Sukkah 18

Something's fishy here.

Today: More smashed houses converted into sukkahs, plus fish! Stay tuned.

Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai taught: A house that was breached and one roofed over it is a fit sukkah.

Rabbi Yishmael, a student of Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai, is surprised by this teaching. Rabbi Yishmael knows what we read in a mishnah yesterday: that the fitness of such a sukkah is dependent upon the distance between the walls and the breach. If the distance is less than four cubits (about six feet), the sukkah is fit; if it is greater — meaning there is a large expanse of the original roof — the sukkah is unfit.

Rabbi Yishmael now has a quandary: His teacher has issued a statement that contradicts the mishnah. It would not be out of line for him to object and cite the mishnah. As we have seen, many talmudic discussions are constructed around these kinds of challenges. But rather than objecting, Rabbi Yishmael takes a gentler tact:

My teacher, explain your opinion. 

In response, Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai does indeed clarify:

This is how my father explained it: If the ceiling between the wall and the breach is four cubits long, the sukkah is unfit. If it is less than four cubits, the sukkah is fit.

Given a chance to explain his position, Rabbi Yehuda reveals that he is aware of the stipulation in the mishnah that limits his original statement and agrees with it. His original statement was incomplete (or perhaps imprecise), but not wrong. 

Following this exchange, the Gemara brings a second conversation between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yishmael concerning the permissibility of a particular kind of fish and it follows the same pattern:

⁦Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai taught: With regard to the abramis fish, it is permitted to eat it.

Again, Rabbi Yishmael is surprised to hear his teacher’s ruling. The nets used to catch abramis fish typically caught other similar fish which are not kosher and because it was hard to distinguish the abramis fish from the others, the rabbis found it safest to forbid the abramis fish altogether.

Here too, instead of outright objecting, Rabbi Yishmael responds: My teacher, explain your opinion. 

And Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai responds:

This is how my father explained it: The abramis found in the rivers where there are also non-kosher fish is prohibited; however, the abramis where there are no non-kosher fish is permitted.

Rabbi Yehuda explains that his original statement, permitting a fish that is forbidden, applies only in limited circumstances where the original concern — accidentally eating non-kosher fish — doesn’t apply. By asking for clarification, Rabbi Yishmael once again gives Rabbi Yehuda the opportunity to explain his position and demonstrate that it does not contradict the established law.

Much of the time, talmudic discourse is constructed out of objections and responses, pitting one rabbinic position (and personality) against another. On today’s daf, we see a much more peaceful and cooperative, even loving approach taken by a student who believes his teacher has made an error. I wonder what the Talmud, and our world, would look like if Rabbi Yishmael’s approach was adopted more often.

Read all of Sukkah 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 25th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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