Valuing Debate and Conversation

Jewish tradition, informed by the precedent of the Talmud, prefers to promote discussion rather than correctness.

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As a student, I never understood why my teachers would sometimes let students (including myself) go on and on expressing ideas which were clearly incorrect. As a teacher, I’ve learned that the days of “Teaching is talking and learning is listening” are over; a progressive teacher understands that “Teaching is listening and learning is talking.”  How happy I was to realize that the underlying message of much of the Talmud aligns perfectly with “progressive teaching.”  The surprising conclusion of the Talmud forces a re-evaluation of the place of open discussion in Judaism.

In the years following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the sages who convened around the coastal town of Yavneh had to determine what aspects of the Temple’s worship could be observed without a Temple. For example, when Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) landed on the Sabbath, should the shofar (ram’s horn) be blown?

The Mishnah (the primary book of Jewish legal opinions and sources) reports:

"When the festival of the New Year occurs on Shabbat, they would blow shofar in the Temple but not in the outlying areas. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they would blow in every place in which there is a Rabbinic court." (Rosh Hashanah 4:1)

The first statement of the Mishnah is puzzling. If blowing shofar is melakhah (the category of work forbidden on the Sabbath), then why is it not forbidden inside the Temple? And if blowing shofar is not melakhah, why would it be forbidden outside of the Temple? Clearly, any solution to this problem will need some other kind of understanding of blowing shofar.

Nevertheless, the Gemara (the commentary/interpretation of the Mishnah by the sages of the 3rd-6th centuries CE) continues:

"From where in the Torah does this law come?  Said R. Levi bar Lachma said R. Hama bar Haninah:  One verse says "a day of complete rest commemorated with the blowing of the shofar"(Leviticus 23:24), and one verse says "it will be for you a day of blowing the shofar"(Numbers 29:1).  There is no problem.  The [first] one is when the festival occurs on Shabbat.  The [second] one is when the festival occurs on a weekday" (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29b).

The Gemara asks a typical question: What is the biblical basis for the law that one does not blow the shofar on Shabbat outside of the Temple? R. Hama bar Haninah is quoted, providing a clever reading of the Torah. Since the rabbis assume that the Torah is perfect, and perfection implies that no words are wasted, the two verses quoted above from Leviticus and Numbers, which appear to say the same thing, cannot, indeed, be saying the same thing. According to Hama bar Haninah, the verse from Leviticus which uses the language שבתון זכרון תרועה--shabbaton zikhron teru’ah (a day of complete rest commemorated with the blowing of the shofar)--should be understood as “on the Shabbat, a remembrance of the blowing,” or as Rashi explains, “and not a real blowing; rather, they recite verses about the blowing of shofar.” This is a very clever reading of the verse from Leviticus.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.