Valuing Debate and Conversation

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

Print this page Print this page

Basically, R. Hama bar Haninah’s approach is that, based on a midrash on the Torah, blowing shofar is permitted on weekdays, but forbidden on the Sabbath. But, as the Gemara asks next:

“Said Rava:  If it [i.e. the prohibition to blow shofar on shabbat] is based on the Torah, how did we blow shofar in the Temple?…” 

Of course we knew this. At our first look at the Mishnah, we knew that any approach that argued that blowing shofar was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath would not explain the Mishnah; if shofar-blowing is forbidden on the Sabbath, how were they permitted to blow shofar in the Temple. As clever as R. Hama bar Hanina’s reading is, it is inadequate to the task of explaining the Mishnah. So why did the Gemara even include his midrash if it was so plainly and obviously incorrect?

The answer to this question reveals one of the underlying truths of rabbinic Judaism.  More important than the conclusion is the process. The message of the Gemara is not that a correct understanding is irrelevant, or that there aren’t correct (and incorrect) understandings; to the contrary, careful thinking and evidence-based argument are crucial. But they are not as important as allowing diverse views to be expressed. When we examine and discuss the logic of the Mishnah, we make sure that diverse opinions, divergent opinions, and even clearly false opinions are given voice. To shut off the creativity of a Hama bar Haninah in this case might indicate that all that matters is the final word. To indulge that creativity, even when it is clearly wrong, sets the opposite precedent, and encourages creative thinkers to take intellectual risks for the sake of Torah. If the conversation of Torah she’b’al peh--"Oral Law"--is to proceed, we must foster and encourage our risk-takers.

Rava does end up revealing how the Mishnah makes sense. Rava quotes his teacher Rabbah, who argues that the prohibition against blowing shofar outside of the Temple was a rabbinic prohibition (and not a biblical prohibition, as Hama bar Haninah argued), which simply did not apply to the Temple.

The Talmud now turns to the second part of the Mishnah: “After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they would blow in every place in which there is a Rabbinic court.” The Mishnah’s language “established” is bland and undramatic. The Talmud fills in the details:

"After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established [that they would blow shofar (when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat) in any place in which there was a rabbinic court].  Our rabbis taught: Once, Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat and all of the cities (Rashi comments: around Yavneh) were gathering (Rashi explains this was in order to hear the shofar-blowing from the representatives of the rabbinic court, just as they were used to doing in Jerusalem). Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said to B'nei Beteira: Let's blow shofar.  They said to him:  Let's discuss/vote [first]. He said to them:  Let's blow shofar and afterwards we will vote. After they blew shofar, they said to him: Let's vote.  He said to them: The horn has already been heard in Yavneh and there is no returning after the fact."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.