The Talmud is one of Judaism’s most sacred books, a sprawling collection of rabbinic legal arguments (as well as legends, sayings, biographical anecdotes, medical advice, recipes and many other things). On each and every page, the rabbis clash over fine points of law or practice or theology. Most of these disagreements are amiable and seen as praiseworthy, disputation l’shem shamayim — for the sake of heaven. Every once in a while, though, the rabbis lose their cool.
According to the Talmud itself, the rabbis living in Babylonia were particularly prone to heated exchange. Pesachim 113b: “Three hate each other: Dogs, roosters and sorcerers. Some say also prostitutes. And some say also the sages in Babylonia.” Despite the rabbis’ best efforts, every now and then a talmudic dispute descends from deferential disagreement to dog fight.
So how did they express their displeasure? The rabbis had no shortage of choice expressions. Here are some favorites.
Vinegar son of wine!
On Baba Metzia 83b, we learn that Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbis Shimon bar Yohai, voluntarily advises a law enforcement officer of the ruling empire on the best way to catch Jewish thieves. The king is so impressed with his ingenuity, he replaces the law enforcement officer with Rabbi Elazar himself. Now Rabbi Elazar is in charge of catching Jewish criminals and handing them over to the empire. This is seen as a huge betrayal of the Jewish people, who had suffered at the hands of these rulers and normally relied on their own internal law enforcement.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha, a colleague of Rabbi Elazar, sends him a withering message about this betrayal: “Vinegar son of wine! How long will you inform on the nation of our God to be sentenced to execution?”
Wine is made from fermenting grapes. A wine that ferments too far becomes vinegar — which is less palatable and significantly less valuable. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha is saying that while Rabbi Elazar’s father, the vaunted scholar and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, was a fine wine, the son has turned out a sour disappointment.
Firstborn of Satan!
One of the greatest rivalries in Jewish law was that between the school of Shammai, known for being particularly fastidious, and the school of Hillel, known for being more lenient. Though eventually the Hillelites won most of the legal arguments, the debate between the two was alive and well for centuries after their founders were gone — and it was acrimonious. On Berakhot 11a, Rabbi Nahman bar Yitzhak says that one who follows the school of Shammai deserves to be put to death.
This intense rivalry even divided families. On Yevamot 16a, Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrkanos is under suspicion of being a Shammite. He answers question after question to prove that he subscribes to the teachings of Hillel, but one of his questioners asserts that he has heard a rumor otherwise: “But didn’t they say in your name that the halakhah (law) is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai?”
At this, Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrkanos, who must defend his reputation, parries: “Did you hear that ‘Dosa ben Hyrkanos’ issued this ruling, or did you hear that it was simply stated by ‘ben Harkinas’? … I have a younger brother who is the firstborn of Satan. And his name is Yonatan, and he is among the disciples of Shammai.”
Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrkanos (meaning he is the son of Hyrkanos) insists that he is not the ben Hyrkanos who ascribes to the teachings of Shammai, but rather it is his brother Yonatan. To emphasize the distance between them, he calls his brother “firstborn of Satan.” Which makes Hyrkanos who exactly?
On Sanhedrin 59b, we encounter a fabulous tale of Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta who was walking along, minding his own business, when he ran into some hungry lions. Thinking quickly, he uttered a verse from Psalms: “The young lions roar for their prey.” (Psalm 104:21) The verse works like a charm (literally) and two pieces of meat fall from heaven to satiate the lions. Not only that, but the lions are full after eating just one piece of the miraculous meat and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta takes the other with him to enjoy.
Back at the academy, Rabbi Shimon recounts his remarkable adventure and then asks his colleagues whether they would deem the heaven-sent meat kosher. His colleagues at first respond in unanimous agreement: “Nothing unkosher descends from heaven.” Rabbi Shimon is in luck! Not only has he been spared a gory death, he now has a choice dinner to prepare.
But someone in the academy isn’t willing to let the matter rest. Rabbi Shimon’s colleague Rabbi Zeira turns to another colleague Rabbi Abbahu and asks: “If a piece of meat resembling a donkey (which is not kosher) falls from heaven, can it be eaten?” Perhaps because he is not in the mood to split hairs over such miracles, an incredulous Rabbi Abbahu spits back: “Demented ostrich! They already told you nothing unkosher descends from heaven!”
(Note: Ostrich is a guess. The animal here is a yarud, an unidentified desert bird which likely resembles an ostrich.)
Insults Heaped Up
These were just a few examples with particularly colorful phrasing. Throughout the Talmud, we see rabbis in heated exchange and the way they handle disagreement is often harsh, even violent. They call one another idiots (Baba Kamma 105b, Baba Metzia 20b, etc.), brainless (Yevamot 9a and Menachot 80b), fools (Beitzah 16a), lacking in sense (Moed Katan 26b), poor learners (Zevachim 2a), lazy (Sukkah 26b) and zeros (Baba Batra 111a). They frequently accuse one another of sleeping through lessons (Yevamot 109b, Bechorot 23b, Niddah 60a, etc.) and cruelly laugh at each other (Nazir 42a, Beitzah 38a, Gittin 55b, etc.). They use insults — such as “black vessel” (Pesachim 88a) — the full meaning of which is lost on us. (“Black vessel” may refer to someone who is dirty or ugly.)
The rabbis assert their own superior intelligence (Hullin 137b) and superior ancestry (Baba Metzia 109a). They sneer (Sanhedrin 3b), call one another unworthy (Yevamot 95b) and kick each other out of the beit midrash, the house of study (Beitzah 12b, Yoma 42a, Berachot 30b). They literally sling mud at each other (Shevuot 18b, Pesachim 62b) and sometimes excommunicate one another (Menachot 37a). They metaphorically toss ideas and each other in the garbage using the phrase “cast on thorns” (Beitzah 29b), curse one another’s children (Baba Metzia 108a) and predict one another’s deaths (Pesachim 69a). They even kill each other — though the mode in which this is related is clearly folkloric: In several places, one rabbi gives another a withering stare (literally) and reduces the target to a “heap of bones” (Berachot 58a, Shabbat 34a, Baba Batra 75a, Sanhedrin 100a).
We find rabbis wishing their fellow rabbis to be stung by a scorpion (Bechorot 31b) and calling their colleagues’ words “vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes” (Taanit 4b, Kiddushin 45b). In one case, a rabbi wishes that another will grow a horn out of his eye (Shabbat 108a). On Gittin 41a, Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak sounds more than a little jealous when he smarmishly asks: “Is it because Ami is pleasingly handsome that his teachings are not pleasing?”
What Should We Make of All These Insults?
Were the rabbis simply rude brutes who couldn’t handle conflict? Not at all. Throughout the 63 tractates (2,711 pages) that comprise the Babylonian Talmud, we see numerous examples of the rabbis treating one another with kindness, compassion, deference, reverence, sensitivity, vulnerability and remorse. Like family members, they can be both extremely loving and terribly rough with one another.
The Talmud likens public shaming to spilling blood (Baba Metziah 58b) and states that one who shames his fellow has no share in the World to Come. Though it states these ideals, the Talmud also presents the rabbis not as saints, but as fully flawed and human, and more than capable of launching a zinger. A teaching from Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba on Kiddushin 30b sums it up nicely: “even a father and son or teacher and student who study Torah at the same gate become enemies of each other; yet they do not leave from there until they come to love each other.”
Interested readers will enjoy Arthur E. Helft’s delightful collection, Talmudic Insults and Curses.