Ketubot 69

Drop dead letter.

Part of what makes the Talmud particularly interesting is the way it straddles two worlds. I’m not talking about pre-Temple and post-Temple, though that dichotomy is certainly in the background of every daf. Rather, I’m talking about a world in which Jewish teachings are transmitted orally and one in which they are transmitted in written form.

Today, Judaism (and indeed most of the world) is committed to written transmission. Few things worth repeating are not also committed to writing. Jewish tradition likewise is centered on written texts — Torah and Talmud — and the textual tradition that has accrued around them. Even the few teachings that remain oral — sermons, for instance — are increasingly published in written form so they can be archived and reaccessed.

In late antiquity, many significant teachings weren’t written down for generations. In fact, there is a case to be made that the Talmud was, in no small measure, a project of converting the Jewish legal tradition from oral to written form. The rabbis cited within its pages — Tannaim (reciters) and Amoraim (speakers) — are nearly always speaking, not writing, their teachings. 

On today’s page, however, we see that the rabbis did sometimes rely on written communication. For example:

Rav attached for Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi between the lines: With respect to brothers who mortgaged a certain property, what is the halakhah?

Rav, one of the earliest Amoraim in Babylonia, is writing a letter to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, one of the last Tannaim in the land of Israel (and, perhaps not incidentally, the rabbi responsible for compiling the Mishnah in written form). We do not know the primary subject of the correspondence, but we do know that he attached an addendum to the finished letter with a question: If two brothers mortgaged their property and then died, can the property be seized by the courts for the purpose of paying their daughters’ dowries? 

What follows is a lively conversation between Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and his student Rabbi Hiyya about the nuances of this question. But there’s another letter further down today’s daf that gets a chillier reception:

Rav Anan sent a letter to Rav Huna: Huna, our friend, peace. When the woman bearing this letter comes before you, provide her one-tenth of her father’s estate.

In keeping with the topic of today’s daf, a woman was seeking one-tenth of her deceased father’s estate for a dowry. In this letter, Rav Anan instructed Rav Huna and his court to ensure it was handed over to her.

The Gemara relates that Rav Huna took offense at the familiar way he was addressed as a friend by a less esteemed rabbi. Although no reply to this letter was necessary (all it called on Rav Huna to do was apportion to this woman what was owed to her), he decided to supply one. Rather than writing back, however, he sent an emissary with a precisely worded withering reply:

Anan, Anan, should the one-tenth be provided from real estate or from movable property? And, incidentally, tell me who sits at the head in the house of a marzeiha?

Under threat of excommunication if he altered a word of this reply, Rav Sheshet delivered this message in full, with his own apologetic prelude. Everything about Rav Huna’s reply is meant to embarrass Rav Anan, from the informal address (no title) that is doubled for emphasis to the halakhic question that challenges Rav Anan’s judgment about whether this woman is indeed owed one-tenth of her deceased father’s property for her dowry. The second question, about who sits at the head in the house of a marzeiha, is so esoteric Rav Anan does not even understand the snub until his colleague Mar Ukva explains it:

A man who does not know what a marzeiha is sends a letter to Rav Huna addressing him as Huna, our friend?

Happily, the Gemara lets us in on the answer to this stumper. Some quick textual exegesis (Jeremiah 16:5) reveals that a marzeiha is a mourner and it is they who sit at the head of the table, like a ruler surrounded by subjects devoted to their comfort.

Rav Huna could have simply written back to Rav Anan to deliver this devastating retort. Instead, he chose to send an emissary to deliver a memorized message. Perhaps he did not want to commit such a furious retort to writing. Or perhaps he felt that sending a messenger would underline the magnitude of his gall. Either way, thanks to the Talmud, we now have it in writing, preserved indefinitely.

Read all of Ketubot 69 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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