Pesachim 55

Acting presumptuously.

For pages now, the Talmud has been discussing laws that vary by local custom. It began with a conversation about which communities work on Erev Passover and which do not. Likewise, yesterday we learned in a mishnah that some communities work on Tisha B’Av (the day on which Jews fast and mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples) and some do not. The mishnah continues:

In all places Torah scholars are idle.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: A person should always conduct themselves as a Torah scholar.

Regardless of the local custom, says the mishnah, Torah scholars do not perform labor on Tisha B’Av, allowing them to mourn for the loss of the Temple without distraction. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (also known by his acronym Rashbag) universalizes that notion, however, suggesting that we should all act like Torah scholars and refrain from labor, regardless of local custom.

In one mishnah, we’ve been given three ways of thinking about this rule. Is working on Tisha B’Av a matter of local custom? Educational and religious status (i.e. whether or not one is a rabbi)? Or a universal no-no?

As we have so often seen, the Gemara doesn’t seek to simply know the answer, but to understand the reasoning behind each position. Why does Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Rashbag) disagree with the rabbis? The Gemara begins to intuit an answer:

Is that to say that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel holds that we are not concerned about presumptuousness when a person conducts himself like a Torah scholar? And conversely, do the rabbis hold that we are concerned about presumptuousness? 

Here, the Gemara suggests that the debate is not about who should refrain from working, but rather what it looks like for a person to do so: The rabbis are concerned that adopting the practice of a Torah scholar looks presumptuous; Rashbag encourages everyone to refrain from working during the fast, without concern for how it looks.

This is a typical example of how the Gemara reframes a difference of opinion in the mishnah as a disagreement about the principles that underlie the respective positions. One might now expect the Gemara to bring test cases that will now help determine if presumptuousness is a relevant concern. Except that is not where it goes.

It turns out, the Gemara has a bigger problem to tackle because there is another mishnah (on Berakhot 16b) in which the positions of the rabbis and the Rashbag actually appear to be reversed:

With regard to the recitation of Shema on one’s wedding night, the rabbis said that if a groom wishes to recite Shema on the first night despite his exemption, he may do so. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Not everyone who wishes to assume the reputation of a God-fearing person may assume it, and consequently not everyone who wishes to recite Shema on his wedding night may do so. 

In general, the rabbis presumed that one’s wedding night is likely to be pretty (ahem) busy and therefore generally grant an exemption from the requirement to say morning Shema — though as Torah scholars and leaders, they still take that obligation upon themselves. But in this particular mishnah, we see that the rabbis move to universalize that custom of saying Shema on one’s wedding night, while it is now Rashbag who appears concerned about people acting presumptuously. The two parties have effectively reversed their positions.

Luckily, Rav Sheisha the son of Rav Idi offers an explanation that makes sense of all this. With regard to the position of the rabbis in both mishnahs, he notes that the cases are not actually fully parallel. On Tisha B’Av, the question of performing labor is a matter of local custom and because many other people are refraining from labor, visibly doing so is a way of truly distinguishing oneself in a manner that might be seen as ostentatious. But in the case of Shema, there is no variance in local custom — everyone is reciting Shema, so the groom who chooses to do so on his wedding night is not singling himself against others who do not. 

Similarly, Rav Sheisha is able to resolve the tension in Rashbag’s two statements as well. To Rashbag, choosing to recite Shema in the midst of an evening that requires a great deal of (ahem again) concentration appears presumptuous (“as if announcing: I am able to concentrate although others in my situation are not”) while refraining from labor on Tisha B’Av does not appear presumptuous because people will just assume the person has no work to do that day.

Rav Sheisha’s explanation not only resolves the tension between these two mishnahs, but helps us understand the underlying thinking of both the rabbis and Rashbag. He explains everything through the notion of presumptuousness — and, in particular, the appearance of presumptuousness. Each permits a presumptuous act, if it will be discrete, they simply disagree about the situation in which discretion is possible.

Read all of Pesachim 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 15th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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