We are in the midst of a chapter that is about lineage and what that status implies for marriage prospects. Because marriage between people of certain lineages is not permitted, knowing one’s lineage (and having others trust that information) is important for contracting a halakhic marriage. Similarly, casting aspersions on someone’s lineage could do terrible damage to that person, which is why today the Gemara offers this principle:
Anyone who disqualifies (others by stating that their lineage is flawed, that is a sign that he himself) is of flawed lineage.
For example: A Jew cannot contract kiddushin with a slave. So calling someone a slave can seriously damage their marriage prospects. Of course, people knew this and, it seems, occasionally exploited this knowledge. Here’s the beginning of a long story on today’s daf:
A person from Neharde’a went into a butcher shop in Pumbedita. He said, “Give me meat.” They said to him, “Wait until the servant of Rav Yehudah bar Yehezkel has taken and then we will give to you.” He said, “Who is this Yehudah bar Sheviske’el that he should precede me, that he should take before me?” They went and told Rav Yehudah. He excommunicated the man. They said, “He regularly calls people slaves.” He decreed that the man himself is a slave …
This is one of many talmudic stories in which an unfortunate behavior sets off a cascade of events that spirals into a larger mess. In this case, status has everything to do with it.
In the background, it’s helpful to know that there was a rivalry of sorts between people from Neharde’a and people from Pumbedita, each a center of learning in Babylonia with its own leaders. When an unnamed resident of Neharde’a steps into the Pumbeditan shop, the butcher tells him he must wait and let the servant of Pumbedita’s great rabbi collect the choice cut first. The resident of Neharde’a is offended and makes an insulting play on the rabbi’s name, turning Yehezkel into Sheviske’el, a derogatory term implying the rabbi is a glutton for meat.
Unfortunately, the insulting pun is reported back to Rabbi Yehudah bar Yehezkel, who excommunicates the Nehardean. We might have felt sorry for the punster who was made to wait for his meat and then banished for his angry quip, but then it is reported that he himself regularly derides others as slaves. This, as we now know, is not just offensive but materially damaging — it ruins their marriage prospects. In accordance with the principle quoted earlier on the daf that he who calls another’s lineage flawed is suspected of having flawed lineage himself, Rav Yehudah bar Yehezkhel now also decrees that the excommunicated man is a slave.
Is that the end of it? Not remotely. The man from Neharde’a summons Rav Yehudah to Rav Nahman’s court in an attempt to reverse the damage. Rav Yehudah, who is not under Rav Nahman’s jurisdiction, considers that he might not show up in court at all, but Rav Huna convinces him to go:
You are not required to go, as you are a great man, but for the honor of the nasi’s house, you should go.
Ultimately, despite his status, he does go, in order not to offend other important officials. When Rav Yehudah shows up for the hearing, he starts by chatting with the judge:
Rav Yehudah arrived and found Rav Nahman building a parapet. Rav Yehudah said, “Does the master not hold in accordance with what Rav Huna bar Iddi said in the name of Shmuel: When a person is appointed a leader of the community, that person is forbidden from doing labor in front of three people?” Rav Nahman said, “It is a little fence I am constructing.”
Here, we see the relationship between two Torah scholars, each leaders in their respective communities. But they are also not entirely equal, because Rav Yehudah is about to appear in Rav Nahman’s courtroom, which makes what he says all the more perplexing: He criticizes Rav Nahman’s behavior as that of a common person. A leader, says Rav Yehudah, should not be laboring like a commoner (a ruling that gets codified in halakhah). Rashi interprets this edict as guarding the community’s honor, being an embarrassment if the community doesn’t have others to perform such labor. Rambam, on the other hand, sees this edict as guarding the honor of the leader, arguing that the people under that person’s leadership will look down upon that person if seen doing such labor.
If you want to know what happened next, go check out the story on the daf for yourself — it runs most of the length of it. As you read, try to track the way status figures in all kinds of interesting ways into each interaction. For now, we’ll pause on a few thoughts raised by what we’ve examined so far: We’ve seen that status can greatly complicate nearly any interaction. Partly for this reason, leaders have important choices to make about how they present themselves. Two models of leadership are found in tension on today’s daf. Rav Yehudah sees a leader’s role as separate, as one who must command and demand respect. Rav Nahman, on the other hand, is happy to be like and among the people he leads. Today’s daf asks us to consider: When should leaders respond to an insult in order to defend their honor, and when should they ignore such affronts as beneath them? Similarly, when should leaders engage in common labor, and when might we expect them to be above it? When should they be folksy? And when should they be placed on a pedestal?