The Talmud (Makkot 22b) makes a bold statement about the importance of sages:
How foolish are the rest of the people who stand before a Torah scroll, and yet they do not stand before a great man.
In Jewish tradition, Torah scrolls are afforded a great deal of respect, but a sage deserves even more. In fact, it can be argued that in rabbinic Judaism, a sage is basically a living, breathing Torah scroll. Not only does a sage teach Torah, but his every move is full of lessons to be learned.
Eruvin 94 presents a story about the sage Abba Arikha, commonly known as “Rav,” who is frequently seen in conversation with his colleague Shmuel.
One Shabbat, a wall that allowed residents to carry between courtyards fell down. Shmuel held that since the wall was standing when Shabbat began, residents of the courtyard were permitted to act as if the wall were still there and continue to carry. But Rav believed that once it fell, residents could not keep carrying in their courtyards.
The Talmud immediately presents a caveat: Rav never said this but rather it was inferred from an incident:
Rav and Shmuel were sitting in a certain courtyard on Shabbat, and the wall between the two courtyards fell. Shmuel said: Take a cloak and suspend it on the remnant of the partition. Rav turned his face away. Shmuel said to them: If Abba (a.k.a. Rav) is so particular, take his belt and tie it to the cloak.
Shmuel breezily replaces the fallen wall with a makeshift partition. The Talmud later states that the provisional partition was not even necessary for the purposes of carrying; Shmuel hung it there only to provide privacy. When Rav turns his head, Shmuel teases him, suggesting that if they tie his belt on as well perhaps that will appease him.
What is the meaning of Rav’s head turn? If he disapproved of Shmuel’s ruling, why didn’t he say so? The Talmud proposes that since they were in a community that accepted Shmuel as its halakhic authority, it would have been inappropriate for Rav to dissent.
But if Rav accepted Shmuel’s authority in that community, why did he turn his face away? The Talmud explains that he did not want onlookers to think his own opinion was the same as Shmuel’s.
The problem with learning from a sage’s actions is that they can be ambiguous, even cryptic. But the benefit is that you can learn more than the specific law at hand.
Rav’s gesture doesn’t simply convey his opinion on the case of the falling wall. It also teaches us how to disagree without being disagreeable. It reminds us that we don’t have to say everything we think out loud. Sometimes, out of respect for another person, it may be more appropriate to remain silent. But it also suggests that even while respecting others, we can still turn our heads away from opinions we don’t accept; we can both show respect and also, discreetly and politely, remain true to our own beliefs.