Talmudic pages

Beitzah 37

When general principles don't cut it.

The sugya we’ll explore today, about grazing animals on Shabbat and festivals, is not as widely applicable today as it was 2,000 years ago, but it offers significant insight into rabbinic reasoning.

We have already learned (Eruvin 38, for example) that it is prohibited to travel more than 2,000 cubits outside of a settlement on Shabbat and festivals. The mishnah on today’s daf extends this rule to animals:

The status of animals and vessels on festivals is as the feet of their owner.

This means that it is prohibited for one’s animals or objects to travel more than 2,000 cubits as well. So far so good — after all, if you are watching your sheep, the mishnah doesn’t want you to have to go chase them outside the limit on Shabbat and festivals.

But what if you’ve asked someone else to watch your sheep on Shabbat and festivals? How far can they travel under that person’s care? The mishnah continues:

One who delivers his animal to his son or to a shepherdthey are as the feet of the owner.

Even under the care of a son or shepherd, the animals are like an extension of the owner’s feet — and they can travel no farther than the owner himself.

The anonymous voice of the Gemara questions this teaching, pointing out that a beraita, another early teaching, in the name of Rabbi Dosa (and some say Abba Shaul) appears to teach the exact opposite:

And one who delivers his animal to a shepherd, even if he did not deliver it to him until the festival itselfit is as the feet of the shepherd.

In this teaching, the animal is an extension of the shepherd’s feet — not the owner’s. So what are we to make of this apparent contradiction? 

The Gemara offers two resolutions. The first insists that each teaching applies to a specific and distinct situation so there is actually no contradiction at all! The beraita applies to the case where there are two or more shepherds in town, and the mishnah to the case where there is only one potential sheep babysitter. If there is only one shepherd in town, then the animal’s owner knows with certainty to whom they are going to deliver the animal. From the very beginning, they have in mind that the animal will be attached to the shepherd and that its range of motion will be calculated according to that of the shepherd. But if there is more than one shepherd it is not necessarily certain ahead of time which shepherd would ultimately be watching the sheep, in which case its range of motion is calculated according to the owner.

This is a clever solution — honoring both sources and harmonizing them to show there is no true conflict. But over the course of its discussion, the Gemara also offers another attempted resolution — one which argues that there is in fact a conflict between the mishnah and the beraita and picks a winner:

Rabba bar bar Hana said that Rabbi Yohanan said: The halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Dosa (i.e. the beraita).

Rabba bar bar Hana taught in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that the beraita, which makes the animal an extension of the shepherd’s feet, and not its owner’s, is the winner. This statement, however, is immediately challenged:

And did Rabbi Yohanan actually say this? But didn’t Rabbi Yohanan state a general principle that the halakhah always follows an unattributed statement in a mishnah (as we have in the mishnah under discussion)? And we learned in the mishnah: Animals and vessels are as the feet of the owner.

Rabba bar bar Hana teaches that Rabbi Yohanan adjudicated between these two sources and chose the beraita. But, the Gemara argues back, we also know that Rabbi Yohanan always follows the halakhah without attribution in the mishnah (which is assumed to be the opinion of the sages). For this reason, we would expect Rabbi Yohanan to follow the mishnah. 

Ultimately, we don’t need to decide which side Rabbi Yohanan chose, because the Gemara returns to its original resolution: The mishnah is talking about a settlement with more than one shepherd, while the beraita applies to a settlement that has only one. 

Though what Rabbi Yohanan has to say, one way or another, is not part of the Gemara’s solution on this issue, let’s pause and consider  his interest in creating general principles to determine the winners of rabbinic disputes. His idea that we should always follow the anonymous opinion in the mishnah is a good one, but runs into trouble when his own ruling appears to conflict with it. 

The sheer number of opinions and disputes in the Talmud can be overwhelming. It makes sense that ancient rabbis and modern readers would want to determine general principles to help us navigate these texts. Today’s daf reminds us, however, that general principles are no substitute for a careful and close reading of the text itself. Such a significant and complex project as determining Jewish law requires a degree of nuance and flexibility that blunt general rulings cannot always provide.

Read all of Beitzah 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 7th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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