Ketubot 106

Now you see him, now you don't.

On yesterday’s daf, we saw a series of stories about rabbinic judges who refused bribes and recused themselves from judging cases in which there was even the slightest possibility they had been made partial. This series of short anecdotes culminates in a longer story that spills onto our page about Rav Anan who, like his colleagues, was put in a position of having to refuse a bribe:

A certain man brought Rav Anan a basket of small fish. He said to him: “What are you doing?” The man said to him: “I have a case.” Rav Anan did not accept the basket from him, and he said to him: “I am disqualified from presiding over your case.”

Rav Anan has done all the right things: He has both refused the gift and refused to judge the case. And yet, this story has a twist because the man has another trick up his sleeve:

The man said to him: “I do not need the master’s judgment. Let the master (you) accept my gift, so that the master does not prevent me from presenting first fruits.”

The ritual of bringing first fruits — which is detailed in Mishnah Bikkurim — involved bringing produce to the altar at the Temple. So how can this man claim his gift for Rav Anan qualifies as first fruits? The Gemara explains that a midrashic reading of a story in 2 Kings teaches that anyone who brings a gift to a scholar is like one who has presented first fruits.

Rav Anan feels compelled to accept the fish, so as not to deprive the man of the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. He still refuses to judge the case, however. We can sympathize with his position. But unfortunately for Rav Anan, even this tiny level of impropriety will have disastrous consequences:

Rav Anan sent the man to Rav Nahman, and he also sent him a letter: “Let the master (you) judge this man’s case because I, Anan, am disqualified from judging his cases.”

Rav Nahman said to himself: “From the fact that he sent me this letter, I can conclude that he is his relative.”

A person may not judge their own relative in a court of law, so it is natural for Rav Nahman to assume this is the reason Rav Anan has recused himself. Rav Nahman promptly sets aside his other case (involving orphans, no less) to render judgment for the man with the fish. Alas, the other litigant senses a preference on the part of Rav Nahman and becomes so nervous he can not properly argue his claim. He loses. In the end, Rav Anan’s acceptance of the fish, even done reluctantly under duress, perverted justice.

Unfortunately, there is even more damage: 

Elijah was accustomed to come to Rav Anan, as the prophet was teaching him Seder d’Eliyahu. Once Rav Anan did this, Elijah departed.

Elijah was a prophet who lived nine centuries before the Common Era and, according to the Hebrew Bible, traveled across the Jordan River to lift up the message of his name: Eli-jah — My God is Adonai. Because the Bible records that he did not die, but was carried up to heaven in a chariot, there is a large rabbinic lore about him. He is considered a herald of the messiah and also fond of wandering around, secretly observing people and rewarding the righteous.

In this case, we learn, he was sharing with Rav Anan a series of teachings that he would ultimately record in a book called Seder d’Eliyahu. (Scholars debate whether this is in fact the collection of midrashim, Seder Eliyahu, also called Tanna Debei Eliyahu Rabba, that has come down to us.) As punishment for Rav Anan’s mistake, Elijah stopped teaching him. Rav Anan attempts to mitigate Elijah’s anger:

Rav Anan sat in observance of a fast and prayed for mercy, and Elijah came back. However, when Elijah came after that, he would scare him.

It is also possible to translate the Aramaic as “trouble him.” It would indeed be troubling, perhaps even terrifying, to know that you once had a great relationship with the archetype for justice, and then were abandoned for what felt like a small misstep. The story serves as a warning about the dangers of bribery, and how even the smallest and most innocent seeming errors in this area can cause a stunning amount of unforeseen damage.

Rav Anan wasn’t the first to have lost the company of Elijah. Back in Ketubot 61, we met two sages who treated their waitstaff differently, and Elijah only spoke with the one who allowed his servers to eat from every dish that was served at the table. As we read further, we can look forward to more stories as well about Elijah hidden in plain sight, showing favor to those who are kind and generous and make the world a more just place, including my favorite on Bava Batra 7b, where we learn about a pious man who was accustomed to being visited by and speaking with Elijah. But then, when this man built a gatehouse, Elijah did not speak with him again. Rashi remarks that Elijah was concerned that the man walled himself away from hearing the cries of the poor, and suggests that this kind of action was an act of injustice. 

Read all of Ketubot 106 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 21st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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