Legacy admissions refers to the practice, long common at elite universities, of giving preferential consideration to the children of alumni. The practice has come under fire for favoring the already-privileged and undermining the notion of higher education as a meritocratic means of social advancement. Given the role of legacy admissions in limiting the number of Jewish students at certain elite colleges, we might expect the Jewish community to have strong feelings about this issue. What might be surprising is that today’s daf seems to as well.
After a discussion about the importance of cleanliness and avoiding grime, the Talmud offers this admonition:
Be careful with (the education of) the sons of paupers, as it is from them that the Torah will issue forth. As it is stated: “Water shall flow from his branches” (Numbers 24:7), as it from them the Torah will issue forth.
It’s a clever pun and a beautiful metaphor: The rabbis connect the word for branches, dalav, to the word for poor people, dalim. As Torah is often compared to water, the verse can be read to mean that from the poor, Torah will issue forth.
This teaching is well more than a millennium old, but it speaks to a broader issue that remains relevant today. Wealth inequality continues to play a significant role in educational inequality. This passage reminds us to pay attention to those who are economically marginalized and to honor what they might teach us all.
But for the rabbis, it’s apparently not enough to highlight the value and anticipated contributions of people in poverty. The text goes on to denigrate the potential of Torah scholars’ children:
And for what reason is it not common for Torah scholars to give rise to Torah scholars from among their sons?
Rav Yosef said: So that they should not say the Torah is their inheritance.
Rav Sheshet, son of Rav Idi, said: So that they should not be presumptuous toward the community.
Mar Zutra said: Because they lord over the community.
Rav Ashi said: Because they call people donkeys.
Ravina says: Because they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah (before commencing their studies).
Ouch! These explanations paint an entire group of people with far too broad a brush, not to mention portraying the children of the very Torah scholars the Talmud normally venerates in awful terms.
But the rabbis were probably responding to a real sense of entitlement on the part of the children of scholars. The first two statements appear to be a reaction to specific comments the rabbis have overheard, and the next three are implicit condemnations of actual behaviors. Later commentators seem to endorse this read. Tosafot, for example, interprets the concern about the children of Torah scholars claiming the Torah as their (presumably) exclusive inheritance to be rooted in a concern that those children might then conclude they don’t need to study Torah to grasp it.
So while these statements may come off as grossly generalizing and surprisingly harsh, the rabbis may well be alerting us to the unfortunate consequences that can follow from having a class of entitled children who don’t believe they need to work as hard as others and aren’t bound by norms of respect and equality. Conversely, closing off educational possibilities to people whose parents might be less educated or have fewer financial resources shuts Torah out of the world and ultimately makes us all poorer.
Read all of Nedarim 81 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 14th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.