Gittin 31

Just chatting about the wind.

Rav Huna and Rav Hisda were sitting and Geneiva passed by them.

One said: Let us stand before him, as he is a son of the Torah.

The other said: Shall we stand before a quarrelsome person? 

As we’ve seen on other occasions, the rabbis are not immune to social drama. I imagine Rav Huna and Rav Hisda sitting on a bench in the park, or at a table in the cafeteria, when Geneiva approaches.

Hopefully, he doesn’t hear their hurriedly whispered conversation: Should we stand to honor him as a master of Torah? Should we invite him to join us? Should we let him pass and avoid the negativity that he might inject into our conversation? Before they reach a conclusion, 

Geneiva came up and said: What were you dealing with?

They said to him: With winds.

He said to them: This is what Rav Hanan bar Rava says that Rav says: Four winds blow on each day, and the north wind blows together with each of the other three; as, if this were not so and the northern wind did not blow, then the world would not survive for even one hour. And the south wind is harsher than all of them, and were it not for the angel called Ben Netz, who stops it from blowing even harder, then it would destroy the entire world before it, as it is stated: “Does the hawk (netz) soar by your wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?” (Job 39:26)

Geneiva joins the conversation about wind, making a surprisingly positive and not at all quarrelsome contribution.

This is not the only anecdote in the Talmud in which Geneiva inserts himself into a conversation between Rav Huna and Rav Hisda. Gittin 62 tells of a similar situation in which the two sages are again unsure about how they should respond to Geneiva when:

Geneiva approached them and said to them: Peace be upon you, kings, peace be upon you, kings.

They said to him: From where do you know that the sages are called kings? 

He said to them: As it is written with regard to the Torah: “Through me kings rule.” (Proverbs 8:15)

On Gittin 62, Geneiva greets the pairs as kings, perhaps slightly overdoing the flattery, but supporting his language with a learned midrash. In that case, the pair of rabbis invites him to join them and offers him a bite to eat and he shares even more words of Torah.

Geneiva’s quarrelsomeness is not apparent from these anecdotes; to the contrary, he comes off as thoroughly pleasant. To get a hint of his dark side, you have to go back to Gittin 7, where Mar Ukva, the exilarch in Babylonia, sends a letter to Rabbi Elazar in Israel asking:

With regard to people who stand over and torment me, and I have the power to deliver them into the hands of the government, what is the halakhah? May I hand them over to the authorities or not?

Who are these “people” who are “tormenting” Mar Ukva? Turns out, it’s Geneiva. But Rabbi Elazar urges Mar Ukva not to turn him over to the ruling authorities and to instead leave it to God to deal with the tormenters. Mar Ukva, still frustrated, sends a letter repeating his request. And Rabbi Elazar advises him to distract himself with Torah study and the matter will resolve itself. Then, the Gemara relates:

As the matter emerged from the mouth of Rabbi Elazar, Geneiva was placed in a neck iron.

While this anecdote reveals a potential source for Geneiva’s reputation for being a troublemaker, it is also frustratingly incomplete. We never learn exactly what transpired between Mar Ukva and Geneiva, or how he fell into the hands of the authorities. Was it God who brought down the power of the state authorities on Geneiva? Or was it Mar Ukva, who in the end could not take Rabbi Elazar’s advice? Gittin 66 will inform us about Geneiva’s execution at the hands of the state, but the discussion there is focused on his deathbed instructions and does nothing to fill in the gaps in the story.

Geneiva’s teachings are sprinkled throughout the Talmud. When we encounter them, we, like Rav Hisda and Rav Huna, are left to ponder what to think about the sage to whom they are attributed. Do we embrace him as a master of Torah? Or do we remember him primarily as a quarrelsome trouble-maker? If only we could write to Rabbi Elazer for some guidance.

Read all of Gittin 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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