Rabbinic Authority and Honor - Berakhot 27
The Rabbinic reliance on authority is why lessons are drawn from teachers’ behavior, and why the chain of authority in reciting sayings is so important. An English translation can be creative - “R. Zera said in the name of R. Assi reporting R. Eleazar who had it from R. Hanina in the name of Rab” – but the original is literally “R. Zera said R. Assi said R. Eleazar said R. Hanina said Rab said.” This is not simply a game of “telephone;” it is an attempt to pass down the “Oral Law” in as clear and authoritative a way as possible.
Beyond the authority of one’s teacher, in early Rabbinic assemblies there was a Nasi (“prince”) who was the head of the assembly and lead teacher. Today’s page records one episode in an ongoing conflict between Nasi Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Joshua at the end of the first century CE. Gamaliel required the evening prayer, but Joshua thought it was optional. Rather than simply mention the disagreement, we find a narrative of how the conflict played out.
One student asked both privately for their opinions on the question, but in the assembly of the Sages Gamaliel pronounced his opinion, asked if there is any disagreement (already knowing about Joshua’s teaching), and then he shamed Joshua by making him stand and confess that he has changed his tune. Joshua continued to stand as Gamaliel continued teaching, until the other Rabbis finally demand that the interpreter stop the lesson. The other rabbis feel that Gamaliel has gone too far, and they consider replacing him. They nominate Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who is wise enough to answer questions, rich enough to negotiate with the powers that be, and of sufficient pedigree (z’khut avot - “merit of the fathers”) to compete with Gamaliel, who claims descent from the Nasi line. Thus the three qualifications for the position are enumerated: good mind, good wallet, good family.
Will Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Gamaliel be able to resolve their differences? Will Rabban Gamaliel be deposed as Nasi? You’ll have to turn the page to the next daf (sheet) to find out.
Rabbi Adam Chalom