It would be difficult to overstate the ways in which the Talmud has shaped Jewish tradition. It is the most sacred book outside of the Hebrew Bible and the core of Judaism as we know it today. From our perspective, the sages whose voices fill its pages are towering figures, their names and words carrying authoritative weight for millennia.
But did the sages themselves know this is how it would work out? Did they even dare dream it? In their own day, did they enjoy the reverence that later generations came to ascribe them?
It’s hard to say. In many cases, the sages of the Talmud write and speak with great confidence in their own authority — especially over the priests. They considered themselves fully authorized and equipped to instruct the divinely appointed caretakers of God’s house in the smallest aspects of their jobs. One of the most famous examples of this is the beginning of Tractate Yoma, in which the rabbis describe a Yom Kippur ritual performed by the high priest but completely orchestrated, in every detail, by themselves.
But when it comes to their fellow Jews — regular, ordinary, everyday Jews — sometimes we can sense more hesitation to wield authority. One doesn’t have to read too carefully between the lines of today’s daf to see that some of these ordinary Jews were not entirely receptive to all rabbinic dictates.
The first sugya (halakhic discussion) on today’s page deals with carrying on a festival. It is permitted, as long as it is done in a modified manner to make that carrying experience different from normal weekday schlepping. The mishnah says, for instance, that instead of dumping several jugs of wine into a tub as one ordinarily might on a weekday, it is better to bring the jugs by hand, one or two at a time. Likewise, other examples suggest that shifting a burden from hand to shoulder, or from pitchfork to carrying pole (strung across the shoulders of two people), can accomplish this goal. The point is: Whatever you normally do, do something else. Beyond that, the rabbis don’t seem too fussy.
In fact, we even get this concession: In cases when you can’t reasonably modify the way you carry an object, you may still transport it on the festival. It’s the kind of rabbinic leniency we’ve become accustomed to — a leniency that keeps the halakhah practical and manageable.
By way of example, it is pointed out to Rav Ashi that women who carry water on festivals apparently make no effort to modify the manner in which they carry it. Rav Ashi is not ruffled. In fact, he defends the practice: Switching from a large jug to a small one, or vice versa, could create problems for the woman who is hauling water. In fact, he reasons, it might lead her to violate other halakhot. So we leave her alone.
Here’s another example, this time not about carrying: We are told that the early rabbis decreed that one may not clap, slap a thigh or dance on a festival. But, the Gemara concedes, nowadays many people do it and we don’t say anything to them. We leave them alone.
In fact, this principle is codified explicitly on today’s page, as follows:
Leave the Jews alone, it is better that they be unwitting sinners and not be intentional sinners.
The talmudic rabbis understand that the people will not always go along with the rabbinic ideal of halakhic practice. Women will not concede to carry water for their families in a manner that is too awkward. People will not give up the joy of making music by clapping their hands and slapping their thighs. And trying to make them conform to these rabbinic ideals will not work. In fact, it might backfire. This is why the rabbis say it is better they be “unwitting sinners” — were the rabbis to chide them, they wouldn’t listen anyway, and then they’d be “intentional sinners.”
At first glance, one might read this as a rabbinic weakness. In their own generation, the rabbis were unable to enforce the halakhah. That’s because the people wouldn’t always listen to them. One might think this is an embarrassment for the rabbis.
Or maybe this is the secret to great governance — knowing when to exercise authority, and when to leave the Jews alone.
Read all of Beitzah 30 on Sefaria.