Talmud pages

Beitzah 26

Talmud typo?

Sometimes, when reading the Talmud, something seems out of place. When this happens, the commentators can be helpful — assuming you can find one who addresses your question.

An example of this arises on today’s daf where we read:

Hillel raised a dilemma before Rava: Is there a prohibition of muktzeh for half of Shabbat or is there no prohibition of muktzeh for half of Shabbat?

In other words, can the status of an item change in the middle of Shabbat so that it is set aside (prohibited for use) at the start of Shabbat and then becomes permitted for the rest of Shabbat, or vice versa? Or, does the muktzeh status of an item at the start of Shabbat determine its status for the entire Shabbat?

As I began to ponder this question and the subsequent discussion, I found myself more intrigued by the participants in the conversation than I was by the conversation itself.

Hillel has been a regular personality in Tractate Beitzah. Many of the mishnahs, and the ensuing conversations in the Gemara, have revolved around his disagreements with Shammai, so I was not surprised by his appearance.

But it struck me as odd that he was asking a question of Rava. Hillel is from the earliest generations of Tannaim (mishnaic rabbis) and, while the Talmud reports that he was of Babylonian origin, he rose to prominence in the land of Israel. Rava is also a prominent figure in the Talmud, but he is an Amora (a rabbi mentioned in the Gemara) who lived many centuries later in Babylonia. So, in terms of both time and place, something wasn’t adding up.

True, many of the talmudic dialogues that are presented as dialogues are really the products of the Gemara’s editors rather than actual conversations. However, the editor’s generational awareness should have prevented them putting these two characters into conversation with each other — shouldn’t it? Further, because the Talmud places more authority in earlier generations, even if it were possible for Hillel and Rava to speak, it would be Rava who was asking Hillel the question and not the other way around.

A footnote on the page led me to Hagahot HaBach, the marginal notes of Rabbi Joel Sirkis, a 16th/17th century talmudist who noted corrections that should be made to the printed version of the Talmud which are included in today’s standard editions. According to Sirkis, there’s a simple explanation for the strangeness on today’s page.

Sirkis notes that a word should be added to the text in front of Hillel’s name: Rav. Rav is the rabbinic title given to rabbis in Babylonia. 

In the Talmud, Rav Hillel is not Hillel the Elder (of the first century) but an entirely different person and one of Rava’s students. This means that Rav Hillel and Rava are contemporaries, living together in Babylonia. As the student, there is nothing surprising about Rav Hillel turning to Rava, his teacher, with a question.

It’s easy to see why this mistake might creep into a hand-copied manuscript. Especially in the midst of a text that so often records opinions of Hillel (the Elder), one can see how a copyist would accidentally convert Rav Hillel into simply Hillel.

The Soncino English translation of the Talmud adds the title Rav, following Sirkis, and adds a footnote, perhaps for the confused reader, identifying him as a fourth century Amora.

While translations and footnotes provided clarifying information, to some all this may have been clear from the context. This may be the case for the medieval commentators, who are silent on the matter; or, perhaps the manuscripts in their possession included the word “Rav” which fell out of the text some time later.

According to Modecai Margoliot’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Geonic Literature, there are five Hillels in the Talmud: Hillel the Elder, Rav Hillel from our daf, and three other Rabbi Hillels, Amoraim who all lived in Israel and are also identifies by their patronymic names. He notes that on Gittin 37 and Nazir 44 we will again meet an anonymous Hillel that many think is our Rav Hillel, as opposed to a sixth one.

Read all of Beitzah 26 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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