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September 20, 2021 | ט״ו בתשרי תשפ״ב | TODAY'S DAF: Beitzah 21 - First Day of Sukkot, September 21

Gefet – The Character Portrait of Tavi the Slave of Rabban Gamliel – Sukkah 3

Gefet: Gemara Rashi and Tosafot.

Delve into commentaries on the daf in this advanced level shiur with Rabbanit Yael Shimoni.

Disclaimer: you do not have to be a daf learner to study Gefet. The texts are in Hebrew, the class teaching is in English.

Gefet is a collaboration with Drisha Institute.


Gefet 3 – The Character Portrait of Tavi the Slave of Rabban Gamliel 

We will begin with brachot for finishing the first perek and beginning the second perek of the masechet – chizku v’imtzu! 

Tavi, the slave of Rabban Gamliel is one of the most intriguing characters to appear throughout Shas. In the first Mishna of our new perek, he appears as a source for learning halacha, and as we will see, Rashi and Tosfot both add to the portrait of this unique character.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף כ עמוד ב

הישן תחת המטה בסוכה – לא יצא ידי חובתו. אמר רבי יהודה: נוהגין היינו שהיינו ישנים תחת המטה בפני הזקנים ולא אמרו לנו דבר. אמר רבי שמעון: מעשה בטבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל שהיה ישן תחת המטה, ואמר להן רבן גמליאל לזקנים: ראיתם טבי עבדי, שהוא תלמיד חכם ויודע שעבדים פטורין מן הסוכה, לפיכך ישן הוא תחת המטה. ולפי דרכינו למדנו שהישן תחת המטה לא יצא ידי חובתו.

Before we examine the mishna, we will begin with some important information needed for understanding the mishna and the discussion surrounding it. Tavi, the slave of Rabban Gamilel is an עבד כנעני – a Canaanite slave. This means that we are speaking about a non-Jew who was sold into slavery by another non-Jew, or who sold himself into slavery, or who is the son of a slave who underwent a similar process. An עבד כנעני is circumcised and undergoes purification in the mikvah for the purposes of his slavery. After this, he is partially obligated in mitzvot, yet he cannot marry a Jewish woman, his children are not attributed to him, and he cannot leave them inheritance. If he is freed, he becomes a full Jew.  However, there is a prohibition against freeing slaves, with some special exceptions. The topic of slavery is a very sensitive one which raises many moral questions. For the purposes of this shiur, we will suffice by saying that slavery in the Torah is very different from other institutions of slavery in the world, and as we have mentioned, according to the Torah, the slave is a partial Jew. After this introduction about the laws of slavery, we will turn to the words of Rabban Gamliel about his slave Tavi. 

” ואמר להן רבן גמליאל לזקנים: ראיתם טבי עבדי, שהוא תלמיד חכם ויודע שעבדים פטורין מן הסוכה, לפיכך ישן הוא תחת המטה.”

The gemara brings one paragraph about this line in the mishna on Daf 21b:

אמר רבי שמעון מעשה בטבי עבדו. תניא, אמר רבי שמעון: משיחתו של רבן גמליאל למדנו שני דברים; למדנו שעבדים פטורים מן הסוכה, ולמדנו שהישן תחת המטה לא יצא ידי חובתו. ולימא מדבריו של רבן גמליאל? – מילתא אגב אורחיה קא משמע לן, כי הא דאמר רב אחא בר אדא, ואמרי לה אמר רב אחא בר אדא אמר רב המנונא אמר רב: מנין שאפילו שיחת תלמידי חכמים צריכה לימוד – שנאמר ועלהו לא יבול.

From the words of the gemara we can learn a few things: Rabban Gamliel calls Tavi, his slave, a talmid chacham because of his knowledge of two halachot: 1. That a slave is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah 2. That a person who sleeps under a bed has not fulfilled his obligation. This praise by Rabban Gamliel was not said in the context of beit midrash learning, rather in the context of a conversation between talmidei chachamim, outside the beit midrash. In light of this context, a question arises as to the reading of this line in the mishna – what was the tone in which Rabban Gamliel said this praise about Tavi? Was the statement that Tavi is a talmid chacham said jokingly or seriously? We will examine Rashi on the mishna on Daf 20a:

ולפי דרכינו למדנו – כלומר, אף על פי שלא אמר לנו לשם תלמוד אלא לשיחת חולין בעלמא, שהיה משתבח בעבדו לבדיחותא בעלמא, למדנו על פי דרך בדיחותו שהישן תחת המטה לא יצא ידי חובתו.

Rashi says that this praise for Tavi by Rabban Gamliel was merely said jokingly. Why does Rashi say this? We will suggest two different answers: 1. Knowledge of these two halachot is considered basic – you don’t need to be a talmid chacham to know this 2. Relating to a slave as a talmid chacham has an element of humor to it – a talmid chacham is someone extremely learned, and even if Tavi was a special slave, even one with yir’at shamayim and a love of Torah, he definitely did not reach the level of talmid chacham! After looking at Rashi, we will have a look at Tosfot and see that a different tone arises from their words: 

תוספות מסכת סוכה דף כ עמוד ב

ראיתם טבי עבדי שהוא תלמיד חכם – עבד כשר היה כדאיתא בפרק שני דברכות (דף טז:) ובירושלמי תני שהיה מניח תפילין ולא מיחו בידו חכמים ופריך מחלפא שיטתי’ דרבן גמליאל דהא הכא גבי סוכה מיחו בידו חכמים מלישב בסוכה שהרי היה ישן תחת המטה ומשני שהיה עושה כן שלא לדחוק את חכמים שהיו ישנים בסוכה ופריך אי שלא לדחוק את חכמים ישב לו חוץ לסוכה ומשני דרוצה היה לשמוע דברי חכמים.

The Tosfot open with a statement: Tavi was a “kosher slave”. Tosfot change the term “talmid chacham” to “kosher slave”, which on the one hand diminishes the praise which Rabban Gamliel gives to his slave, but on the other hand, turns it into something serious and not a joke. This tone is sharpened in light of the second stage in the Tosfot – the quote that is brought from a sugiya in the Yerushalmi. Before we examine the quote, we will mention that this is something which comes up many times in Tosfot. Bringing sugiyot from the Yerushalmi sheds additional light on what is said in the Bavli. By doing this, Tosfot emphasize and remind us of the importance of learning the Yerushalmi and how much it can deepen our understanding. We will now examine the sugiya which is quoted to by the Tosfot: 

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת סוכה פרק ב הלכה א

מתני’ הישן תחת המטה לא יצא ידי חובתו א”ר יהודה נוהגין היינו ישינים תחת המטות בפני הזקנים ולא אמרו לנו דבר. א”ר שמעון מעשה בטבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל שהיה ישן תחת המטה אמר רבן גמליאל לזקנים ראיתם טבי עבדי שהוא תלמיד חכם יודע שעבדים פטורין מן הסוכה וישן לו תחת המטה. ולפי דרכינו למדנו שהישן תחת המטה לא יצא ידי חובתו:….. מחלפה שיטתיה דרבן גמליאל. דתני טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל היה נותן תפילין ולא מיחו בידו חכמים וכאן מיחו בידו. שלא לדחוק את החכמים. אם שלא לדחוק את החכמים ישב לו חוץ לסוכה. רוצה היה טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל לשמוע דברי חכמים:

The Yerushalmi raises a difficulty on the words of Rabban Gamliel in the mishna – in our mishna, it sounds like Rabban Gamliel is praising his slave for listening to the chachamim who objected to what Tavi was doing and told him that it is not right for him to take up space in the sukkah when he is not obligated in the mitzvah. However, the Yerushalmi reports that there is a contradicting story where Tavi put on tefillin, yet Rabban Gamliel did not object. What then is the law? Do we object to a slave who does mitzvot that he is not obligated to do or not? 

In order to solve the contradiction, the Yerushalmi looks closer at the story and says that Tavi slept under the bed not because the chachamim objected to what he was doing, but rather out of his own initiative, in order to make space for the chachamim. In that case, there is no contradiction – if there was room in the rest of the sukka, Tavi would have slept there. He gave up his space not because it isn’t right for a slave who is not obligated in the mitzvah to perform it, rather because other Jews came, whose obligations were greater than his. In other words, we do not object to a slave performing a mitzvah that is beyond his official obligation. 

After solving the contradiction, the Yerushalmi asks: why then, did Tavi not exit the sukkah completely, but rather stayed there under the bed? The Yerushalmi answers that Tavi wanted to hear the words of the chachamim, and therefore stayed in the sukkah. 

This Yerushalmi adds to our portrait of the character of Tavi. He is not just a slave who knows basic halachot, but rather a slave who performs many mitzvot beyond what he is obligated to perform, including tefillin! He is also a slave who is thirsty to hear words of Torah, and is prepared to sit under a bed – to be physically uncomfortable and in a humiliating position, just to hear the conversation of the chachamim in the sukkah. 

If we compare the tone that arises from Rashi to the tone that arises from Tosfot, we can see that there is an argument between them regarding how we should read the words of Rabban Gamliel. According to Rashi, the description ot Tavi as a talmid chacham was said jokingly, while according to Tosfot, it is a serious expression which describes the special character of a slave who worships Hashem with love and yearning, and who is thirsty for mitzvot, tefilla, and Torah. 

A Step Beyond Tosfot

The Tosfot created for us an opening to see Tavi in a new light, not just as a good slave, but rather as a slave who is a real “oved Hashem”, thirsty for mitzvot and Torah. We will continue to examine a number of additional sources which describe a figure who not only loves Torah, but is a real talmid chacham! The next stage in our learning will be done with the help of a commentator on the Yerushalmi, the עלי תמר, who sends us to a number of fascinating sugiyot which take us one step further in our getting to know Tavi. 

The Yerushalmi describes Tavi putting on tefillin and learning Torah. If we look at the Bavli Gittin and Yerushalmi Ketubot, we will see that a slave who puts on tefillin and learns Torah is extremely out of the ordinary. 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת גיטין דף מ עמוד א

א”ר יהושע בן לוי: עבד שהניח תפילין בפני רבו – יצא לחירות. מיתיבי: לוה הימנו רבו, או שעשאו רבו אפוטרופוס, או שהניח תפילין בפני רבו, או שקרא שלשה פסוקים בבהכ”נ בפני רבו – ה”ז לא יצא לחירות! אמר רבה בר רב שילא: כשרבו הניח לו תפילין.

The gemara in Gittin raises a contradiction between a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and a braita. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that a slave who puts on tefillin goes free, yet the braita says that he doesn’t. The gemara solves the contradiction and says that if the master put the tefillin on the slave, this is an action that shows that he is setting him free. However, a slave who puts on tefillin out of his own initiative doesn’t go free. This gemara demonstrates that a slave who puts on tefillin can look like a free person! Putting on tefillin has more of a dramatic significance than sitting in the sukkah. A slave whose master sits him in the sukkah does not go free, yet a master who puts tefillin on his slave sets him free. Tefillin is a mitzvah that is also a symbol. What about learning Torah? We will examine the Yerushalmi in Ketubot:

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת כתובות פרק ב הלכה י

מסייעא לההיא דמר רבי חמא בר עוקבה בשם רבי יוסי בר חנינה אסור לאדם ללמד את עבדו תורה לא כן א”ר זעירא בשם רב ירמיה העבד עולה משבעה קרייות וידבר עולה מג’ פסוקים תיפתר שלמד מאיליו או שלמדו רבו כטבי.

Mar Ukva brings a statement of Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Chanina who prohibits a rabbi from teaching his slave Torah! The gemara challenges this statement with the words of Rabbi Yirmiya, who says that a slave can be called up to the Torah. The gemara answers that there isn’t really a contradiction – a slave can learn Torah if he learns himself, or if he is like Tavi, who was taught by Rabban Gamliel. From this Yerushalmi, we learn that learning Torah is also different from sitting in the sukkah. Learning Torah and putting on tefillin are similar mitzvot in that they both belong to the world of free people. The slave can only perform them out of his own initiative, and if his master initiates it, he has either set him free or transgressed a prohibition. 

In light of these gemarot, we will go back and examine the character of Tavi. Tavi is not just a “kosher” slave who is interested in the mitzvah of sukkah. He is a slave who puts on tefillin and learns Torah! More than this, according to the Yerushalmi in Ketubot, Tavi didn’t only learn out of his own initiative, but Rabban Gamliel also actively taught him. Through this we have understood more and more how Tavi was really exceptional. The Yerushalmi in Ketubot has left us with a riddle – why could Rabban Gamliel actively teach Tavi and not be considered to have transgressed the prohibition? In order to solve this riddle, in the footsteps of the עלי תמר, we will look in Masechet Yoma and in the Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף פז עמוד א

אשריהם לצדיקים, לא דיין שהן זוכין אלא שמזכין לבניהם ולבני בניהם עד סוף כל הדורות. שכמה בנים היו לו לאהרן שראויין לישרף כנדב ואביהוא, שנאמר הנותרים אלא שעמד להם זכות אביהם. אוי להם לרשעים, לא דיין שמחייבין עצמן אלא שמחייבין לבניהם ולבני בניהם עד סוף כל הדורות. הרבה בנים היו לו לכנען שראויין ליסמך, כטבי, עבדו של רבן גמליאל, אלא שחובת אביהם גרמה להן.

The gemara in Yoma claims that Tavi was worthy of being appointed to the Sanhedrin, but the sin of Cham prevented this from happening. Here, Tavi isn’t just described as a slave who knows basic halachot, and also not as a slave who only loves Torah and mitzvot, rather as a slave who was worthy of being appointed to the Sanhedrin! In order to understand the power of this formulation on Yoma, we will turn to the Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin, who describes what is required for a person to be considered worthy of being appointed to the Sanhedrin, and through this, we will understand what kind of a person Tavi was. 

רמב”ם הלכות סנהדרין פרק ד

ויש להן למנות כל מי שירצו לדברים יחידים, והוא שיהיה ראוי לכל הדברים, כיצד חכם מופלא שראוי להורות לכל התורה כולה

The Rambam says that in order to merit being appointed to the Sanhedrin even in one halachic area, he needs to be an outstanding chacham who is able to teach the entire Torah. 

In light of these gemarot, we will return to the words of Rabban Gamliel and will suggest the following reading: when Rabban Gamliel says that Tavi is a talmid chacham, he means this in the fullest sense of the term. Tavi was worthy of being appointed to the Sanhedrin, he was practically a free person, he learned Torah in the fullest way, and put on tefillin. This reading leaves us with one large question – why did he not go free? Discussion of this question is beyond the scope of this shiur and so we will leave it open, but will summarize what we have seen. 


Rabban Gamliel’s praise of Tavi, his slave, can be read in different ways. We saw two tones in the rishonim, and another tone in the acharonim in the interpretation of the עלי תמר who based his reading on other gemarot in the Bavli and Yerushalmi, and on the Rambam. 

  1. Rashi read Rabban Gamliel’s words in a joking tone. He did not mean to say that Tavi was really a talmid chacham in the real sense of the term, and this fits with the wording on Daf 21 which describes Rabban Gamliel speaking in the context of regular conversation. 
  2. Tosfot sent us to the parallel Yerushalmi where Tavi is described as putting on tefillin and searching for conversations and teachings of the talmidei chachamim. According to Tosfot he was a “kosher slave”, meaning that calling him a talmid chacham was something serious and not a joke. It is a description of a person who is yearning and who searches for mitzvot and Torah beyond his obligation. 
  3. The עלי תמר sent us to a number of additional sources which emphasize that putting on tefillin and learning Torah are not just signs of a “kosher” person when a slave does them, rather they symbolize that the slave is practically free. Furthermore, we saw that Tavi was not just a talmid chacham in the sense of a person who learns well and longs for this, rather that he could have been one of the chachamim of the Sanhedrin had he not been a slave! We were left with the question of why he did not go free, and this is where we stopped. 

We have therefore seen that the character of Tavi is one that is full of wonders and surprises. At first glance we saw a slave who stood out among slaves and at the end, saw in front of us a chacham from the chachamim of the Sanhedrin – almost. 

(Translated by Daphna Ansel-Nizan)



(1) Rabbi Yissachar Tamar was born in Poland in 1896. He learned in yeshivot in Poland and Galicia, and when the first world war broke out, he moved to Germany and England, where he acted as Rabbi in many communities. In 1933 he moved to Eretz Yisrael and was a rabbi in Tel Aviv. From childhood he loved the Yerushalmi and over the years wrote notes and many perushim on it which were compiled into an extensive commentary called “עלי תמר”. This is not a sequential commentary, rather a wide collection of comments of all kinds – למדני, halachic, historical, linguistic, and academic, in the order of the dapim of all of the mashechtot of the Yerushalmi. His son in law, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Rabinovitz compiled the book. Rabbi Tamar died in 1982. The first volume of עלי תמר was published during his lifetime, in 1979, and six other volumes were published after his death. The perush on Zeraim, Moed, and Nashim were put into the Responsa Project of Bar Ilan University, from where this biography was taken. 

Rabbanit Yael Shimoni

Rabbanit Shimoni has learned at Migdal Oz, Matan, and the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She holds a BFA from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and a BEd in Torah Shebe’al Peh and Jewish Thought from Herzog College. She is currently studying towards an MA in Jewish Thought Education at Herzog College. Rabbanit Shimoni taught gemara and halakha at Pelech High School and served as a ramit for shana bet at Migdal Oz. She directs Meshivat Nefesh, the online responsa program of the rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel. She is also a plastic artist and member of “A Studio of Her Own.
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