Talmud pages

Pesachim 62

A mysterious book.

The Babylonian Talmud is far from the only text the rabbis produced. In addition to the parallel Jerusalem Talmud, we also have the Tosefta (a text that parallels the Mishnah but contains many teachings not found in the Mishnah), and quite a few compilations of midrash. There may well have been more books that no longer survive. In fact, today’s page hints that there were.

After a long run of pages with incredibly technical conversations about what qualifies or disqualifies a paschal offering, the Talmud suddenly offers us a story about a mysterious book:

Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Yohanan. He said to him: Would the Master teach me Sefer Yochasin (the Book of Genealogies)?

Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Where are you from?

He said to him: From Lod.

Rabbi Yohanan further asked: And where is your present place of residence?

He said to him: In Neharde’a.

Rabbi Yohanan said to him: I have a tradition that we teach these subjects neither to Lodites nor to Neharde’ans, and certainly not to you who comes from Lod and your residence is in Neharde’a, such that you have both shortcomings. 

Rabbi Simlai wants to study Sefer Yochasin but Rabbi Yohanan wants to dissuade him. His response echoes a bartender near Fenway Park to a patron wearing a Yankees hat: “We don’t serve Yankees fans here.”

Rabbi Simlai is persistent, however, and Rabbi Yohanan finally agrees to teach him. Pushing his luck, Rabbi Simlai has a further request: Can we finish in three months? At this, Rabbi Yohanan picks up a clod of dirt and throws it at the would-be student, exclaiming:

Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon, learned three hundred halakhot in one day from three hundred sages, and nonetheless she did not fulfill her responsibility to properly learn the Book of Genealogies in three years. And you say that I should teach it to you in three months? 

If Beruriah (we met her back in Tractate Berakhot), known for being exceptionally intelligent and wise, couldn’t finish Sefer Yochasin in three years, how could Rabbi Simlai expect to do it in three months?

It’s not clear if Rabbi Simlai ever got the chance to study Sefer Yochasin — the Talmud is silent on the matter. Some commentators suggest that as he was shooed away by the clod of dirt and, on his way out, asked a question about the mishnah on today’s page (which is why this story is here). Others suggest that he posed his question only after the completion of his course of study — perhaps in as little as three months. 

So what is Sefer Yochasin, this Book of Genealogies, that took the famous Beruriah three years to learn and which Rabbi Yohanan was so reluctant to teach Rabbi Simlai? That information is lost to us — and likely to the sages who wrote the Talmud itself. Further down the page Rami bar Rav Yuda says that Rav elaborates:

From the day the Book of Genealogies was hidden and no longer available to the sages, the strength of the sages has been weakened, and the light of their eyes has been dimmed.

There are no other references to Sefer Yochasin in the Talmud outside of today’s daf. Of course, we can speculate on what it was about. Rashi explains that the book contains the reasons behind many of the mitzvot, so perhaps Rabbi Simlai is looking to deepen his understanding of Jewish practice. Many scholars suggest, based upon a geonic commentary, that Sefer Yochasin was a commentary on the Chronicles, the last book in the Hebrew Bible, which contains many genealogical lists. In the end, we can’t be sure. But there is one more comment about it on today’s page that suggests it sure wasn’t short:

Mar Zutra said: From “Azel” to “Azel” bore four hundred camels of expositions.

Mar Zutra suggests that from the first reference to a person named Azel in 1 Chronicles 8:38 to the second reference, later in the same verse (or perhaps in 9:44) there were four hundred camel loads of commentary. (Rashi’s introduction to his commentary on Chronicles says thirteen thousand camel loads, but who’s counting?) No wonder Beruriah couldn’t complete her study in three years!

Read all of Pesachim 62 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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