Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no bread.
Today’s conversation centers on the death of a mule from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s household whose blood was declared to be ritually pure. With regard to this incident, we learn that, in small quantities, this blood does not impart impurity — but in large quantities it does:
Rabbi Elazar asked Rabbi Simon: Up to how much blood (does not render one ritually impure)?
And he did not answer him.
He then went and asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, said to him: Up to the size of a quarter log is ritually pure; more than that is ritually impure.
Rabbi Elazar was annoyed that Rabbi Simon did not respond with the halakhah.
In this exchange, Rabbi Shimon is either reluctant to divulge the answer (one quarter log, or about one third of a cup), or he does not know. This irritates Rabbi Elazar. But his irritation is nothing to what happens in this next story about the same question:
Rav Beivai was sitting and teaching this story of the mule from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s household, in which the sages ruled that the blood of a carcass does not render one impure.
Rabbi Yitzhak bar Bisna said to him: Up to how much blood from an animal carcass does not render one ritually impure?
Rav Beivai said to him: Up to a quarter log is ritually pure; more than that is impure.
And then he (Rav Beivai) kicked him (Rabbi Yitzhak).
Wait, he kicked him? Like the mule in the story might have (if it were still alive)? Above, Rabbi Elazar was annoyed when Rabbi Shimon failed to supply the answer. Here, Rav Beivai is clearly beyond put out at being asked.
Now, to be fair, Rabbi Yitzhak was a bit of a yutz at times (he once lost the keys to the house of study, and because it was Shabbat, no one could carry another set over to open the synagogue). Moreover, we could read the story to understand that Rabbi Yitzhak either was interrupting or simply wasn’t paying attention when Rav Bevai supplied the answer himself. (In a similar version of this story in Tractate Menachot, Rabbi Yitzhak’s question is more of a challenge, and Rav Beivai is simply silent in response.) Even so, Rav Beivai’s mulish reaction here still seems unreasonable and disproportionate.
Rav Beivai’s colleague Rabbi Zerika seems just as flabbergasted as we might be, declaring: You kicked him because he asked you a question? This gives Rav Beivai a chance to account for his behavior. He begins by explaining: Because my mind was unsettled, and not because he did anything wrong.
Rav Beivai follows this up with a midrash, quoted in the name of Rabbi Hanin, about the fear that accompanies poverty — the anxiety of not knowing if one will be able to feed oneself or one’s family. He admits that his unfortunate reflex to plant a boot into his colleague, however earnest or legitimate his question, is rooted in his food insecurity. He doesn’t offer this as an excuse, but as an explanation.
Sadly, some 2000 years later, food insecurity is still a huge problem — around the world, even in developed countries. Rav Beivai wasn’t alone then, and he isn’t now. Nothing excuses resorting to physical force, but the impact of food insecurity goes beyond just how much someone has to eat, with potentially serious emotional and psychological repercussions for those who suffer from it.
Rav Beivai reminds us of the importance of confronting this systemic and persistent problem, as real today as it was hundreds of years ago, and ensuring access to nutritious options in educational settings and beyond. Truly, as Pirkei Avot tells us, without food security, opportunities for learning are closed off to us all. And we can also admire his strength in owning up not only to his behavior, but to his reasons for it. That too takes enormous courage.
Read all of Shekalim 21 on Sefaria.