Talmud pages

Gittin 17

We'd rather have the Romans.

Two days ago, we read a mishnah that describes various configurations of get delivery — all of which were ultimately ruled invalid. At the bottom of yesterday’s daf, the Gemara began to tell the following story, which explores yet another variation:

Rabba bar bar Hana was weak, and Rav Yehuda and Rabba came to visit him and to inquire about his well-being. While they were there, they raised a dilemma before him: With regard to two people who brought a bill of divorce from a country overseas, are they required to say: “It was written in our presence and it was signed in our presence,” or are they not required to issue this declaration? 

He said to them: “They are not required to say it, for the following reason: What if they said: ‘She was divorced in our presence,’ — wouldn’t they be deemed credible?”

During their bikkur cholimvisit to their weakened teacher, Rav Yehuda and Rabba ask about a case that relates to the content of the mishnah currently under discussion and they learn that if two messengers deliver a get, they are exempt from declaring that they witnessed the writing and signing of the document. This is because together they are a credible pair of witnesses — the rabbinic gold standard for testimony — whose later statement would constitute adequate proof of the divorce.

In addition to teaching about a variant case not included in the mishnah, this story models for us how to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Despite Rabba bar bar Hana’s diminished strength, the pair do not refrain from asking a legal question during their visit, treating him with the same respect that they would if he were fully functional and giving him the opportunity to teach his Torah, even as he lies in his sick bed. 

Had the story ended here, dayenu (it would have been sufficient for us). But it continues, reporting a strange occurrence that followed:

In came a certain Persian priest and took the lamp from before them. In response, Rabba said: “Merciful One! Let us live either in Your shadow or in the shadow of the descendants of Esau, the Romans.”

Rabba bar bar Hana, Rav Yehuda, and Rabba, all Babylonian sages, lived under a Persian empire in which Zoroastrianism was the official religion. As Rashi explains, the Zoroastrians celebrated a holiday during which lamps were to be lit only in Zoroastrian places of worship. Upon seeing a light emerging from Rabba bar bar Hana’s home, a Persian priest bursts in and removes the offending lamp.

In response, Rabba calls out to God, exclaiming how much better it would be to live in a place where Jews could live under their own rule — or even under that of the dreaded Romans. Given that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and nearly took Judaism with it, this is a remarkable exclamation.

The Gemara isn’t so sure that it agrees with Rabba and cites a statement of Rabbi Hiyya, who has a different view:

What is the meaning of that which is written: God understands its way and He knows its place (Job 28:23)? This means that the Holy One, Blessed be He, knows with regard to the Jewish people that they are unable to accept and live under Roman decrees, and therefore He arose and exiled them to Babylonia.

In other words, God knew how hard it would be for Jews to live under Roman authority and caused the Jews to be exiled to Babylonia where life would be better for them.

So which is it? Was it better to live under the Persians or the Romans? The Gemara suggests it all depends when we are talking about. Rabbi Hiyya was speaking about the time before the Zorastrians took control, when life in Babylonia was better than under the Romans. And Rabba was speaking about after, when the opposite was true. Rashi (on Shabbat 21b) illustrates this point by making a connection between today’s daf and a beraita that discusses the laws of Hanukkah:

It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If he lived upstairs, he places it at the window adjacent to the public domain. And in a time of danger he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.

It’s preferable to light Hanukkah candles outside of our front doors, or in a window, so that we can publicize the miracle. But, in times of danger, one is permitted to do so indoors, away from the public eye. And what defines a time of danger? Rashi, in his commentary, cites today’s daf and suggests that the beraita is talking about when Hanukkah coincides with the Zoroastrian holiday which prohibits the lighting of lamps at home. 

What started as a conversation about the delivery of a get from overseas also has what to say about visiting the sick and the challenges of living a Jewish life when living under an unfriendly majority culture. It’s another example of how the Talmud loves a good tangent and a reminder that although you might know where you are when you jump in for a swim in the sea of Talmud, you can never be sure of where you’ll end up.

Read all of Gittin 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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