Bava Metzia 85

The power of potential.

Today’s daf offers us a rich set of stories about the greatness of the sages. Each of these stories deserves its own discussion, but in the interest of space, we’ll focus on just one:

Rabbi (Rabbi Judah HaNasi) arrived at the place of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. He said to the locals: “Does that righteous person have a son?” They said to him: “He has a son, and any prostitute who hires herself for two coins hires him for eight.” 

Apparently, the grandson of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the renowned mystic and critic of Rome, was a very in-demand sex worker — which the rabbis certainly would have thought was a bad thing. So what does Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi do? 

He brought him back with him, ordained him as a rabbi, and gave him over to Rabbi Shimon ben Isi ben Lakonya, the brother of his mother.

We don’t know how old Rabbi Elazar’s son was, but apparently Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi had the political authority (or enough henchmen to physically enforce his will) to take possession of him. But what he does next is even more remarkable: He first ordains the boy a rabbi, and then gives him to the boy’s uncle to raise.

I’ve tried to find an academic history of rabbinic semicha, ordination, in antiquity, but have been unsuccessful. Today, we think of rabbinic ordination as something that happens after years of study, but Rabbi. Yehudah HaNasi ordains Rabbi Elazar’s son as a relatively young person who has spent the majority of his life, well, not studying Torah but engaged in other kinds of work. Whether Rabbi Yehuda was ordaining him based on his perceived potential, or semicha functioned differently in the ancient world than it does today, we learn that this transition was difficult for Rabbi Elazar’s son:

Each day, he would say: “I am going back to my town.” 

His uncle said to him: “You have been made wise, and a golden cloak has been spread over you, and you are called rabbi, and you say: ‘I am going back to my town?” 

He said to him: “I vow this (thought of leaving) is abandoned.” 

When he expresses his homesickness, the boy’s uncle reminds him of all the privileges that he has been given in his new life. So he stays with his uncle, and buckles down to study Torah. And in time, Rabbi Yehudah is given the opportunity to see the fruits of his efforts on behalf of this young man:

When he matured, he came and sat in the academy of Rabbi. Rabbi heard his voice and said: “This voice is similar to the voice of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon.” They said to him: “It is his son.”

The nameless son of Rabbi Elazar grows into his title and returns to face Rabbi Yehudah, who immediately hears an echo of his learned father’s voice. And now, for the first time, the Talmud names this son: 

Rabbi read about him: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that is wise wins souls. (Proverbs 11:30). The fruit of the righteous — this is Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon.”

This is a strange and fascinating story on numerous levels. First, we have Rabbi Elazar, who was himself raised by a great scholar and ascetic (and who, famously, spent much of his childhood studying Torah while hidden in a cave), but who has reared a son who, in his youth, appears profoundly the opposite. In order for the boy to become like his father, he must first be taken by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and then raised by his uncle instead. And yet, these displacements lead him back to his own father’s career and values. Parenthood is complicated. 

Second, this story challenges our understanding of who is worthy of being a rabbi. At the time of his ordination, the boy has done nothing to merit the title rabbi. And yet Rabbi Yehudah’s belief in the boy’s potential is realized and he grows to become known in Israel as Rabbi Yosei ben Rabbi Elazar, a sage in his own right. 

Ultimately, these complexities leave us with more questions than answers: What does it mean to offer the children of righteous people opportunities that others may not be given? To recognize the potential in others? To see the privileges we have and use our potential to contribute to our societies?

Read all of Bava Metzia 85 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 23rd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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