Among the various practices that the Gemara on today’s daf recommends to judges, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that a judge should avoid “stepping on people’s heads.” The source that he brings is the juxtaposition of the two biblical passages forbidding climbing stairs up to the altar and commanding that laws be placed before the Jewish people (see 20:22 and 27:1).
This description is based on the way the students sat in the academies during the time of the Mishna and Gemara. The lecturer or the head of the yeshiva would sit on the floor facing the students, who would be sitting facing him in a series of rows. Ordinarily people had assigned spots based on their seniority, with the more learned and experienced students sitting in front, closer to the Sage. Were one of the students whose spot was near the front to arrive late, after all of the other students were already seated, he would need to “step on the heads” of the other students in order to get to his place.
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Ḥiyya and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were discussing whether a person should look upwards during prayer (based on the passage in Eikha 3:41) or downwards (based on the passage in I 9:3). Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei overheard their discussion and shared his father’s teaching – that a person should look upwards but direct his heart downwards in order to fulfill both passages.
As they were talking, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi entered and the students – who sat in assigned places on the floor during the lecture – all hurried to find their seats. Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei was heavy-set and was unable to reach his place easily, so he appeared to be “walking on people’s heads” as he made his way to his seat. The Gemara then records an exchange between Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosei and Avdan, one of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s students, where Avdan reprimanded Rabbi Yishmael for “stepping on people’s heads,” but Rabbi Yishmael successfully defended his actions.