Bava Batra 3

On repentance.

On today’s daf, we find the following teaching: 

Rav Hisda says: A person may not demolish a synagogue until he builds another synagogue.

The logic behind this teaching seems straightforward enough. What if the demolisher ultimately fails to build the new synagogue? And even if he does, where are people to pray in the interim? But there’s a problem. 

How could Bava ben Buta have advised Herod to demolish the Temple? Didn’t Rav Hisda say, “A person may not demolish a synagogue until he builds another synagogue”?!

The Gemara then relates the story to which it refers. We learn that Herod, the Roman Jewish king who rebuilt the Second Temple, was a slave who from the very beginning was concerned about his legitimacy. So he seeks to marry the last living member of the previous royal family, but she refuses. Instead, she climbs to the roof, announces that anyone henceforth claiming to be a Hasmonean is in reality the offspring of a slave, and then falls to her death. 

Herod then realizes that the sages too could delegitimize him, as they don’t allow an emancipated slave to become king. So he kills all the sages except for Bava ben Buta, with whom he wants to take counsel. After blinding him with a crown of porcupine hide (as we will learn on tomorrow’s daf), he tries to goad Bava ben Buta into cursing him, which Bava ben Buta wisely avoids. Realizing that he has made a grave error in killing all the sages, he turns to Bava ben Buta for advice: What can he do to repent? Bava ben Buta replies that because he “extinguished the light of the world” by killing the sages, he should repent by “occupying himself with the light of the world” — i.e., the Temple. But Herod is concerned that the Roman authorities won’t permit him to make any changes to the Temple, so Bava ben Buta advises him to send a messenger to Rome to get approval. In the meantime, though, he can destroy the old Temple and then rebuild it. 

Bava ben Buta appears in two early sources. In one (Tosefta Chagigah 2:6), we learn that he is a student of Beit Shammai, but knowing that the law normally follows Beit Hillel, he makes sure this is the way the law is set even though that runs counter to the tradition he inherited from his teachers. In the second (Tosefta Keritot 4:4), Bava ben Buta is said to offer each day an asham taluy — an offering brought if one thinks they have sinned but isn’t sure — except for the day after Yom Kippur because he knew he was free of sin immediately after the Day of Atonement. These sources paint a portrait of a pious man who is humble beyond measure. He is a model community member, fighting for what he knows is correct, abdicating partisan fights, and keeping himself from even the possibility of sinful behavior. Though we cannot all be like Bava ben Buta, he allows us a glimpse of an ideal world, much in the way the Gemara itself aims to teach us how to build a community in the best way possible. Thus it is Bava ben Buta that offers advice on (re)building the Temple as a form of repentance — which is, after all, what the Temple provides for worshippers. 

But we must ask: Can anyone truly rewrite their story? The Talmud’s telling of Herod’s story repeatedly uses forms of the word hadar (return), but can one really go back? Herod’s very question of how to repent indicates that one can, in fact, go back to an earlier state before a decision was made. 

The contrast between the story of Bava ben Buta and the king heightens this question about repentance and change. Herod is dogged his entire career with the specter of having been a slave, much as he tries to get rid of it. Bava ben Buta, who was a leader among his people, comes to serve the king, though he continues to wear a crown of sorts. When one repents, how deep does that change go? And even if one tries to rewrite one’s story, how does the past inform the present and future?  

Rabbeinu Yonah, a 13th-century Catalan scholar, holds the Herod story up as a paradigm for repentance. But even if one accepts this claim, we are still left with the question of how we deal with the consequences of past mistakes. Repentance doesn’t wipe out the past, nor does it bring us back to a time before the problematic action occurred — in this case, the killing of scores of Torah scholars. The question is how to go forward in the context of a community that has been changed.

Read all of Bava Batra 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 28, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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