Talmud pages

Gittin 7

Head to head.

Today, we read what at first glance appears to be a simple exchange between two rabbinic colleagues:

Rav Huna bar Natan said to Rav Ashi: What is the meaning of that which is written: Kina, and Dimonah, and Adadah (Joshua 15:22)? 

He said to him: The verse is listing the cities of the land of Israel. 

Rav Huna needs help understanding a verse that is just three words long (all proper nouns) and appears to be a part of some kind of list. Indeed, this verse is part of a larger section, spanning 43 verses, listing the cities assigned to the tribe of Judah. Rav Ashi provides him with a straightforward explanation of the verse, but Rav Huna is not pleased with this answer:

Rav Huna said to him: Is that to say that you think I don’t know that the verse is listing the cities of the land of Israel? Rather, Rav Geviha from Argiza explained it as follows:

Anyone who harbors jealousy (kina) toward another, and yet remains silent (domem), He who dwells for all eternity (adei ad) performs judgment on his behalf.

Rav Huna takes offense at the assumption he doesn’t know these cities are in the land of Israel, which should be obvious from context since they are part of what is apportioned to an Israelite tribe. In his contemptuous response to Rav Ashi, he reveals that he is in possession of Rav Geviha’s creative, midrashic interpretation of the place-names.

Rav Ashi doesn’t take this lying down, and challenges Rav Huna:

If that is so, you should also expound the verse: Ziklag, and Madmannah, and Sansannah  (Joshua 15:31), in a similar manner. 

At this point Rav Huna, who only quoted another person’s interpretation about the first verse, is at a loss to provide a parallel interpretation for these place names. Instead, he replies:

If Rav Geviha from Bei Argiza was here, he would have an explanation for it. 

It’s not uncommon in the Talmud for a student to ask his teacher a question, seeking to learn from him a matter of halakhah or an interpretation of a verse. But something here feels out of place. Why would Rav Huna bar Nathan ask Rav Ashi a question if he already knows the answer? Is he looking for an alternative? Is he testing Rav Ashi to see if he knows what Rav Geviha said? 

This is no simple student-teacher relationship. These are two greats in conversation: Rav Huna is the Exilarch, the official, state-sponsored leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia. Rav Ashi is the head of the rabbinic academy in Sura, a major center of Jewish learning. Perhaps, then, this exchange is less about seeking new understandings of Torah and more about a competitive tension between the two leaders. Maybe Rav Huna is baiting Rav Ashi by asking what appears to be a simple question. When he gets a straightforward but too-easy answer, he jumps on the opportunity to point out his rival’s ignorance of a more complete one. Meanwhile Rav Ashi, unaware of the midrashic tradition, challenges his colleague to apply this method to additional verses and exposes a gap in Rav Huna’s skill. 

While the Gemara often depicts collegiality, the rabbis do not shy away from writing about interpersonal conflicts. Sometimes, these are overt — such as the many conflicts between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua. And sometimes, as on today’s page, they’re more subtle. One thing is for sure: No matter how united and dedicated they were in their mission to interpret Torah and halakhah for the Jewish people, interpersonal tension was as much a part of the rabbinic world as it is a part of our own.

Today’s midrashic interpretation might also be in place to remind us that leaving conflict and jealousy to fester can be unhealthy. After all, as Rav Huna taught us:

Anyone who harbors jealousy (kina) toward another, and yet remains silent (domem), He who dwells for all eternity (adei ad) performs judgment on his behalf.

Sometimes, as on today’s page, it’s better to just have it out — even if it’s not so pretty.

Read all of Gittin 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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