Have you ever been in a situation where you were supposed to know the answer to a question, but you weren’t sure? What if this was in public, before a large crowd? Would you ask the assembled to find out the answer? Or just take a guess?
In today’s daf, we have such a scenario, concerning the proper way to recite Kiddush over wine on Shabbat day. The Talmud recognizes that reciting Kiddush on Friday night is intuitive — that is when the day is sanctified (mekudash). So why say Kiddush again the next day? After all, the day has long been sanctified!
The Talmud says one must make Kiddush during the day because of the verse: “Remember the Sabbath Day” (Exodus 20:7). They note that the word “day” is superfluous in the text, since it could have simply read: Remember the Sabbath. So “day” comes to emphasize the need to mark Shabbat during the daytime. Still, it doesn’t seem that everyone knew what liturgy to recite in order to make this Kiddush during the day. Which brings us to the following story:
Rav Ashi happened to come to the city of Mehoza. The sages of Mehoza said to him on Shabbat day: Will the Master recite for us the great Kiddush? And they immediately brought him a cup of wine.
Imagine you are Rav Ashi. You have been invited to the great city of Mehoza, and you are handed the cup of wine to make Kiddush during the day (also known as: “the great kiddush” — this itself may be a euphemism for the lesser kiddush). But it turns out: You have no idea how they say Kiddush here in Mehoza! You could ask the host quietly: “Can you remind me how it goes?” But this is Rav Ashi, one of the greatest scholars of the generation. Is it possible he doesn’t know how to say Kiddush on Shabbat morning? So Rav Ashi decides to take an educated guess:
He thought: What is this great Kiddush to which they refer? He said to himself: Since with regard to all the blessings over a cup of wine, one first recites: “Who creates the fruit of the vine,” he recited: “Who creates the fruit of the vine” and lengthened it (to see if they were expecting an additional blessing).
Rav Ashi decides to wing it and use his common sense. Since all the blessings over wine start with “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who creates the fruit of the vine,” perhaps this one does, too! He recites it, and then he pauses to see if the assembled crowd expect him to say more. But then redemption comes from an elderly man in the crowd:
He saw a particular elder bending over his cup and drinking (and realized that this was the end of the great Kiddush). He read the following verse about himself: The wise man, his eyes are in his head (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
Once the old man drank, Rav Ashi knew he had finished the blessing. This is striking because in contrast to the full Kiddush said on Friday night, which concludes with the line “who sanctifies (mekadesh) Shabbat,” nowhere in the one line blessing over the fruit of the vine which here qualifies as Shabbat day Kiddush is the root word “holy” (kodesh) which gives its name to Kiddush! Nonetheless, this single line is the “Kiddush” for Shabbat day. Indeed, while many modern customs differ as to the opening verses recited on the daytime Kiddush, they all end the same way: “who creates the fruit of the vine” (with no mention of sanctifying).
Why did Rav Ashi risk winging it? Did he actually intuit the answer? Or was the old man cutting him a break, and letting him off the hook even though he didn’t do the correct liturgy? The Talmud doesn’t tell us.
Sometimes leaders need to take a risk instead of exposing their own ignorance. They might sacrifice too much standing if they admit their lack of knowledge. However, this isn’t the only model of what to do when one doesn’t know the answer.
Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we learn the story of Rabbi Eleazar Hisma. He is asked to lead the Shema and the Amidah, but he admits he does not know how. The people say to him: They call you “rabbi” for nothing! Rabbi Eleazar Hisma, mortified, went to his teacher Rabbi Akiva, and told him what happened. Instead of berating his student, Rabbi Akiva simply asks: Do you want to learn? Rabbi Eleazar says yes, and Rabbi Akiva teaches him. Then he goes back to the place where he had failed; this time, he leads the prayers successfully.
Sometimes, admitting a lack of knowledge isn’t possible or advisable. But sometimes, admitting that one is ready to learn — even something one should already know — is the pathway to greatness.