“A teacher wields much more power than a doctor,” one of my teachers once told me. “A doctor only holds one life in their hands at a time. A teacher can impact the lives of hundreds in a single moment.”
I often think about the truth of this little aphorism. And yet, considering the occupations we reward most in terms of salary and status, how true is it actually? Who gets to board airplanes first or walk down red carpets? How should we understand the place teachers occupy in our society? And what kind of respect and deference should they be afforded?
We’ve been examining these questions since yesterday’s daf as the Gemara focuses on the teacher-student relationship. We’ve seen the Talmud’s insistence that a student cannot issue halakhic rulings while in the presence of their teacher. And today’s daf makes this rule, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Rava said: With regard to one who issues a halakhic ruling in his teacher’s actual presence, the disciple is prohibited to issue such a ruling, and if he does so, he is liable to receive the death penalty. However, when he is not in his actual presence, the disciple is still prohibited to issue the ruling, but he is not liable to receive the death penalty.
According to Rava, a student who issues a halakhic ruling in the presence of his teacher is deserving of death. And if that isn’t surprising enough, the Gemara goes on to relate a story that further emphasizes this point.
Rabbi Eliezer had a certain disciple who issued a halakhic ruling in his presence. Rabbi Eliezer said to his wife, Imma Shalom: “I will be surprised if this one completes his year,” i.e., if he lives until the end of the year. And so it was, he did not complete his year.
His wife said to him: “Are you a prophet?” He said to her: “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I have received the following tradition: Anyone who issues a halakhic ruling in his teacher’s presence is liable to receive the death penalty.”
This is an understandably shocking story. No matter how much we wish to valorize teachers, we would be hard-pressed to advocate enforcing respect out of fear of death. So what can we take from this story?
It’s worth recalling that while the Talmud discusses many cases where the death penalty is to be applied, the rabbis were considerably wary of wielding such awesome power and essentially legislated capital punishment out of existence. We even catch a glimpse of this hesitation in the words of Imma Shalom, whose shock at her husband’s declaration suggests an understanding that deciding matters of life and death should be out of human hands. Imma Shalom (whose name means “Mother of Peace”) is one of the few women quoted by name in the Talmud, so her rebuke stands out all the more. For the most part, the death penalty here can be understood as carrying rhetorical, not legal weight.
So why the appeal to such an out-of-reach idea?
In rabbinic culture, learning was not just a matter of practical importance, but carried deep spiritual significance as well. Consider how often the Torah is referred to as an etz chaim, a tree of life. The power to issue halakhic rulings was not just a matter of practical legal authority, but an honor bearing the weight of a life-giving tradition.
To overstep one’s bounds vis a vis one’s teacher, then, can be seen as a kind of spiritual murder, the stealing of a teacher’s vitality — and maybe even their livelihood. Rhetorically speaking, the punishment fits the crime.
Today’s daf reminds us of the great responsibility carried by teachers, and invites us to consider the degree to which we should recognize that.