Talmudic pages

Berakhot 37

Rabban Gamliel does it again.

Today’s daf continues to discuss the particular blessings said over different foods, but it also provides another glimpse of the interpersonal dynamics between the rabbis.

The background to today’s story is a dispute between Rabban Gamliel and the rabbis. This is the same Rabban Gamliel whose aggressive treatment of Rabbi Yehoshua a few pages back temporarily cost him his position as head of the rabbinic court.

In this case, the debate is over which blessing to recite after consuming one of the seven species, the staple foods of ancient Israel that the rabbis considered to have a special spiritual status because of their association with the Holy Land. (The species are wheat, pomegranates, dates, figs, grapes, olives and barley.) Gamliel says you recite the full Grace After Meals after eating any of the species, while the rabbis say you just recite an abridged version (the blessing known today as Al Hamichya).

Then we get a story:

And there was an incident involving Rabban Gamliel and the sages who were sitting in an upper floor in Jericho and they brought dates before them and they ate. Afterward, Rabban Gamliel gave Rabbi Akiva permission to recite the blessing. Rabbi Akiva hurried and recited one blessing abridged from the three blessings of Grace After Meals. Rabban Gamliel said: Akiva, how long will you go on sticking your head into disputes?!

It’s a common Jewish custom that at communal meals, one person recites the blessing after the meal aloud on behalf of everyone. But given what we know about Gamliel, it’s not hard to imagine he was putting Akiva on the spot here, essentially demanding that he declare publicly for one side of the debate. From his choice to abbreviate, it’s clear Akiva sides with the rabbis.

But perhaps mindful of where public disputes with Gamliel can lead, he also doesn’t want to make a scene. The word translated above as “hurried” is קָפַץ (kah-fahtz), which in modern Hebrew means to jump, but can also mean to contract or become small. One modern commentator suggests Akiva literally got up from his place and sat elsewhere in the room, making his presence smaller, so as not to counter Gamliel directly to his face. Whether Akiva’s gesture is one of respect or conflict avoidance isn’t necessarily clear. But true to form, Gamliel won’t let the matter rest, accusing Akiva of butting into the dispute.

As before, Gamliel doesn’t get the final word in the matter. Akiva turns to Gamliel, respectfully, and tells him this:

Our teacher, even though you say this while your colleagues disagree and say that, you taught us, our teacher, the general principle that guides resolution of halakhic [legal] disputes: In a dispute between an individual and the many, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of the many. 

Gamliel might be the head of the court, Akiva reminds him, but he doesn’t get to pull rank. In matters of Jewish law, the consensus opinion carries the day. After all, the head of the court said so.

Read all of Berakhot 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 9, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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