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Behind the Scenes of the Talmud

How does the Talmud deal with conflicting ideas? By taking a closer look at the inner workings of the Talmud, we can see how clarity is often the key to problem-solving.
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The question ‘what are we dealing with here?’ is a frequently used tool in the Gemara, serving as part of the Talmudic methodology for seeking truth. It appears across the Gemara hundreds of times, and on this daf alone no less than five times. It helps clarify statements, particularly those in the Mishna. Clarity is crucial for accurately assessing a statement’s validity. The Gemara accepts the authority of the Mishna, so if something implied in the Mishna contradicts an assumption made by the Gemara, the conclusion cannot be that the Mishna is false. Therefore, the Gemara needs to find a way to uphold the truth value of the Mishna without rejecting its own assumption. Let’s take a look behind the scenes and explore this key problem-solving tool. 

The Mishna in Gittin 11b compares the document of manumission for an eved to a document of divorce. An eved becomes free when the rav gives the document to an agent because of a principle that rights can be given to a person in their absence. A woman does not gain any rights through divorce, so she must accept the document of her own free will. This is proven in the Mishna by the following distinction: a husband has to provide for his wife, but a rav does not have to provide for an eved. The end of the relationship results in a loss for a woman, but not for an eved. This is the opinion of the rabbis. Rabbi Meir disagrees. If the rav is a cohen, the eved will lose the right to eat teruma. The termination of the relationship means he loses a right and so he must accept the document of his own free will.

The Mishna states ‘if one does not want to provide for his eved, it is allowed’. The Gemara is puzzled by this statement, as it suggests that the rav can say to his eved ‘work for me, but I will not provide for you’. Rashi explains that the rav is expecting the eved to work for him and to beg for his sustenance. This is at odds with what the Torah expects from a rav, as Rambam writes in Hilchot Avadim (9:8), ‘he should provide him with all food and drink, and the early sages would give their avadim from every dish they would eat’. In his commentary Kessef Mishneh, Rabbi Yosef Karo points out that Rambam is drawing on the Yerushalmi, which does expect a rav to provide for his eved. It seems unusual that such a basic issue would be a matter of dispute between two authoritative sources. Additionally, it is a principle of Talmud study that where possible we try to minimize disputes (see Beit Aharon). As the Gemara cannot simply dismiss the words of the Mishna, nor can it accept that an eved is expected to work and beg simultaneously, it seems we are stuck in our search for the truth.

The Gemara resolves this problem by reframing the Mishna and asking ‘what are we dealing with here?’. It suggests that the rav said to the eved ‘spend your wages and provide for yourself’. The two statements ‘work for me, but I will not provide for you’ and ‘spend your wages and provide for yourself’ are not mutually exclusive. The answer of the Gemara reveals a fact that was not obvious from the Mishna’s statement: the eved can provide for himself because the rav gives him wages. The Gemara needs to explain the Mishna in this way because it is not comfortable with an interpretation that does not align with the Torah’s expectations of a rav. It is worth considering why the Mishna presented the statment in a way that required clarification. While the Gemara’s interpretation is valid, the original intention of the Mishna in saying ‘if one does not want to provide for his eved, it is allowed’ needs to be addressed. How can both interpretations be true? The Penei Yehoshua of Rabbi Yehoshua Falk provides insight into this. He comments that if the wages were not enough to provide for the eved, you might have thought that the rav would be obligated to make up the necessary amount. The statement of the Mishna teaches us that this is not the case. 

The tool used to facilitate the resolution here is called in Talmudic language okimta, roughly translated as upholding something. An okimta can provide an answer to a question, but it often means reframing a statement with a new interpretation. In an article on this topic published in the journal Ha’Maayan, Rabbi Moshe Gantz explains that ‘sometimes the Mishna is coming to teach a certain point, and that is its only goal. It does not intend to address relevant questions that arise in relation to that point. When the amoraim come along and point out that the ruling of the Mishna is not correct in light of those questions, the Gemara answers that by utilizing a certain okimta the ruling is, in fact, correct. The Mishna did not relate to this [explicitly] because that was not its goal.’ 

On this daf, the question arises how it can be that the rav does not need to provide for his eved, as this simply doesn’t fit with what we assume about the nature of the rav-eved relationship. It is not at all explicit in the Mishna that we are dealing with a case where the rav is paying his eved a wage. The reason the Mishna did not state this explicitly is because it was not the point it intended to address. The point relevant to the Mishna is explained by the Penei Yehoshua. Therefore, with the help of an okimta, the Gemara resolves the problem by assuming that the rav is paying his eved a wage, which aligns with the Mishna’s ruling. Thus, the truth-value of both ideas, ‘work for me, but I will not provide for you’ and ‘spend your wages and provide for yourself’, is upheld.

  1. When dealing with conflicting sources, ask ‘what are we dealing with here’ to reframe the conversation.
  2. Think about why some aspects of the truth were previously unseen (the source was dealing with a specific question, the apparent contradiction arose in relation to a different issue etc.)
  3. You don’t need to settle for accepting contradictions! Using this tool creates a multi-layered understanding of the truth which aligns both sources. 

The Talmud has a lot to teach us about how best to resolve conflicting ideas in our search for truth. This case illustrates how we can use these tools to solve real-life challenges.

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Nathaniel Carlebach

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