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Zevahim 96a-b: Switching Teachers

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Yitzḥak bar Yehuda was a regular student of Rami bar Ḥama, but then he moved to study under the direction of Rav Sheshet. One day Rami bar Ḥama met his former student and said to him “Did you assume that when the chief of taxes grasped me by the hand, the fragrance of his hand came to my hand?”  This colloquial expression meant to ask whether he believed – as do many people – that being in the company of a great person – in this case Rav Sheshet – confers some level of greatness on him as well.

By way of explaining his choice to switch teachers, Rabbi Yitzḥak bar Yehuda explained that when he asked a question of Rami bar Ḥama, invariably he would receive a logical explanation, and when he found that a Mishna contradicted the explanation, he was left confused. When he asked Rav Sheshet, however, Rav Sheshet would quote a Mishnaic ruling, so even if a contradictory Mishna was presented challenging that teaching, at least he could be certain that this was no worse than a simple disagreement between tanna’im.

The Gemara continues by telling that Rami bar Ḥama then asked Rabbi Yitzḥak to challenge him with a question, and Rabbi Yitzḥak asked him about the halakha of the Mishna that required cleaning the blood off of vessels in the Temple. Rami bar Ḥama responded with a logical explanation of a ruling, which was ultimately contradicted by a baraita.

Rami bar Ḥama was a fourth generation Babylonian amora, who was a close student of Rav Ḥisda. He was well known for his sharp, logical mind; occasionally we find that his sharp intellect caused him to miss basic errors in his conclusions. Rav Sheshet was one of the great amoraim in Babylonia in the third generation of amoraim. He studied with Rav Huna and was so well versed in the oral traditions of the baraitot that he was referred to as “Sinai” – the center of Torah knowledge. Many of the students who chose to study with him did so because they could be certain that all of his teachings were based on the solid traditions of early sources.

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

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