How should we relate to tradition? How bound should we be to the wisdom of our ancestors? Do new times call for new approaches? These are questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years. And indeed, we can see the rabbis explore this very issue on today’s daf.
The context is a discussion about what happens when a fast day occurs on a Friday. Rabbi Yosei maintains that one should one fast until the very end even though it would mean being hungry at the start of Shabbat. Rabban Gamliel disagrees, saying it’s better to end the fast early so as not to begin Shabbat in a state of affliction.
Following the death of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehoshua entered the study hall to annul Rabban Gamliel’s statement [that if Tisha B’Av falls on a Friday, you break the fast early]. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri stood on his feet and said: I see that the appropriate policy is that the body must follow the head, i.e., we must follow the statements of the earlier authorities and not deviate from established halakha. All of Rabban Gamliel’s life we established the halakha in accordance with his opinion, and now you seek to annul his statement? Yehoshua, we do not listen to you, as the halakha has already been established in accordance with the opinion of Rabban Gamliel. And there was no one who disputed this statement in any way.
It’s important to note that this debate takes place only after Rabban Gamaliel’s death. This is not a story of a student standing up to their teacher in their teacher’s lifetime. And yet, even with this relatively conservative framing, the text offers two different approaches to tradition in a new world without Rabban Gamaliel’s presence and authority.
Rabbi Yehoshua seems to think that new times call for new approaches. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri argues that fidelity to tradition is paramount. If we parse Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri’s response, we can see four arguments for tradition. First, we must follow the greatest authority, which remains Rabban Gamaliel. Second, we have already established a consensus around Rabban Gamaliel’s position. Third, Rabbi Yehoshua apparently never challenged this ruling when Rabban Gamaliel could have refuted the challenge. And fourth, given Rabbi Yehoshua’s original silence, this ruling was not merely a consensus position, but a unanimous one.
Given Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri’s robust response, we might have expected his position to win out. And yet, the Gemara concludes: “In the generation of Rabban Gamliel they acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabban Gamliel, but in the generation of Rabbi Yosei they acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yosei.” New times apparently do call for new approaches, new leaders, and the emergence of new consensuses.
Some readers might see this as a case for an ancient kind of liberalism. But the substance of the argument establishes something more like the opposite. Rabban Gamaliel had said that one could conclude the fast of Tisha B’Av early on Friday in order to enter Shabbat in a state of full health. Rabbi Yehoshua’s innovation is to insist that the fast must be continued until the sun has fully set, requiring that we enter Shabbat in a state of fasting. Not all change leads to greater leniency, and not all tradition is restrictive relative to the modern world.
Today’s daf complicates a linear view of history, in which things are always getting better for communities and for individual human experience. It also complicates a linear view of history in which our ancestors were the ultimate authority and each successive generation has gotten progressively less authoritative and less wise. Even though it means they will be hungry come Shabbat, Rabbi Yosei’s community accepts his position, seeing it as the most relevant source of wisdom and ritual experience for them. Today’s daf is a reminder that things are complicated, and that neat little stories rarely match the complexity of human history, or of the Talmud itself.