The Bearers of Tradition

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"To teach that if the fathers of the world [i.e., Hillel and Shammai] did not stand by their own opinions where there was an authentic tradition, how much the more so should an average person not [stubbornly] maintain his position where there is an authentic tradition."

Although the traditionalist clearly prefers it when the character and integrity of the transmitter is unimpeachable, it is clear that, according to the traditionalist, neither personal status nor breadth of learning are more important than passing along that which one has learned correctly and accurately.

The leading traditionalist in Talmudic legend, however, was R. Eliezer b. Hyrkanus. For R. Eliezer, the problem was not simply maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the tradition in light of logical arguments or arguments based on midrashic interpretations. Several of the narratives involving R. Eliezer include conflicts over the use of a vote by the sages. When R. Eliezer's student R. Yossi reported that a law about supporting the poor was determined by a majority vote, R. Eliezer's fury blinded R. Yossi; then he told Yossi to return to the assembled rabbis and throw out the vote:

For I have received [this halakhah] from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and him from his teacher, [all the way back] to a law [received] by Moses on Sinai (Talmud Bavli Hagigah 3b).

The point of the story is made that much clearer by the detail that the majority's vote came to the same conclusion as R. Eliezer's received tradition. The traditionalist does not argue that logic or midrash may not come up with the correct interpretation, but that they are unreliable. Even more important, relying on them distracts the sage from his one true and authentic role--being a reliable vessel for the body of Oral Torah that one has learned and mastered.

According to the legends of the sages of the city Yavneh, R. Eliezer is ultimately excommunicated from the community of rabbis after a conflict over what is essentially a referendum on the legitimacy of creative and innovative interpretation and the use of the majority rule (the story of Oven of Akhnai, Talmud Bavli Baba Metzia 59b). At the end of his life, however, Eliezer recognized that his efforts to transmit the complete tradition accurately was doomed to failure. Upon his deathbed, the story is told that the sages who had excommunicated him came to visit:

"They kept asking him about the law of ritual purity and impurity and ritual immersion pools. They would ask him, 'Rabbi, what about this?' and he would reply, 'It is pure.' 'What about that?' And he would reply, 'It is pure.' And he continued to reply 'impure' for the impure and 'pure' for the pure.

Now after that, Rabbi Eliezer said to the Sages: 'I fear for the students of this generation, that they will be punished by death from Heaven.'

'Rabbi,' they asked him, 'what for?'

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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.