Shekalim 7

Legacy.

The rabbis are famous for naming their sources. Rabbinic teachings are scrupulously transmitted in the name of the person who taught them, and often intermediaries are also given credit, by name, simply for passing them along. Sometimes, when an original source is uncertain, the Gemara will offer multiple possibilities.

This practice is seen on every page of the Talmud, but not often explained. Today, it is. 

Rabbi Yohanan was walking while leaning on the shoulder of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, and Rabbi Eliezer was watching him and hiding from him. 

Rabbi Yohanan said: This Babylonian (Rabbi Eliezer) has done two improper things to me. One, he didn’t inquire after my welfare; and another, he is hiding from me, as though he doesn’t want to speak with me… And, that Babylonian did something else wrong, in that he did not say a halakhah in my name.

The first two affronts — hiding and failing to inquire after Rabbi Yohanan’s welfare — fall into the category of social faux pas and can be explained by cultural differences. (Remember, we are now in the land of Israel — this is not the Babylonian Talmud!) Rabbi Yohanan’s students try to appease their teacher by explaining that Rabbi Eliezer’s behavior is normal in Babylonia and he meant no offense.

The third affront, however, is more serious, as the Gemara explains by way of a midrash about Psalms 61:5:

I will dwell in Your tent forever… (Psalms 61:5)

Did David imagine that he would live and endure forever?

Rather, this is what David said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, may I merit that my words will be said in my name in synagogues and study halls, and through this I will attain perpetual life for myself.

In this verse, King David, the imagined author of most psalms, speaks of his eternal presence in God’s court. According to the midrash, David could not possibly have meant that he would literally live forever; rather, he asks God that his words, perhaps those of his psalms, would live forever — not in the heavenly court, but in the places where (the rabbis believed that) God is present: synagogues and study halls.

This notion, that David’s legacy will live on because his words are kept alive through prayer and study, echoes another idea on the page:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: One does not construct monuments for the graves of righteous people. The purpose of a monument is to remember the dead person, and Torah scholars do not need a monument, as their words of Torah that continue to be taught are their memorial.

Painters create paintings, carpenters build cabinets, architects design buildings. According to the rabbis, the legacy of these artisans is preserved through the artifacts that they create. Rabbis and teachers, however, are remembered through their words and wisdom — this is their monument. It imparts great power, since ideas can long outlast physical artifacts. But, as the rabbis well knew, that legacy also has a key vulnerability: when a student fails to attribute a teaching they can effectively write their teacher out of the tradition.

When Rabbi Eliezer failed to cite Rabbi Yohanan for his halakhah, this pained his colleague far more than being ignored on the street, whatever the cultural context. In the end, of course, their story was preserved in the Talmud (in more detail than was presented here), and perhaps by retelling it here, one more small step has been taken to preserve both their legacies for future generations.

Read all of Shekalim 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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