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No Respect?

In the midst of the complex halachic dialogue on these pages of Yevamot, we get a suggestion by Levi about adding a sixteenth woman to the list of fifteen women forbidden to marry a yavam. The details of the case are complicated and we will not go into them here. But what stands out is Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi鈥檚 (AKA Rebbe) very sharp response to Levi鈥檚 suggestion:

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said to him: [Judging by his question,] it seems to me that this Sage has no brain in his head鈥 (Yevamot 9a)

The rabbis of the Gemara are hardly the most politically correct creatures. Their many and varied putdowns rival Shakespeare and Rodney Dangerfield. But Levi is not a nobody or an ignoramus and he has a long and significant relationship with Rebbe. To compound the insult, we hear it again in another halachic discussion in Menachot 81a, the same language exactly. What is the relationship between Levi and Rebbe and why is it so fraught?

Levi, or as he is known in the Yerushalmi, Levi ben Sisi, was one of the students that surrounded Rebbe. This generation of illustrious scholars included people like Rebbe鈥檚 sons, Shimon and Gamliel, as well as other teachers like Hanina, Efes and Bar Kapra. There are even two Babylonians who join Rebbe鈥檚 circle for a while, Rabbi Hiyya and his nephew Rav. These men are considered the 讚讜专 讛诪注讘专, the transitional generation. They are the last of the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishnah, and the first of the Amoraim, the rabbis of the Gemara. As such, while they help Rebbe compile the Mishnah, what becomes the authoritative collection of laws and teachings that the Gemara will be based on, many of them also have their own collection of teachings, not all of which agree with the 鈥渙fficial鈥 Mishnah. We know that Rabbi Hiyya and Bar Kapra have their own 鈥淢ishnah,鈥 as does Levi, and that is why he is poised to argue with Rebbe 鈥 he has a different tradition in his own compilation and he wants to retain it.

A depiction of the Mishnah in a stained glass window (Ilana Shkolnik, Wikipedia)

While these men are all students of Rebbe and look to him as the greatest of their generation, they are hardly shrinking violets. Each one is a giant in his own right and that is why Rebbe gathers them, teaches them and is challenged by them as he compiles his monumental work, the Mishnah. Not only does this group influence scholarship in the Land of Israel, but through Rabbi Hiyya and Rav and eventually Levi, they also help enhance the Torah study of that upstart, Babylonia.

Levi appears numerous times in the Gemara. He is described as one of the primary students of Rebbe 诇诪讚讬谉 诇驻谞讬 讞讘诪讬谉: 诇讜讬 诪专讘讬 (Sanhedrin 17b) and often brings Rebbe鈥檚 teachings as well as his own approach. He was also a righteous man who pleaded before God for rain. At some point in his adult life he became lame, whether as punishment for being too familiar with God (Taanit 25a) or because he attempted to show Rebbe an acrobatic bow and failed (Sukkah 53).

Rebbe had great faith in Levi鈥檚 abilities and sent him to be the rabbi of a town in the Galilee called Simonia. As the story is told in both the Yerushalmi (Yevamot) and in Bereshit Rabba, Rebbe assures the townspeople that he is sending them the best of the best. But when Levi arrives and sees the great honor that the town has for him, he gets stage fright and is tongue tied. He cannot answer questions that he should have known very well. The people of Simonia go to Rebbe to complain but Rebbe backs up his student 鈥 I sent you a man like me! When Rebbe quizzes Levi on what happened he understands that it was just a failure of nerve and that Levi really is capable of answering the questions put to him.

The theater at Zippori, Rebbe’s home at the end of his life (Carole Raddato, Wikipedia)

The connections between Levi and Rebbe from this story seem obvious. Rebbe is a supportive leader and Levi is a bright, if somewhat nervous, follower. So why the acrimony displayed in Yevamot? Despite the holiness of Rebbe and his students, there are also power plays at work in Rebbe鈥檚 court, among his students and between his students and his family, who are also students. A great story in Avoda Zara illustrates this. Rebbe finished teaching one book and asked to bring another. Levi suggested Proverbs, Shimon (Rebbe鈥檚 son) suggested Psalms. Shimon prevailed but Levi had the last word:

鈥淲hen they arrived at the verse: 鈥淏ut his delight is in the Torah of the Lord,鈥 Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi explained the verse and said: A person can learn Torah only from a place in the Torah that his heart desires. Levi said: My teacher, you have given us,[ i.e., me,] permission to rise鈥 [and leave, as I wish to study Proverbs, not Psalms] (Avoda Zara 19a)

Levi is saying, you Shimon may be more influential with your father, but I am independent enough to choose to learn only what 鈥漨y heart desires.鈥

The power struggles reached their apex at Rebbe鈥檚 death. In the famous deathbed scene recorded in Ketubot 103, Rebbe appointed his two sons, Gamliel and Shimon, as Nasi and Hakham respectively, and Hanina as the head of the yeshiva. When Levi questions one of these appointments Shimon attacks him and mocks his disability. Meanwhile Hanina won鈥檛 take the position and gives it to Efes, who was older than him. Between all these power plays, Levi eventually left Rebbe鈥檚 circle and went down to Babylonia. He befriended Shmuel鈥檚 father and even studied with him in the ancient synagogue of Shef VeYativ in Nehardea (Megillah 29). Levi lived out his life in Nehardea and died there, although the traditional site of his grave is in Sasa, on the northern border of Israel.

Rebbe’s grave in Bet Shearim (Davidbena, Wikipedia)

So is Levi cowed by his great surroundings and hounded into leaving? Or does he display an independence that brings him to teach Torah to a wider audience? I think the answer is the latter, based on Levi鈥檚 stubborn adherence to his own teachings. We see it here in Yevamot as well. After being insulted by Rebbe and given all of Rebbe鈥檚 proofs why his sixteenth woman should not be included in the list, 讘讚拽讛 诇讜讬 讘诪转谞讬转讬讛 Levi kept his version of halacha in his compilation of Mishnayot. (Yevamot 10a)

Levi is a good example of the benefits and pitfalls of being part of something great. How do you follow and learn from those around and above you while still growing as an individual and retaining your independence? A question not only for Levi but for anyone lucky enough to be the student of a master teacher.

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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