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Mishnah Man

鈥淩ami bar 岣ma said [about Rav Sheshet鈥檚 objection]: This is the great man and this is his refutation of Rav鈥檚 opinion; [i.e., this refutation is compelling.] Rava said in response: I see that he is a great man, but I do not see the conclusive refutation.鈥 (Bava Metzia 16a)

Rami bar Hama and Rava disagree about whether Rav Sheshet brings a compelling challenge to Rav鈥檚 opinion, but on one thing they do not disagree: that he is a 讙讘专讗, a great man, or as we would say in Hebrew today 讗讬讝讛 讙讘专! What do we know about Rav Sheshet?

Rav Sheshet was a Babylonian amora of the third generation (early fourth century CE). He lived in a few different areas of great yeshivot and scholars in Babylonia: Nehardea and Mahoza as well as Shilchi, a less well-known town on the Tigris. His main teacher was Rav Huna. Although he never attained the position of Rosh Yeshiva, he was highly respected and taught most of the amoraim of the fourth generation: Rava, Rami bar Hama, Rav Amram and more. He was respected by the wealthy as well and we find him dining at the Exilarch鈥檚 household on a number of occasions. However, because he was so careful of halacha, and criticized the Exilarch鈥檚 lax servants, he was disliked by them and they tried to harm him (Gittin 67-68).

Rav Sheshet was a contemporary of many of the Babylonian greats. In disputes with his fellow rabbi, Rav Nahman, we rule according to him in matters of what is forbidden and permitted, but according to Rav Nahman, known as an expert in monetary law, in money matters. Of all his fellow rabbis, Rav Sheshet鈥檚 soul mate was Rav Hisda (see here https://hadran.org.il/author-post/daddys-girl/). They had a mutual admiration of each other as we see in this beautiful passage:

鈥渨hen Rav 岣sda and Rav Sheshet would meet each other, Rav 岣sda鈥檚 lips would tremble from the Mishnah teachings of Rav Sheshet. Rav Sheshet鈥檚 entire body would shake from Rav 岣sda鈥檚 sharpness鈥 (Eruvin 67a)

They would travel together (Berachot 30a) and Rav Sheshet followed his colleague鈥檚 lead in standing still while reciting the traveler鈥檚 prayer, even though he did not think it was necessary. Not only did they admire and respect each other, they understood that each one鈥檚 learning enriched the other:

鈥淭wo Torah scholars who hone each other鈥檚 intellect in halakhic discourse join together and are considered three. Rav 岣sda said For example, me and Rav Sheshet. Similarly, Rav Sheshet pointed: For example, me and Rav 岣sda.鈥(Berachot 47b)

While Rav Sheshet had many insightful rulings, he was best known as a great repository of Tannaitic knowledge. As we saw before, Rav Hisda was awed by his knowledge of the Mishnah. Rav Sheshet often prefaces his opinions and rulings by saying we learn it from the Mishnah or from the Baraita. This made him an extremely important and authoritative source, similar to his much earlier counterpart, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (see here 聽https://hadran.org.il/author-post/tradition-tradition/聽鈥). He retained this great store of knowledge by constant review. The Gemara in Pesachim relates that he would review everything he had learned every thirty days and this would fill him with joy:

鈥淩av Sheshet would review his studies every thirty days and he would stand and lean against the bolt of the door and say: Rejoice my soul, rejoice my soul, for you I have read, for you I have studied.鈥 聽(Pesachim 68b)

His devotion to the Mishnah was so strong that even when the congregation was hearing the Torah reading in synagogue, he would turn away and study the Mishnah (Berachot 8a). When questioned about this behavior, he answered 鈥渨e are occupied with ours (the Oral Law) and they are occupied with theirs (the Written Law).鈥

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Rav Sheshet鈥檚 life was that he was blind. His prodigious knowledge of the Mishnah was all stored in his head, with no notes to consult. Perhaps this is why he placed so much emphasis on the Oral, as opposed to the Written Torah. We have a fascinating conversation between him and Rav Yosef, another blind amora, about why a blind man cannot be relied upon to deliver a get:

鈥淏ut why isn鈥檛 a blind person qualified to bring a bill of divorce? Rav Sheshet says: Because he does not know from whom he takes it and to whom he gives it, Rav Yosef objects to this: [If there is a concern that a blind person cannot distinguish between different people,] then how is a blind man permitted to have sexual relations with his wife? how are all people permitted to have sexual relations with their wives at night? Rather, you must say that they are permitted through voice recognition.鈥 (Gittin 23a)

While they are each in the same position, they view their capabilities differently. Although Rav Sheshet may have seen being blind as an impediment in certain respects, in others he understood that his intellect and heightened senses compensated for his lack of sight. This is beautifully illustrated when he has the last word in an encounter with a boorish man who mocks his blindness:

鈥淓veryone was going to greet the king and Rav Sheshet stood up and went along with them. This heretic found him there and said to him: The intact jugs go to the river, where do the broken jugs go? [Why is a blind person going to see the king?] Rav Sheshet said to him: Come see that I know more than you do. The first troop passed, and when the noise grew louder, this heretic said to him: The king is coming. Rav Sheshet said to him: The king is not coming. The second troop passed, and when the noise grew louder, this heretic said to him: Now the king is coming. Rav Sheshet said to him: The king is not coming. The third troop passed, and when there was silence, Rav Sheshet said to him: Certainly now the king is coming. This heretic said to him: How do you know this? Rav Sheshet said to him: Royalty on earth is like royalty in the heavens, as it is written with regard to God鈥檚 revelation to Elijah the Prophet on Mount Horeb: 鈥淎nd He said: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind ;and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.鈥 (Berachot 58a)

Blind, but more perceptive than those who saw, Rav Sheshet was truly a great man.

Sodabottle, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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