, the most common Hebrew words are the most difficult to translate. They may have a wide range of meanings, or the concept they represent may be hard to grasp.

Tov, for example – is it good, excellent, superb, astonishing? Yafeh could be beautiful, stunning, good (as in ‘well done’). In Biblical Hebrew, koach often means agricultural produce.

One of my favorites — and toughest — is gadol and all its related grammatical forms. As any child or adult first learning Hebrew knows, it means big. Biblically it also means wealthy. And this brings me to my most difficult text (Gittin 59a): Rabbah the son of Rav — and some say Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Valess said: From the days of Moses until ‘Rabbi’ [referring to Yehuda HaNassi] we have not found Torah and Gedulah together [in one person].

Many thoughts can questions come to mind:
1. Comparing anyone to Moses makes me uncomfortable
2. For Moses – gedulah — greatness is understood. Whose stature in the history of the Jewish people could match Moshe’s?
3. Even though we know that Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was a very wealthy man, there is no indication in the Torah that that would apply to Moses.
4. It can’t be referring to his ultra-knowledge of Torah – that was surely the domain of Rabbi Akiva in those days.

Groping around, I began to think about superlatives: In art, even in a field including Rembrandt, Monet — even Picasso — who can compare to Michelangelo and Da Vinci? And Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, don’t feel like they are in the same class as Beethoven and Mozart. Homer, Dante, and James Joyce naturally come to mind in literature. In science, Einstein always stood in special place, no matter how many others had won Nobel Prizes. Historians of the US Presidency of late — after Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, have begun moving Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman up the list. And, of course, the Queen of England is always addressed as “Your Majesty”. As an American growing up mornings with the sports page of the Washington Post it was natural that I came to study the stories of The Greats: Babe Ruth, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and Jim Thorpe.

I then moved on to thinking about how some are introduced for lectures: distinguished, eminent, and perhaps the highest of all – pre-eminent; and then to terminology, for example, prodigy like Jascha Heifetz (though it usually applies only to young people, and genius, unfortunately too watered down to lesser talents). My late Rebbi in Jewish education, Abraham J. Gittelson, commenting on my seeing too many announcements about forthcoming lectures to be given by every Moshe, Yossi, and Chaim as HaRav HaGadol Ploni Almoni, offered that the real a Torah genius should be called a ‘BIG Gaddel’.

All that being said, it appears that it was Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s communal stature that moved the two rabbis to make their bold statements. Other than his ability to move relatively comfortably among the Roman authorities, I don’t know enough of his biography to make a definitive comment. But, in their minds, something about him put him in a unique class of leadership by himself.

I began this brief study with my wonder at the word gadol relating to people. I believe, for our own Torah-enrichment, it is time to do the same with some ostensibly secondary terms from Talmudic and subsequent times. They are lesser-known than Talmid, Rav, Chaver, Talmid Chaver, Chacham, and Talmid Chacham:

(1a) Chashuv, important by what criteria? (1b) Chashuva as in Isha Chasuva, who Halachically reclines at the Seder, though there it seems to refer to an upper-class woman. (2) Tzaddik Gamur, a completely, totally righteous person. Why did the Rabbis need a term like that? Wasn’t Tzaddik sufficient? Or did they mean to imply that they are “downgrading”, as it were, Tzaddik to Mensch?

Finally, and I think of the utmost important for our study, Adam Kasher, (11 times in the Babylonian Talmud, six times in Rashi, 14 in the Rambam, 9 in the Shulchan Aruch, 8 in the Mishna Berura, and 25 times in the Aruch HaShulchan) a magnificent way to describe a human being…a personal of absolute integrity, humble, decent, generous. The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 25a) beautifully explains the stature of such a person: Whoever weeps and mourns for an Adam Kasher, all of that person’s sins are forgiven because of the honor that person showed for the deceased.

I believe we would do well to review in our minds and actions whom we consider people of stature, and why, and perhaps open our minds to other individuals who may better reflect the values we seek in life.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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