Berakhot 28

Miraculous white hair.

Today’s daf opens with the continuation of the story we began yesterday, in which Rabban Gamliel, the head of the rabbinic court, is deposed for publicly humiliating his colleague Rabbi Yehoshua. Today, we move to the fallout from that choice as the rabbis choose a successor.

The rabbis select Elazar ben Azarya because he has three qualities they consider essential. First, he is wise, so he will be able to settle religious disputes. Second, he is rich, so he will be able to pay off the Roman authorities who frequently require bribes. And third, he is a descendent of the prophet Ezra, so he has excellent pedigree.

When the students offer Elazar ben Azarya the job, he goes home to consult his wife, who raises a peculiar objection: He has no white hair. In other words, he lacks the gravitas for the job. But then a miracle happens, and overnight Elazar ben Azarya’s hair turns white, despite the fact that he is only 18 years old. This explains a curious reference to Elazar ben Azarya in the Passover Hagaddah, where he refers to himself “as if I were 70 years old.” In fact, he was a young man, but on account of his appearance, he looked older.

Elazar goes on to democratize access to the study hall, removing the guard at the door and allowing anyone who wants to come learn. According to one source, 400 benches were added to the hall that day. This being the Talmud, even that can’t go without disputation. Another source claims it was 700 benches.

And what became of the Gamliel? Eventually, he decides that Yehoshua was right after all, and begs his forgiveness. The sages decide that Gamliel deserves to be reinstated, but they also don’t want to remove Elazar ben Azaryah on the principle in Jewish law that one only raises something (or in this case, someone) in holiness. Once a yeshiva head, always a yeshiva head.

And so the rabbis settle on a solomonic solution: they will share the post. Gamliel will lecture for three weeks, and Elazar ben Azarya for one.

Read all of Berakhot 28 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 31, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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