We have already seen that the rabbis had a sometimes … tense relationship with the priests. This rivalry made sense in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and the competition for new kinds of leadership in the absence of the sacrificial cult. Today we meet another group of people that the rabbis have complicated feelings about: the Tannaim. Nope, not those Tannaim you’re probably thinking of. Let me explain.
The rabbinic Hebrew word Tannaim, which literally means “repeaters,” can refer to two different groups of people: the earliest generations of rabbis in Roman Palestine who wrote and compiled the Mishnah and other early rabbinic texts, and a group of the Babylonian rabbis’ own contemporaries. These other Tannaim were a community of memorizers; people that committed the Mishnah to memory as part of their religious practice, and could recite it upon request. They were, essentially, living books.
When the later rabbis were unsure of the phrasing of an earlier tradition, they often turned to the Tannaim, whom they trusted to share the tradition accurately. But that dependence didn’t necessarily inspire respect and gratitude — as we see on today’s daf.
As part of a broader discussion of what kinds of knowledge qualify someone to be truly righteous (Torah! Mishnah! Living in a rabbinic household!), Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak shares an apparently popular and decidedly snarky saying:
The magus chants and does not know what he is saying; so too, the Tanna recites and does not know what he is saying.
This saying assumes that the Tannaim who memorized the mishnah didn’t actually understand anything about it. (It’s worth noting, though probably goes without saying, that the Tannaim themselves were not likely to have agreed.) And perhaps even worse, the saying associates the Tannaim with the magi. Yes, like those magi that you’re probably thinking of — the mysterious foreign religious authorities who visited the baby Jesus. That is, Zoroastrian religious leaders.
Dr. Shai Secunda has shown that the Zoroastrian rules of priestly study describe Zoroastrian learning as “essentially a process of memorizing sacred texts through frequent repetition.” So Rav Nachman’s teaching not only dismisses the Tannaim as mere memorizers of text who don’t even understand the words they recite, but explicitly compares them to people who the rabbis classified as idolators.
The Talmud then follows this saying up with an even harsher assessment, located in the biblical book of Proverbs.
“My son, fear the Lord and the king; and meddle not with those who are repeating.” (Proverbs 24:21) Rabbi Yitzhak says: These are those who repeatedly learn the halakhot.
Rabbi Yitzhak depicts King Solomon (the reputed author of Proverbs) as taking the time to warn his children away from being Tannaim themselves (over 1,000 years before the creation of the Mishnah, no less!). Finally, the Talmud ends with a total knock out punch:
It was taught: The Tannaim erode the world.
The Tannaim erode the world?! How can the rabbis speak so disparagingly of a group of people performing such a valuable service? Rava explains that it is not all Tannaim, but only Tannaim who issue halakhic rulings who erode the world. Memorization, he explains, is not enough to be able to apply halakhah to the complexities of human life. Being a halakhic decisor is more about good decision-making than being a repository of information.
Today, when texts are abundant and (with the advent of the internet) instantly available, memorization is far less common than it used to be. And Judaism has evolved many different ways to study rabbinic texts — reading alone or with a partner, classes in person or online, podcasts and, yes, online learning communities like this one. But as today’s daf reminds us, there have always been multiple ways of learning and engaging with Jewish texts. And the rabbis themselves depended on people who learned differently.
Read all of Sotah 22 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 20th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.