Yevamot 15

Damp olives.

Today’s daf is chock full of “what would you do?” moments — particularly when students of the schools of Hillel and Shammai are placed in awkward situations because of their differing halakhic views. One that struck a chord with me has to do with any Jew’s favorite topic: food. 

Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: When I studied Torah with Rabbi Yohanan the Horani (who was a disciple of Beit Shammai) I saw that in years of drought he would eat dry bread dipped in salt.

Rabbi Yohanan the Horani was a student of Shammai, and by all accounts quite poor. In a year of famine, he has nothing to eat but bread and salt. After consulting with his father, Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok resolves to bring over some olives to supplement his teacher’s rather tasteless famine diet. 

He saw that they were moist. He said to me: I do not eat olives.

Rabbi Yohanan lays eyes on the olives — which are visibly wet — and fears they are impure. Rather than saying so, however, he simply states that he is not an olive fan. 

Food. We wax eloquent about how it unites us around a table. But, equally, food — and especially dietary restrictions and rules of kashrut — can deeply and emotionally divide us. Rabbi Yohanan is wise to use tact in refusing the olives graciously offered by his student Rabbi Elazar.

Rabbi Elazar, however, is not fooled by Rabbi Yohanan’s polite reply. He goes back to his father and asks what to do, receiving this response:

Go and say to him that the barrel containing the olives was perforated, but it was clogged by sediments.

The elder Rabbi Tzadok tells his son to go tell Rabbi Yohanan that there was an attempt to drain the barrel of liquid (hence the perforations) but it didn’t work out (it was clogged by sediments). What does this communicate? The school of Hillel required perforations in a preserved barrel of olives to dry out the olives and ensure their purity; the school of Shammai did not. However, the Talmud explains, even Beit Hillel agreed that if the perforations were subsequently clogged, meaning the olives remained moist, the olives would be insusceptible to impurity. 

And now we understand something surprising: It turns out that the concern about these olives has everything to do with the rulings of Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai would have had no problem with wet olives — and Rabbi Yohanan is a student of Beit Shammai! So why would he refuse them? The Gemara explains:

Although Rabbi Yohanan the Horani was a disciple of Shammai, he always acted only in accordance with the statements of Beit Hillel.

What made Rabbi Yohanan unusual, and great in the eyes of the Gemara, was that despite being a student of Shammai, he followed the rulings of Hillel — for the sake of peaceful coexistence. So committed was Rabbi Yohanan the Shammaite to Hillel’s rulings that he refused to eat damp olives that any other student of Shammai would presumably have felt free to consume. And he is indeed so committed to smooth social interactions, he declines the olives with tact, politely saying that he does not care for them.

Rabbi Yohanan is a fascinating character in this sugya. He knows the halakhic differences, understands them, is committed to them, and yet attunes his behavior not to what he thinks is the “right” halakhic answer, but to what will preserve social unity, first by following Beit Hillel’s strictures, and then by choosing to politely decline olives rather than malign them as impure. 

Today’s daf offers us a model of thinking about potentially difficult social interactions that arise from a conflict in observance. You may disagree with someone with every fiber of your being — you may believe your friend’s food is not kosher, that your colleague is not properly observing Shabbat, that your neighbor is not halakhically a Jew — but if we follow the wisdom of Rabbi Yohanan, we should consider putting aside this judgment for the sake of community and unity, letting harmony supersede intellectualism and halakhic certitude.

Read all of Yevamot 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 22nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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