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Bekhorot 36a-b: The War of Torah

As we learned on yesterday’s daf 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.

The Gemara on today’s daf relates:

Rabbi Tzadok had a firstborn animal. He placed barley for it in wicker baskets. As it was eating, its lip split, i.e. the animal developed a permanent blemish. He came before Rabbi Yehoshua to ask whether he is suspected of intentionally causing the blemish. He said to him: “Didn’t we differentiate between a priest who is a ḥaver (learned) and a priest who is an ignoramus?” Rabbi Yehoshua replied “Yes” (i.e. You are credible to testify that the blemish was caused inadvertently). Rabbi Tzadok then came before Rabban Gamliel. He said to him: “Didn’t we differentiate difference between a priest who is a ḥaver and a priest who is an ignoramus?” Rabban Gamliel replied “No.” Rabbi Tzadok said to him: “But Rabbi Yehoshua told me ‘Yes’!” Rabban Gamliel said: “Wait until the ba’alei terisin – the masters of the shields – enter the beit ha-midrash.”

When they entered the beit ha-midrash, the questioner arose and asked: “With regard to blemishes found on a firstborn animal, didn’t we differentiate between a priest who is a ḥaver and one who is an ignoramus?” Rabbi Yehoshua replied “No.” Rabban Gamliel said to him: “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 should I act? If 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?”

In the meantime Rabban Gamliel was standing and lecturing while Rabbi Yehoshua continued to stand on his feet (in deference to the , who had not told him to sit), until all the people murmured and said to Ḥutzpit the disseminator: “Silence (Stop conveying the lecture)” and he stopped.

While Rashi interprets ba’alei terisin as the scholars who battle one another in the “war 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 Yavne as the central address for singular leadership and law in the post-Temple era. In his disagreements with Rabbi Yehoshua – one of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai’s closest students – he aims to clarify and establish his halakhic decisions as binding.

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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