Gittin 83

Don't rebuke a lion.

As we saw yesterday, the opening mishnah of the final chapter of Tractate Gittin told us that the rabbis prohibit a woman from remarrying if her husband seeks to condition their divorce on restricting who she can subsequently marry. Divorce must sever the marital bond, allowing the woman to remarry as she chooses. If a husband tries to restrict her options as a condition of divorce, the majority of rabbis hold that the divorce is invalid. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. 

In a dispute between an individual and a group of rabbis, the law follows the plurality. So we follow the rabbis on this one. But it is Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion that grabs the attention of the Gemara. On today’s daf, we learn that after Rabbi Eliezer’s death, four prominent sages — Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, Rabbi Tarfon Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Akiva — offer refutations of his position. But Rabbi Yehoshua offers a word of rebuke. 

One does not refute a lion after his death.

Perhaps, suggests the Gemara, Rabbi Yehoshua comes to his colleague’s defense because he agrees with him. But this line of reasoning does not pan out, as textual evidence is brought that Rabbi Yehoshua also disagrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s position. This suggests that what Rabbi Yehoshua really means is:

I also have a refutation, but both mine and yours (should not be raised), as one does not refute a lion after his death.

Just like the lion is known for being king of the jungle, Rabbi Eliezer was recognized for being first among his peers. Even his own teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, suggested that Rabbi Eliezer’s wisdom was equal to all the sages of Israel. But Rabbi Yehoshua’s critique was not that his colleagues dared to voice their disagreement with one of the all-time greats, but that they did so after Rabbi Eliezer died. As Rashi explains, if he were still alive, he would have had the opportunity to defend his position. But since he is no longer able to do so, the most appropriate response would have been to stay silent.

So why did Rabbi Eliezer’s colleagues wait until he died to register their refutations? Our daf is silent on the matter. But elsewhere in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), we learn a famous story which culminates in Rabbi Eliezer being excommunicated by his peers. As a result, his colleagues may have been unable to comment on his teachings while he was alive because they were no longer in dialogue with him. The four rabbis may therefore have been holding their tongues for quite some time — and if it were up to Rabbi Yehoshua, they would have continued to do so.

Interestingly, after their objections are presented, the Gemara quotes Rava, who says:

All of these have refutations, except for Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, which does not have a refutation.

As Rabbi Yosei HaGelili, Rabbi Tarfon, and Rabbi Akiva were no longer living in Rava’s day, you might think someone would rebuke Rava for challenging their arguments when they could no longer defend themselves. But no one comes forward to do that. 

More surprising, however, is Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement itself. The Talmud is full of intergenerational conversations and does not lack examples in which a sage questions a teaching that comes from an earlier generation. Could he really be telling the others that such a conversation was off limits?

Maybe Rabbi Yehoshua’s intent was not to restrict refutations in general, just in this particular case — a defense of Rabbi Eliezer when he could no longer defend himself. Or maybe he was reacting to the tone of his colleagues, hearing in them a disrespect that was out of place. Or perhaps, he felt that Rabbi Eliezer had suffered enough by being excommunicated and that any further tarnishing was like pouring salt into the wound. Or maybe it came from a place of guilt, as Rabbi Yehoshua himself had played a role in the incident that led to Rabbi Eliezer’s excommunication. 

Whatever his motivation, Rabbi Yehoshua’s rebuke had limited effect. The Gemara still records a lengthy conversation about the challenges that were brought against Rabbi Eliezer’s position.

Read all of Gittin 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 7th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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