Berakhot 48

An evil king and a clever sage.

The Talmud, at its core, is a collection of legal discussions. Yet fairly often it quotes a story full of non-legal life that leaps off the page — and then ignores all the color to zero in on the legal details.

An example of this phenomenon occurs on today’s daf. A story is told about the wicked King Yannai — aka Alexander Jannaeus, the king of Judea in the last century before the Common Era — and his wife (probably Salome Alexandra), who wish to say Grace After Meals following their meal.  Unfortunately, Yannai had viciously killed all of the sages so there’s no one left who knows how. (The story of how this happened is related in Kiddushin 66a.)

But Salome has a secret: Her brother is the famous sage Shimon ben Shatah and she has been hiding him from her husband to spare his life. So after ensuring her brother’s safety, she brings forth Shimon who can say the blessing for both of them.

Defiant of the king and secure in his own acumen, Shimon does not approach Yannai with any sense of deference. First, he manages to fool the king into giving him not just one, but two cups of royal wine. Then, knowing that he can’t be expected to say grace if he hasn’t eaten himself, he taunts the king, saying: “How shall I recite the blessing? Shall I say: ‘Blessed is He from Whom Yannai and his companions have eaten?’” 

Shimon can get away with such brazenness because he knows his brother-in-law needs him to say grace, which he finally does — after having drunk the royal wine.

It’s such an intriguing story. Why does Shimon ben Shatah dare to take such a mocking tone with a murderous king? And why does the king who killed a whole generation of sages care about reciting Birkat Hamazon correctly? Yet the Talmud is interested only in this:

That which Shimon ben Shatah did is not in accordance with the accepted halacha, as Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said as follows: One who recites Grace After Meals cannot fulfill the obligation of others to recite it until he eats an olive-bulk of grain.

In other words, the Talmud wants to know how Shimon ben Shatah can say Birkat Hamazon when he has only drunk wine? All the Talmud apparently cares about here is the specific piece of the story that bears on the legal debate underway about which foods require one to make a blessing after eating them. But if the Talmud really cared only about gleaning legal information, why did it quote the whole story? Would it not have been enough to tell us that Shimon ben Shatah believes you can say Grace After Meals even if you’ve only drunk wine?

It’s hard to say why the Talmud dedicates such space to the tale of a cheeky rabbi toying with a murderous king. But the fact that the entirety of the story is included here, along with all its seemingly extraneous color and detail, reveals something important: there are things the Talmud cares about other than law, including learning from the actions of sages, literary features, collecting older material, and maybe even just entertainment. Sometimes the Talmud just tells a funny story about how a clever hero outsmarted a wicked king and took wine directly from his table.

Read all of Berakhot 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 20, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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