Nedarim 59

Earning your namesake.

As it is prone to do, the Gemara on today’s daf cites a teaching that was quoted as part of a discussion two days ago and makes it the focus of its own conversation:

Rabbi Yohanan said: A litra of onions (a small amount equal to about 100 ml or 300 grams) that one tithed and then sowed, it is tithed according to the entire (crop).

At issue here is the status of the original, albeit small, quantity of onions from which tithes were taken. These onions were then planted and produced a significantly larger crop, so much so that the original amount is negligible in comparison. Rabbi Yohanan holds that when the new crop is harvested, all of it is subject to tithing, even though the original onions have already been tithed. His view is that the sheer quantity of new onions renders the older ones insignificant — a rounding error, if you will — and so the entire yield must be tithed.

The Gemara proceeds to share that:

Rabba sat and stated the halakhah.

This is not out of the ordinary for the Talmud. Amoraim in general, and Rabba in particular, transmit the oral traditions they received from their teachers all the time. But in this case, the Gemara reports that Rabba gets a rise out of one of his colleagues:

Rav Hisda said to him: Who listens to you and Rabbi Yohanan, your teacher? The permitted part of the litra, where did it go?

Rav Hisda’s objection is a reasonable one. He holds that since the original onions were already tithed, they should not have to be tithed again. Only the new onions must be tithed before they can be eaten. 

What’s striking here is not Rav Hisda’s objection, but the way he voices it. Instead of objecting to the teaching that Rabba quotes, he insults the people who perpetuate it. And not only does he insult them, but he does so foolishly. Who listens to Rabba and Rabbi Yohanan? If you have been following along for the last three years or so, you know the answer — a lot of people! Both Rabba and Rabbi Yohanan are well-respected in the Talmud, which regularly cites their opinions. In many cases, their views carry the day. In fact, Rav Hisda himself can be found quoting the teaching of Rabbi Yohanan (see Bava Batra 121a, for example).

So what’s going on here? We know by now that the rabbis of the Talmud were not above hurling the occasional insult at one another. But it seems that Rav Hisda had a particular beef with Rabbi Yohanan and slights him repeatedly when his Torah is referenced. For example, he responds identically when Rabba quotes a different teaching of Rabbi Yohanan on Shavuot 10b, and he does the same to Ulla and Rav Aha bar Rav Avya when they quote Rabbi Yohanan.

What exactly it was about Rabbi Yohanan that rubs Rav Hisda the wrong way is a mystery — the Talmud is silent on the matter. And did Rabbi Yohanan feel the same way about Rav Hisda? It’s hard to know. But we do have one source that suggests the grudge, whatever its cause, was one-sided. 

The Jerusalem Talmud, in Tractate Sotah, reports an anecdote in which, after hearing Rav Hisda offer an interpretation of a Bible verse, Rabbi Yohanan exclaims:

He is grace and his words are gracious.

One of the Hebrew words for grace is chesed (also translated as kindness), which comes from the same root as the name Hisda. After hearing an inspirational teaching from Rav Hisda, Rabbi Yohanan summons his own inner grace and offers a compliment, connecting Rav Hisda’s essence to his name.

In response, I am moved to say: Rav Hisda, take notice of Rabbi Yohanan and be not so quick to dismiss him, for it is by following his example that you will truly earn your namesake.

Read all of Nedarim 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 23th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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