While Rashi interprets ba’alei terisin as the scholars who debate one another in the “battle of Torah,” the Arukh offers the more literal definition of “shield bearers,” that is, soldiers or police officers who were appointed by the government to support the Jewish leadership. In this story, as well as similar ones that appear in other places in the Talmud, we see that Rabban Gamliel desired to establish Yavneh as the central address for singular leadership and law in the post-Templeera. In his disagreements with Rabbi Yehoshua – one of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai‘s closest students – he aims to clarify and establish his halakhic decisions as binding.
As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page) the fact that a firstborn animal can only be eaten if it develops a permanent blemish, creates a situation whereby it is to the advantage of the kohen for the firstborn to develop a mum. This situation leads us to be suspicious of kohanim whose animals suddenly become blemished.
Rabbi Zadok had a firstling. He set down barley for it in wicker baskets of peeled willow twigs. As it was eating, its lip was slit, i.e. the animal developed a permanent blemish. He came before Rabbi Yehoshua. He said to him: ‘Have we made any difference between a priest who is a reliable haver and a priest who is an ‘am ha-arez’? Rabbi Yehoshua replied ‘Yes’. He thereupon came before Rabban Gamliel. He said to him. ‘Have we made any difference between a priest who is a reliable haver and a priest who is an ‘am ha-arez’? Rabban Gamliel replied ‘No’. Rabbi Zadok said to him: ‘But Rabbi Yehoshua told me “Yes”’! He said: ‘Wait until the ba’alei terisin – the great debaters – enter the bet ha-midrash’.
When they entered the bet ha-midrash, the questioner arose and asked: ‘Have we made any difference between a priest who is a reliable haver and one who is an ‘am ha-arez’? Rabbi Yehoshua replied ‘No’. Thereupon Rabban Gamliel said: ‘Was not the answer “Yes” reported to me in your name? Yehoshua, stand on your feet and let them testify against you!’ Rabbi Yehoshua stood up on his feet and said: ‘How shall I act? If indeed I were alive and he were dead, the living can contradict the dead. But since both he and I are alive, how can the living contradict the living’?
And Rabban Gamliel was sitting and discoursing while Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet, until all the people murmured and said to Hutzpit the interpreter: ‘Silence!’ And he was silent.