When my father, Rabbi Henry Sosland, was alive, I would defer to him if anyone asked a question about Jewish practice in our presence. If it was a difficult question, it would have been the height of arrogance to start pontificating in front of my father. But what if someone asked a simple question, like whether it’s permitted to eat a ham sandwich. Would it have been a show of disrespect for me to answer?
That’s the question that gets addressed on today’s daf. One of the worst social crimes in rabbinic culture was the appearance of arrogance in front of one’s teacher. For the rabbis, this principle banned actions like issuing rulings on complex issues in Jewish law in the teacher’s presence. But even on simple questions of Jewish law, the rabbis were cautious about answering if their teacher was around.
Rav Yosef said to Abaye: Even when Rav Ḥisda was asked about the permissibility of cooking an egg in kutaḥ, a dairy dish, throughout the years of Rav Huna’s life, he refused to issue a ruling. Rav Ḥisda was a disciple of Rav Huna, and a disciple may not issue a ruling in his teacher’s place of jurisdiction about even the simplest of matters.
According to the Gemara, even though Rav Hisda was asked a simple question, he declined to answer while his teacher, Rav Huna, was alive. Ruling on an obvious point of Jewish law was considered an insult. But even this practice has its limits.
The Gemara continues:
Rav Ḥisda nonetheless issued halakhic rulings in the town of Kafri during the years of Rav Huna’s life, as he was not actually in his teacher’s place.
Being respectful in Rav Huna’s presence was essential. But it was apparently okay for Rav Hisda to teach far from Rav Huna’s home even while he was alive.
In the midst of its discussion on Shabbat boundaries, the Talmud turns to focus on boundaries that are essential in human interactions. It might be hard to imagine a person of great intellect staying quiet on something he knows. We might picture the rabbis debating one another with bluster and grand displays of knowledge. But perhaps they needed to be reminded that keeping one’s expertise to oneself was actually a way to demonstrate an even more important trait: humility in the presence of one’s teacher. And there was nothing quite as impressive as that.