Today’s daf relates a story of Rabbi Yohanan, who lives in the land of Israel:
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Yohanan would spit from the thought of Babylonian kutah (buttermilk).
Apparently, this particular food was so revolting to Rabbi Yohanan that he spat just thinking about it. (Though we learn that others in the land of Israel not only found it palatable, but used it medicinally.)
Unfortunately, Rabbi Yohanan’s distaste for a Babylonian food seems to have given his students, Rabbi Hiyah bar Abba and Rabbi Asi, the idea that there was more to his disgust.
The Gemara relates that one day as Rabbi Yohanan took a nap in the beit midrash (study hall), his students began to talk negatively about Babylonia, comparing it unfavorably to the land of Israel:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Asi were sitting before Rabbi Yohanan, and Rabbi Yohanan was sitting and dozing.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said to Rabbi Asi: Why are the fowl in Babylonia fatter (than those in the land of Israel)?
He said to him: Go to the desert of Gaza (in the land of Israel) and I will show you fowl that are fatter than them.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba then asked: Why are festivals in Babylonia more joyous?
Rabbi Asi answered: Because in Babylonia they are poor (and it is when they have enough to eat, so they rejoice).
Rabbi Hiyya asked: Why are Torah scholars in Babylonia distinguished by rabbinic garb?
Rabbi Asi answered: Because they are not well-versed in Torah (and people would not otherwise know they are rabbis).
Though it begins fairly neutrally, the conversation between these two pupils quickly devolves until the rabbis are defaming their colleagues. When Rabbi Yohanan finally wakes up from his nap, we find that he is very troubled by what his students are saying:
Rabbi Yohanan woke up and said to them: Children, did I not tell you this, that the verse “Say to wisdom: You are my sister, and call understanding your kin” (Proverbs 7:4) means that if the matter is as clear to you as the fact that your sister is forbidden to you, say it, and if not, do not say it?
Rabbi Yohanan quickly realizes that his distaste for Babylonian buttermilk was wildly misunderstood and misinterpreted by his students — to the point of leading them into speaking lashon hara, malicious gossip, about the Jews of Babylonia. Fortunately, he immediately corrects the misimpression, teaching his students not to make assumptions about people that are different from them. Of course, his message is as relevant today as it was then. Everyone has assumptions that they bring to the table, but we should be careful about reexamining those, and never let a tiny aesthetic judgement about food balloon into a full-blown prejudice. Especially when it comes to people from a different culture, we must be very careful of assuming we know more than we do.