Berakhot 43

Saving face.

As we have already seen in several biting stories about Rabban Gamliel (Berakhot 2728, and 37), the Talmud has no illusions that all rabbinic sages are saints. Their failings are recorded as matter-of-factly as their dizzying arguments and righteous deeds. Today, we’ll explore the very human side of Rav Pappa.

We’ve spent a lot of time with Rav Pappa recently. On page 41, he taught that the blessing for bread covers all foods eaten as part of the same meal (except wine). On page 42, he taught that when new food is presented mid-meal, it does not require its own blessing.

Today’s page reveals that though he gave us many gifts, Rav Pappa was not the most brilliant scholar. He was the sort of man whose wealth allowed him to penetrate scholarly ranks, but who did not match other scholars in intellect. His colleagues seem to have been alternately amused and irritated by his penchant for quoting popular proverbs, including one on today’s page:

Hang a heart of palm on a pig, and he will continue to perform his standard activities. 

This seems to be the ancient equivalent of our saying that you can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig.

In addition to favoring vapid aphorisms, Rav Pappa sometimes makes halakhic mistakes. On today’s page, we find a long discussion of the blessings recited over different kinds of incense, including this:

The Sages taught: If they brought before him both scented oil and a myrtle branch, Beit Shammai say: One recites a blessing over the oil first and then over the myrtle branch. And Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing over the myrtle branch first and over the oil after.

Rabban Gamliel said: I decide this dispute in favor of Beit Shammai, one blesses the oil first because it is more significant. Not only do we enjoy the fragrance of oil, but we also anoint ourselves with it. But for myrtle, though we enjoy the fragrance, we do not anoint ourselves with it. 

Rabbi Yohanan said: The halakha is in accordance with the opinion of the decisor, Rabban Gamliel.

Though Hillel usually wins arguments with his arch-opponent, in this case Rabban Gamliel decides in favor of Shammai — and his colleagues support his decision. Whether there is a bit of disdain in Rabbi Yohanan’s tone when he upholds Rabban Gamliel “the decisor’s” decision to side with Shammai, is hard to say. But it is clear that no one actively disagrees with the way Rabban Gamliel has settled the argument.

Then this happens:

Rav Pappa happened to come to the house of Rav Huna, son of Rav Ika. They brought before him both scented oil and a myrtle branch. Rav Pappa took and recited a blessing over the myrtle branch first and then recited a blessing over the oil.

Rav Huna said to him: And does the Master not hold that the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of the decisor? If so, you should have recited a blessing over the oil first. 

Rav Huna does not say outright that Rav Pappa is wrong. Instead, he asks Rav Pappa whether he really holds differently than Rabban Gamliel — offering him a way to extricate himself from the error with dignity. Rav Pappa could have stated that he disagrees with Rabban Gamliel and given his reason. But Rav Pappa, who was not known for devising brilliant arguments on his own (a skill particularly prized by the sages), instead opts to cover up the mistake with an invented teaching:

Rav Pappa said: Rava said the following: The halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. 

How do we know this is not a real teaching of Rava? The Gemara tells us:

Rava did not issue that ruling. Rather, Rav Pappa did this in order to extricate himself from an unpleasant situation and justify his conduct.

The story ends here. We do not know if Rav Huna challenged Rav Pappa or if he kept silent to preserve his dignity. But we have certainly learned something about Rav Pappa and his all-too-human desire to save face rather than admit a mistake. And haven’t we all been there?

Read all of Berakhot 43 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 15, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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