Today’s daf reintroduces us to two sages whom we have encountered previously in our study of Daf Yomi: Rav Hisda and Rav Sheshet. Near the top of today’s page, we learn something interesting about their relationship.
The Gemara relates that when Rav Ḥisda and Rav Sheshet would meet each other, Rav Ḥisda’s lips would tremble from the teachings of Rav Sheshet. Rav Sheshet’s fluency and expertise were such that Rav Ḥisda would be filled with awe in his presence. For his part, Rav Sheshet’s entire body would shake from Rav Ḥisda’s sharpness, i.e., from his brilliant, analytical mind.
Rav Sheshet’s superpower was his incredible memory. Though he was blind, Rav Sheshet had what today we would call a photographic memory – though he was never able to actually see the text. Rashi notes that Rav Sheshet had an encyclopedic knowledge of the early rabbinic texts that constitute the foundation of the Gemara. This knowledge was so awe-inspiring that Rav Hisda’s lips would tremble every time he was in Rav Sheshet’s presence. Rashi adds that Rav Ḥisda wasn’t just in awe. He was afraid that Rav Sheshet would ask him to resolve apparent contradictions in the texts, the talmudic version of that nightmare about being unprepared for the big final exam.
For his part, Rav Sheshet also stood in awe of Rav Ḥisda. But in this case, it was of Rav Ḥisda’s sharp, deductive reasoning skills. So impressed was Rav Sheshet that his entire body would shake when he was in Rav Ḥisda’s presence.
So, which is better: memory or logic? To be a human encyclopedia like Rav Sheshet or a human computer like Rav Hisda?
This question forces us to consider and appreciate the twin successes of the Oral Torah, the corpus of Jewish teachings that are not literally written in the Bible. On the one hand, we need masters of text for the historical memory required to pass these teachings along to future generations. On the other, we need logicians with the deductive prowess evident in the wide-ranging intellectual discussions we find in the Talmud.
For all his deductive reasoning skills, Rav Hisda did not have the entirety of the text at his fingertips in the way that Rav Sheshet did. And for all his encyclopedic knowledge, Rav Sheshet didn’t have the same astonishing analytical ability as Rav Ḥisda. Separately, they would have added unique and valuable insights to the discussion. But together, their superpowers allowed them, their students, and us – centuries later – to soar in our learning.