Torah is awesome: profound, complicated, challenging, overwhelming, a call to engagement and even struggle with difficult ideas. For thousands of years, Jewish communities have modeled love of Torah by venerating and respecting Torah scrolls, fragments of the Torah text in mezuzot and tefillin, and those who are learned in Torah — those who truly embody it.
But what does it mean to model Torah in our public lives? And what kinds of people are worthy of that respect? Today’s daf offers several answers.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: It is disgraceful for a Torah scholar to go out to the marketplace in patched shoes. The Gemara asks: didn’t Rabbi Aha bar Hanina go out in patched shoes? Rabbi Aha, son of Rav Nahman, said: they only prohibited patched shoes if there is a patch upon a patch.
And Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: A Torah scholar on whose clothes a fat stain is found is liable to receive the death penalty, as it is stated: All those who hate me love death (Proverbs 8:36), and the sages said: Do not read: those who hate me [mesanai], rather, read: those who cause me to be hated [masniai].
According to these rabbis, modeling Torah means modeling cleanliness and care for one’s appearance. To be a vessel for Torah knowledge requires looking respectable. But cleanliness and unpatched shoes are a privilege of wealth, especially in a world without off-the-rack garments and washing machines! Luckily, according to today’s daf, these aren’t the only markers of one who represents the Torah.
Rabbi Yohanan said: who is a Torah scholar who may be appointed as a leader of the community? This is one who is asked about matters of halachah on any topic and he is able to answer, even if he were asked about tractate Kalla (a more obscure text).
According to Rabbi Yohanan, a Torah scholar is one who is an expert on matters of Jewish law, even those that are relatively obscure. For him, a Torah scholar is one who has the knowledge necessary to respond to people’s needs. It’s worth emphasizing that the text doesn’t say that a Torah scholar is one who knows everything. Instead it says that, when asked, the Torah scholar can answer everything. The scholar’s knowledge is shaped by and responsive to people’s questions and needs — the scholar exists in a broader community and serves as a resource. In a world where many people were unable to study Torah as fully as they’d like, the Torah scholar could bridge the gap between precious traditions and real people living real lives.
So what does it mean to represent the Torah in the world? Today’s daf offers two interrelated answers: the rich knowledge that reflects the depth and breadth of Torah, and the ability to embody that knowledge for the world through one’s actions, self-presentation and interactions with others. The Talmud doesn’t valorize the solitary sage living at the top of a mountain meditating on God, accruing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. To represent Torah is to be a person whose life and demeanor honor the Torah in community.