Today’s daf features a Sherlock Holmes-worthy mystery. It begins with a story about a “great man” with a limp who came to Neharde’a and offered a halakhic teaching — that a woman wearing a tiara-like ornament known as a kelila is permitted to go out into the public domain on Shabbat. This, in and of itself, is not out of the ordinary. It was common for sages to travel from one place to another and share a teaching in the new place that originates in the old. What is of note is Rav’s response:
Rav said: Conclude from this that Rabbi Afes died and Rabbi Hanina sat at the head (of the yeshiva), and Levi did not have anyone to sit with, and he came to Babylonia.
How did Rav arrive at such a conclusion? And what does any of this have to do with a teaching about wearing jewelry in public on Shabbat?
Well, it’s elementary. But to understand Rav’s Holmesian conclusion, we need to back up a bit.
The story begins earlier on today’s daf with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s instructions about how to settle his affairs after his death. Among them, his sons should honor their step-mother after his passing and the sages should recommence their learning after 30 days of mourning. Finally, he names Hanina bar Hama as the next head of the rabbinic yeshiva. But this final request was not immediately implemented:
Rabbi Hanina did not accept because Rabbi Afes was older than him by two and a half years. Consequently, Rabbi Afes sat at the head and Rabbi Hanina sat outside, and Levi came and sat with him.
Deferring to his senior colleague, Rabbi Hanina does not accept the position of the head of the yeshiva. But this decision leaves him in an awkward situation, since his knowledge is greater than that of his colleague and it would not be appropriate for him to be a student in an academy led by Rabbi Afes. So he chooses to sit outside of the yeshiva instead.
Levi, perhaps as a show of loyalty to Rabbi Hanina, or to the last request of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, or because he does not want Rabbi Hanina to have to sit alone, stays outside with him and together they learn. Time passes.
Rabbi Afes died, and Rabbi Hanina sat at the head.
With the passing of Rabbi Afes, Rabbi Hanina assumes the leadership of the yeshiva as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi had intended. This is all well and good, but not for Levi:
Levi did not have anyone to sit with, and he came (to Babylonia).
Levi had already learned all that he could from Rabbi Hanina during their time outside the yeshiva. So instead, he comes to Babylonia. Which brings us back to Rav.
Rav was also a student of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and had previously transplanted himself to Babylonia. Having learned in the yeshiva of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, he recognizes those who studied there and knows of the institution’s politics. When it was reported that a sage with a limp had arrived, Rav immediately recognized that it was Levi.
And what could have brought Levi to Neharde’a? Nothing less than the death of Rabbi Afes, which triggered the ascension of Rabbi Hanina to head of the yeshiva and the end of Levi’s private tutorial with his teacher.
But could it have not been that Rabbi Afes was alive and well and it was Rabbi Hanina who died? And then, having lost his teacher, Levi chose to relocate to Babylonia? How did Rav know for sure?
Alas, although Rabbi Hanina was too advanced in his learning to sit before Rabbi Afes, Levi was not. Had Rabbi Haninah been the one to die, Levi would have become Rabbi Afes’s student and stayed in Israel. Since he had come to Babylonia, it must be that Rabbi Afes had died.
And besides, it’s a better story if Rabbi Hanina takes his pace at the head of the yeshiva. It fulfills Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s dying request and honors Rabbi Hanina, who showed honor to Rabbi Afes by allowing him to become head of the yeshiva.
Read all of Ketubot 103 on Sefaria.