“Flowing rivers and streaming springs are like the feet of all people.”
Reading today’s Daf Yomi portion reminded me of why I feel so at home in Judaism. It is the religion of my ancestors who were Rabbis in Lithuania and I can sometimes feel their spirit within me. I identify with a culture that is all about questioning and searching for answers and debating every issue from the inside out. This journey through the Talmud, and certainly the current Tractate, is all about dissecting every molecule of every issue in the most minute detail. And the Rabbis never agree with each other and sometimes themselves. And I am all in for the experience!
Today’s reading brings home the diversity of opinion found in the Talmud. The text dissects if there is a difference between a disagreement between two single authorities or a single authority and many others. It attempts to establish a hierarchy of prevailing opinion, but also contradicts this as well, because nothing is absolute, or finite in the Talmud. There are often varying lenient and stringent opinions, and workarounds to rules. An obvious work-around is the concept of the eruv itself, which extends the boundaries through which one can travel on Shabbat.
The text examines how one may travel on Shabbat if he is sleeping at its onset and presumably at home. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri said that this person who has managed to get a good amount of sleep can travel two thousand cubits in every direction. Rabbi Zeira determines in favor of this lenient position. The voice of the Gemara analyzes the legitimacy of the lenient position associated with the ruling. It determines that a lenient position can hold when it represents a disagreement between a single authority and another single authority, or multiple authorities with another set of multiple authorities. But when a single authority maintains a lenient position counter to one held by several authorities, the more stringent approach wins out. In other words, the majority opinion rules.
But of course, this being the Talmud, the matter is not settled. Rava remembers an instance where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi ruled in favor of Rabbi Elazar’s opinion, even though it was contrary to what was held by a group of his colleagues. We are told that although he “apparently ruled incorrectly” he upheld Rabbi Elazar’s opinion because it “is worthy to rely upon in exigent circumstances.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi stood by his initial determination and supported Rabbi Elazar. We have all been in circumstances where we supported someone we loved or respected, even though we held a different opinion, out of expediency, and because a decision had to be made and it was more important to call it and move on than to continue spinning through the argument.
We are provided with additional principles. When Rabbi Akiva disputes the opinion of any other, the issue is often decided in his favor. Likewise, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s opinion is the final one when he debates any other individual. If I am reading the language correctly, Rabbi Yosei’s opinion comes out on top, even when disputing the opinion of more than one other sage (the text says “in disputes with other sages.”)
A hierarchy of Rabbis is established: If Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda enter into a dispute, the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda is the overriding one; in the case of a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Yosei’s point of view wins; in the case of a dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Yosei’s opinion is the prevailing one as well. In all disputes with Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Meir must yield. In disputes between Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon, the prevailing opinion goes with Rabbi Yosei, In disputes between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, the opinion goes with Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Meir appear to never have the prevailing opinion and we are told that in disputes between them, “no sources were found to resolve this dilemma, and it stands unresolved.”
However, we are presented with an example of an opinion that was settled according to Rabbi Shimon’s perspective even though it is counter to that of Rabbi Yehuda. The Gemara provides an ambiguous explanation for why this could occur: “Perhaps where it is stated explicitly to the contrary, it is stated, but where it is not stated explicitly to the contrary, it is not stated, and these principles apply.” In other words, if Rabbi Yehuda allows Rabbi Shimon’s stance to be the overriding one, even if it contradicts one of his own, it will stand.
I have found my voice and home in my religion through this journey of reading the Talmud each day for the very reason why today’s text and so many previous ones can be so confounding; there is often no one way, no one answer, no absolute without an exception. There are many opinions and contradictions and paths this way and that way. The text itself is often bold enough to state that when there is a difference of opinion that cannot be decided, the issue shall stand unresolved.
The Talmud is not a text for the faint of heart or those who are looking for the “answer” to whatever questions are unsettled within them. Often, questions are answered with questions, and answers that are determined one way today are contradicted tomorrow. It’s a close reflection of the vagaries of this messy life.