Shabbat 59

What's your status?

Today we’re going to talk about the rabbinic interest in status. What begins as a typically detailed argument over a very specific halachic question ends up revealing a great deal about the rabbinic preoccupation with position and prestige.

Our daf continues the discussion of ornaments that women may and may not wear in the public domain on Shabbat. When it comes to kelila, a kind of head ornament, an anonymous voice in the Gemara begins by stating that Rav prohibits them and Shmuel permits them.

Or perhaps not quite. Actually, another anonymous voice interjects, everyone forbids a woman to wear a metal kelila. The object of disagreement is a woven kelila with metal embellishments — this is the ornament that Rav prohibits (holding that the metal is the primary material) and Shmuel permits.

Or, maybe not. A third view: Rav Ashi argues that actually everyone permits a woven kelila; the real dispute is over a metal kelila. And — you probably guessed it — Rav prohibits it while Shmuel permits it. Why? Rav forbids the metal kelila because he is afraid a woman will remove it in public in order to show it off to her friends, and thereby violate the law against carrying in the public domain. Shmuel permits it because he holds that only an isha chashuva, an important woman, would wear a kelila, and that a person of such status would never remove her luxurious ornaments merely to show them off. How gauche!

It is not entirely clear if it is the mention of the kelila or of the woman of status (or perhaps both) that engenders the story that comes next. Ostensibly about whether one may wear a kelila in the public domain on Shabbat, the story is more revealing about the rabbinic preoccupation with status:

They said to Rav: A great, tall man came to Nehardea and he was limping. He taught: A kelila is permitted. 

Rav said: Who is a great, tall man who limps? Levi. Conclude from this that Rabbi Afes passed away and Rabbi Hanina is sitting at the head of the yeshiva in the land of Israel in his place. Consequently, Levi had no one before whom to sit and study and he came here. 

The story begins with the Babylonian sage Rav hearing that a tall, limping man has arrived from the land of Israel. (At this time, Babylonia and Israel were the two great centers of rabbinic learning.) Furthermore, this tall limping stranger audaciously teaches, contra Rav’s position, that a kelila is permitted. That takes chutzpah — or perhaps, status.

Apparently there is only one person who is tall, learned, and slightly lame in the land of Israel, because Rav knows immediately who it is — Levi. But that is not all that Rav is able to surmise. Levi’s arrival signals to Rav that the head of the yeshiva in Israel, Rabbi Afes, has passed away, and now Rabbi Hanina has taken his place. Rav clearly also knows the pecking order of the rabbis in Israel very well, since he deduces that Levi has come to Babylonia because he considers himself an equal to Rabbi Hanina, and is therefore unwilling to learn under him. He has come to Babylonia to receive instruction from a master who has greater status.

Who is the real winner in this status game? We might think it is Levi, who has come to Babylonia and dared to teach against Rav. But really it’s Rav himself, who — no doubt with some measure of self-satisfaction — notes that one who considers himself the equal of the new head of the yeshiva in Israel has come to study at his feet. In Rav’s telling, in this status-conscious world of the rabbis, he himself comes out on top.

Read all of Shabbat 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 4, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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