Usually, the rabbis are not shy about voicing their opinions. Usually.
Today’s Gemara discusses the case of a garbage heap which is tall enough to be its own private domain. In this case, the mishnah permits one to throw water from the window of a building that is above the heap. A concern is raised that if some of the garbage is removed and the heap is no longer tall enough to be its own domain then one would be throwing water into the public domain, a forbidden action on Shabbat.
And speaking of garbage dumps, next we find this:
Ravin bar Rav Adda said that Rav Yitzhak said: An incident occurred involving a certain alleyway, one of whose sides terminated in the sea, which closed it off on that side, and the other side terminated in a garbage dump. The incident came before Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and he did not say anything about it, either prohibition or permission.
The sea closes off one side of the alleyway, but does the garbage dump effectively close off the other side? If it does, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi should permit carrying in the alley; if he is concerned that the barriers are not permanent enough, he should forbid carrying. But rather than rule one way or the other, he is silent.
The Gemara speculates about this silence from a rabbi who usually has no problem offering his opinion:
He (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi) did not say that carrying is permitted in the alleyway because we are concerned that the garbage dump be removed and that the sea will throw up sediment and recede. He did not say that carrying is prohibited as its partitions exist.
In other words, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi is not sure. On the one hand, the alley is blocked on both sides, so one should be allowed to carry within. On the other hand, the partitions are potentially unstable: the sea might recede, leaving a trail of sediment which prevents its return to the edge of the alleyway, and the garbage dump might be removed.
In other places, we’ve read about rabbis who are silent because they do not want to issue a ruling in front of their teacher and those who are silent because they do not want to contradict their host or a colleague who is an authority in his town. But here there is no other authority present that might be contradicted or offended.
Or perhaps Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi does not feel the need to rule because his colleagues have already voiced their opinion on the matter, as reported back on Eruvin 8:
Rav Yosef bar Avdimi said: It was taught: the rabbis prohibit carrying in such an alleyway. Rav Nahman said: The halakhah is in accordance with the statement of the rabbis.
There are some who state: Rav Yosef bar Avdimi said: It was taught: the Rabbis permit carrying in such an alleyway. Rav Nahman said: The halakhah is not in accordance with the opinion of the Rabbis.
But even this source exhibits some confusion about what the rabbis think, at least according to Rav Yosef bar Avdimi. It’s not often that we read about a talmudic rabbi who is unable to decide what to rule (though here’s another example we saw in Tractate Shabbat). I find it refreshing that there are times we do.