Nedarim 82

Anonymous sages.

The Mishnah and the Gemara record the speakers of many teachings meticulously, often including information about who transmitted the teaching as well. But they are also full of anonymous statements. Sometimes, the rabbis are willing to accept teachings without attribution, but at other moments we encounter laborious (arguably obsessive) efforts to ascribe anonymous statements to specific sages.

On today’s daf, Rav Nahman states that an anonymous mishnah we will encounter in a few days (on Nedarim 90b) expresses the opinion of the Sages. Not so, counters the Gemara: The mishnah expresses the opinion of Rabbi Yosei. In fact:

Rav Huna said: Our entire chapter (of the Mishnah) is the opinion of Rabbi Yosei. From where do we know this? Since the (first) mishnah (on Nedarim 79) teaches: “Rabbi Yosei says” … and also “this is the statement of Rabbi Yosei.” Learn therefore that from this point forward the rest of the mishnah (ie: all the mishnahs of this chapter after the first) is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yosei.

Rav Huna points out that the first mishnah of this chapter clearly attributes an opinion to Rabbi Yosei, then concludes with the seemingly superfluous statement “these are the words of Rabbi Yosei.” A Talmud scholar might see this as a scribal error: Perhaps the person who wrote down this mishnah accidentally attributed a statement to Rabbi Yosei both before recording it and afterward, creating an awkward repetition of his name. But the rabbis of the Talmud are not inclined to this explanation and, instead, attribute significant meaning to the second mention of Rabbi Yosei. The words “this is the statement of Rabbi Yosei,” Rav Huna says, refer not to the teaching that precedes it but, rather, to all the anonymous rulings from here until the end of the chapter.

This is not the only place where the Talmud attributes a block of anonymous statements to a specific sage; in Tractate Sanhedrin 86a, Rabbi Yohanan teaches that all unattributed mishnahs are in accordance with Rabbi Meir. It seems that there is something troubling about the anonymity of mishnaic statements that pushes the Gemara to bend over backwards in order to try to attribute them. 

But it is also true that often anonymity lends rabbinic statements greater authority. This is because, according to some, whenever there is a dispute between an attributed position and an anonymous position, the halakhah follows the anonymous position (see, for example, Shabbat 46a and Yerushalmi Yevamot 4:11). One reason given for this is that the anonymous position expresses the opinion of the majority of rabbis. Based on the rabbinic principle that we follow the majority, the anonymity tells us that the position is widely accepted, so much so that it becomes law.

So what might we learn from this love/hate relationship with anonymity? It’s not so hard to understand why the Gemara would want to identify the author of a given statement. Sometimes, as in the case on our daf, attributing a position to a particular rabbi resolves a dispute, or a methodological or textual problem. And on a spiritual level, the sages believe that there is great power in giving credit to a person for their teaching. Pirkei Avot 6:6 tells us that:

One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.

But keeping some statements anonymous can give them greater power, as I was reminded once when listening to a public radio segment on economic policy. I had tuned in midway and didn’t know who the speaker was. He sounded thoughtful and compassionate, with an interesting analysis on policies that could lift more people out of poverty. Then the host announced his name and I was surprised to realize it was someone with political views diametrically opposed to my own. Reflecting on this intellectual shock, it occurred to me that had I known from the outset who was speaking, my political perspective would likely have prevented me from being open to his ideas.

Sometimes, then, it is better not to know where an idea or legal position comes from — so that we are free to evaluate it not on the basis of how we feel about its author, but rather on its own merits. Omitting the attribution removes presuppositions and politics from the process, giving us the space for more independent thinking. The anonymity of a statement provides the opportunity for us to engage in the rabbinic project of entering into a humble and honest encounter with ideas. But it is also the case that naming authors can give statements another kind of authority, as well as credit to the one who made them. And who knows — maybe it will even bring about redemption.

Read all of Nedarim 82 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 15th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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