Talmudic pages

Beitzah 27

The matter hangs on great trees.

If two rabbis disagree on the halakhah, who do we follow — and why? Today we’re going to work systematically through a larger chunk of text than we usually do, with an eye to answering that question. It makes for a slightly longer piece, so go ahead and pour yourself a cup of something.

Here’s some background: Firstborn animals of kosher species were sanctified at birth and handed over to a priest to be sacrificed (Exodus 13:12 and 34:20, Numbers 18:15-17, Deuteronomy 12:6). However, if a firstborn animal had a blemish that disqualified it from being offered, it could be redeemed — meaning its monetary value was given to the priest and the animal was then free to be eaten by its owners.

The discussion on today’s page has to do with whether or not one could perform this inspection on — you guessed it — a festival. Rabbi Rabbi Yehuda permitted it, Rabbi Shimon did not. This disagreement between them led to some confusion about what to do if this unlikely situation were ever to arise:

Rabbi Yehuda Nesia had a firstborn animal (that acquired a blemish on a festival, and he wished to serve it to priests staying at his house). He sent it to Rabbi Ami (for inspection) and Rabbi Ami thought that he should not examine it (in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon).

Rabbi Yehuda Nesia has a firstborn animal that he wishes to serve to some visiting priests on a festival, as it is considered sacred meat that only priests can eat. Unfortunately, the animal acquires a blemish on that day that might disqualify it, and so he sends it to an expert inspector to confirm whether or not it is still fit to serve. But Rabbi Ami is reluctant to inspect the animal out of deference for Rabbi Shimon’s view that such inspections should not be carried out on a festival.

Was it necessary for Rabbi Ami to refrain from inspecting? Not according to some of his colleagues:

Rabbi Zerika said to him, and some say it was Rabbi Yirmeya: When there is disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda.

Rabbi Zerika (or perhaps Rabbi Yirmeya) tells Rabbi Ami that no, the halakhah doesn’t follow Rabbi Shimon, but rather Rabbi Yehuda as it always does when the two disagree. (Much as the halakhah generally follows Hillel when he disagrees with Shammai.) Therefore, he should have felt free to examine the animal.

This is the first litmus test for what to do when sages disagree: Determine which sage normally takes priority over the other.

Does this change Rabbi Ami’s mind? Apparently not, because the next we hear is that Rabbi Yehuda Nesia is looking for another inspector for his blemished animal:

Rabbi Yehuda Nesia then sent the firstborn to be presented before Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha, who (likewise) thought that he should not examine it.

It seems that although Rabbi Yehuda normally takes precedence, the idea that Rabbi Shimon’s more stringent opinion is the correct one is fairly widespread, since Rabbi Yitzhak Nappaha also will not inspect the animal. The Gemara once again reports that Rabbi Yirmeya (or maybe it was Rabbi Zerika, we’re still not sure) also told this second inspector that the halakhah follows Rabbi Yehuda, implying he may go ahead with his inspection.

Now the Gemara asks a higher order question: How do we know that Rabbi Yehuda’s opinions are preferred to Rabbi Shimon’s? Rabbi Abba, a new character, poses it to Rabbi Yirmeya, who has now told two reluctant inspectors that Rabbi Yehuda supercedes Rabbi Shimon.

Rabbi Abba said to Rabbi Yirmeya: What is the reason that you did not allow the sages to act in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon?

He said to him: And you, what do you have? 

What do you have? That is: Do you have a teaching that we should follow Rabbi Shimon? Such a teaching, suggests Rabbi Yirmeya, would be a reason to go against our general approach of favoring Rabbi Yehuda. 

This is the second litmus test. If sage A normally overrules sage B, we can determine that sage B actually has the authoritative ruling in a specific case if we have a tradition that says so.

And it turns out that yes, Rabbi Abba does have such a tradition:

Rabbi Abba said to him that Rabbi Zeira said as follows: The halakhah in this case is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon.

This teaching in the name of Rabbi Zeira says that in this specific instance, the halakhah follows Rabbi Shimon. This might have settled the matter. But instead, the Gemara presses further with a story about a skeptical bystander:

A certain person in Babylonia said: May it be his will that I merit to go up there (to the land of Israel) and that I learn this teaching from the mouth of its master.

In other words, this person is not entirely trustful of Rabbi Abba’s report about what Rabbi Zeira said and wants to hear it from Rabbi Zeira himself. Lucky for him, he is able to do so. The Gemara continues:

When he went up there, he found Rabbi Zeira and said to him: Did the master (i.e. you) say that the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon? 

Rabbi Zeira said to him: No, what I said was that it stands to reason.

The skepticism of this anonymous observer is justified! In fact, Rabbi Zeira didn’t say Rabbi Shimon overrules Rabbi Yehuda in this case, he only said it makes sense to follow Rabbi Shimon instead of Rabbi Yehuda. He goes on to explain his reasons:

(I understand this) from the fact that it teaches in the Mishnah that Rabbi Shimon says: Any firstborn animal whose blemish is not perceptible while it is still day is not considered to be among the animals prepared prior to the festival for use on the festival. And a beraita taught the same ruling in the name of the sages (indicating that this is the majority opinion). One should therefore learn from this that it stands to reason that the halakhah is ruled in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon.

Rabbi Zeira doesn’t give a logical argument for why Rabbi Shimon is correct. Instead, he gives a textual argument. Litmus test #3: Look for corroborating textual evidence that will tell us which opinion is favored by the sages. 

The discussion doesn’t stop there, and later down the page Rav Yosef summarizes: “Come and hear, as this matter hangs on great trees” — meaning it was a point of real dispute among the early sages. The later generations vigorously sought to determine who was right with no single method, but by relying on a mix of precedent, named teachings, intuition, interrogation of teachers and textual evidence. 

Read all of Beitzah 27 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 27th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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