Yoma 57

Foolish Babylonians.

If you’ve been with us a while, you likely recall that after the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbinic Judaism coalesced in two major geographic centers, one in Babylonia and one in the land of Israel. Though separated by many miles, difficult terrain and a border between empires, the two rabbinic communities maintained a strong connection. Scholars called nahotei travelled back and forth and teachings, love and support were exchanged. But as is the case in many large families, there was also a healthy rivalry between the two centers. 

On today’s daf, we meet one scholar who took that rivalry to the next level. We’re still discussing the challenges of sprinkling the blood of the bull and goat on Yom Kippur when the Gemara asks what should be done if the blood of the two sacrifices becomes mixed before the high priest has a chance to sprinkle (a problem the rabbis sought to avoid, as we discussed yesterday, by placing the bowls on the right pedestal — or pedestals — at the right time):

Rava (a Babylonian scholar) said: He should present from the mixture once upward and seven times downward, and that counts toward both this one (bull) and that one (goat) as he has sprinkled from both of them.

Rava offers a simple solution to the problem of mixing up the two bloods: sprinkle in such a way that you will be sure to have done all the sprinkling required for both sacrifices.

Not everyone is satisfied with this solution, however:

They said this answer before Rabbi Yirmeya (in the land of Israel), whereupon he said: Foolish Babylonians! Because they live in a dark land they speak darkened halakhot.

Not nice! Rabbi Yirmeya goes on to explain that if the high priest does as Rava suggests, he risks presenting the upward sprinklings of goat blood before he has completed the downward sprinklings of bull blood which causes the entire ritual to be performed out of order, as per his interpretation of Leviticus 16:20. Rabbi Yirmeya offers a different and more complicated solution, sprinkling once upward and then down seven times, then again once upward and again down seven times so that the high priest can be sure to have completed the bull sprinklings before the goat sprinklings.

Who is this guy? Born in Babylonia, Rabbi Yirmeya moved to Israel when he was young. After that, he became convinced that scholars from the land of Israel are superior to their colleagues abroad. Throughout the Talmud, he often refers to those “foolish Babylonians” when he is frustrated by a halakhic opinion offered by a Babylonian scholar (Bekhorot 25bZevachim 60bMenachot 52a and Pesachim 34b).

Occasionally, his teacher Rabbi Zeira does the same (Beitzah 16aNedarim 49b). 

Rabbi Yirmeya was much respected as a scholar, but he also seems to have been a … challenging personality. He was once called out for prolonging the final word in the Shemaechad, too much (Berakhot 13b). And he was known to interrupt his own teacher when it was time for prayer (Shabbat 10a). At one point, he asked a particularly arcane and detail-oriented question and got himself booted out of the house of study (Bava Batra 23b). All of this adds up to the image of a scholar who could be a performative know-it-all.

It’s interesting that the Babylonian Talmud (which one might expect to have an agenda in this debate) is so tolerant about Rabbi Yirmeya’s insults. On Ketubot 75a, he gets the last word in a particularly heated exchange in which a verse from Psalms is brought to bear on the rivalry between Babylonia and the land of Israel:

And of Zion it shall be said, this man and this man were born in her, and the Most High shall establish her. (Psalm 87:5)

Rabbi Meyasha, son of the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, said: Both the man who was actually born in Zion and the one who looks forward to seeing her (are equally considered sons of Zion).

Abaye said: And one from there (the Land of Israel) is superior to two of us (from Babylonia). 

Rava said: And one of us (Babylonians), when he ascends (to the Land of Israel), is superior to two (born and raised in the Land of Israel). As Rabbi Yirmeya, when he was here (in Babylonia) did not even know what the sages say. But when he ascended there, it was he (and not the other sages of the land of Israel) who called us foolish Babylonians.

In this exchange between Babylonian rabbis, Rabbi Meyasha’s peace-making statement that scholars in both lands are on par is quickly steamrolled by Abaye’s claim that scholars from Israel are superior. Rava sneaks in a final twist, however, claiming that in fact the best scholars are those born in Babylonia who make aliyah and live in the land of Israel — just like Rabbi Yirmeya. It’s an ingenious way of honoring his colleagues in both lands, even the challenging ones, and still scoring a point for team Babylonia.

Read all of Yoma 57 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 7th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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