Ketubot 40

The happiest of the sages.

On today’s daf, we learn this in a mishnah:

An orphan who was betrothed and divorced, Rabbi Elazar says: One who rapes her is obligated (to pay the fine), and one who seduces her is exempt.

Rabbi Elazar rules that an orphan who was betrothed and divorced is considered an independent person. As a result, she is entitled to a fine if she is raped. But if she was seduced, she is considered responsible for consenting to the seduction and is not eligible for compensation. 

Following a brief discussion, the Gemara declares that the law does indeed follow Rabbi Elazar’s ruling, after which we encounter this apparent non sequitur. 

Rav would exclaim about Rabbi Elazar: He is the happiest of the sages.

This declaration about Rabbi Elazar appears three times in the Talmud — on today’s daf, as well as on Gittin 26 and Kritot 13. All three follow a declaration by Rav that the halakhah follows the opinion of Rabbi Elazar. The 20th-century commentator Adin Steinsaltz suggests that Rabbi Elazar is happy because the law follows his opinion in many instances.

There are many talmudic rabbis named Elazar, but Rashi identifies this one as Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. Citing Yevamot 62, Rashi then suggests another reason why Rabbi Elazar might be the happiest of sages:

And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught his Torah to them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.

Rabbi Akiva was said to have had a large number of students who died. Whether by plague or persecution, their death diminished the amount of Torah in the world. The Talmud reports that Rabbi Akiva carried on, raising up a new cadre of students, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua among them. Perhaps then his happiness came from being part of the revival of Torah learning in his day.

Tradition holds that Rabbi Elazar lived to a ripe old age — possibly a third reason for his happiness. When asked by his students what he did to merit such longevity, the Talmud reports that Rabbi Elazar answered as follows:

In all my days, I never made a shortcut through a synagogue. Nor did I stride over the heads of the sacred people. And I never lifted my hands for the Priestly Benediction without first reciting a blessing.

Rabbi Elazar attributes his longevity to his respectful ways. He never cut through a sacred space to save a few minutes, never stepped over people studying Torah to get to his place, and never performed the Priestly Benediction without reciting the proper blessing. 

While there is no guarantee that we’ll be rewarded with a long life by following in Rabbi Elazar’s footsteps, it may well be that being respectful of sacred spaces, showing honor to our peers, and sanctifying Jewish practices with a proper blessing may earn us a taste of the happiness he so enjoyed. 

Read all of Ketubot 40 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 15th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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