Chulin 54: We Can Talk Later

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Dan Arielly begins his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, by noting that for we humans it’s all relative. We do not by evaluate A by looking at A alone, we do so by comparing A to B.

Much the same applies in religious life. Fasting on Yom Kippur is most important, but not when compared to the importance of preserving a life. It was this idea that underlined a comment I heard from Rabbi Moshe Tendler back in my yeshiva days. He suggested that if one wants to teach the importance of the mitzva of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, bringing source after source extolling the mitzva of living in Israel is unlikely to have much impact. Rather one should quote the halacha that one may violate Shabbat, at least rabbinically, in order to purchase land in Israel (Gittin 8b). Every observant Jew knows the seminal importance of Shabbat; to allow its partial “desecration” for the sake of buying property in Israel tells us all we need to know.

In a similar vein we all know the importance of davening to our way of life. But how many are cognizant of the halacha that an employee must curtail his davening, lest he take time from work? Or that food we might not normally eat due to some stringency, can “become kosher” when we have hungry guests or the poor to feed? Bringing mitzvoth into “conflict” with one another teaches much about the actual hierarchy of mitzvoth which is often quite different than what we see in practice.

One of the defects that renders an animal a treifah is a puncture in its windpipe. The Gemara, not surprisingly, asks how much of the windpipe need be missing before we would declare it treif. “Ze'iri said: ‘You, who have never seen the size [of an Italian issar], may take instead as a standard the size of a Gordian dinar, which is equal in size to the small peshita, current among the small coins of Pumbeditha[1]” (Chulin 54b).

Rav Chana, a local moneychanger, then related the following. Bar Nafcha, literally the son of a blacksmith, approached him asking for a dinar with which to measure the size of a hole in the lung. Out of respect for the great rabbi before him—Bar Nafcha was none other than Rav Yochanan, considered the greatest of all Amoraim in the land of Israel—Rav Chana began to rise from his seat. However, Rav Yochanan refused to allow him to stand telling him: “Sit, my son, sit. Workers are not permitted to stand before Torah scholars when they are engaged in their work”.

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the wise” (Vayikra 19:32). Biblical law obligates one to stand before a Torah scholar. But not if that means taking a few moments away from one’s work as doing so would be a form of theft. The Gemara questions this notion as the Mishna (Bikkurim 3:3) explicitly states “All workers must rise before them [those bringing bikkurim to the Temple], enquire after their welfare and greet them, ‘Our brethren from such and such a place, come in peace".

Rav Yochanan explains “’before 'them’, but not before Torah scholars”. This is a sharp retort, but it seems a bit far-fetched to think that the Mishna, in describing the obligation of the onlookers to stand before those brining bikkurim, also meant to teach that one should not stand before Torah scholars. This reading seems much too literal and Rav Yochanan offers no support or explanation for this reading of the text.

It is likely that Rav Yochanan’s reading of the Mishna is little more than an asmachta, the reading into the text of a pre-existing law that on its own could not be derived from the text. Left unexplained is the rationale for this law—what is so special about bikkurim?

The bringing of bikkurim is a national event, celebrating the blessings of the land of Israel. It was brought with great fanfare and pageantry. While it is the farmers who bring the fruit all are obligated to participate. There are certain times when one must cease work to pay honour to others—not unlike a moment of silence to remember those who have sacrificed their lives on our behalf. It is not by chance that it is the text of the bikkurim that was chosen by our Sages as the primary text for the Pesach seder as we celebrate the forming of the Jewish nation[2].

However, the employer-employee relationship is a private matter and thus our obligations to our boss (and ourselves) take precedence over honouring a Torah scholar.

It is most interesting that that our story begins with Bar Nafcha looking to acquire some coins and ends with Rav Yochanan explaining the meaning of a Mishna. Yet Rav Yochanan and Bar Nafcha are one and the same person! Why the change in identity? One could simply explain that when expounding texts in the Beit Midrash, it is Rav Yochanan who is our teacher. But when in the marketplace it is Bar Nafcha, the son of the blacksmith, whom we meet. Yet in light of our particular context, I would argue that the Talmudic editors are, knowingly or not, hinting that in the marketplace one’s status matters little. What matters is honesty, integrity and putting in a full day’s work, not standing for rabbis. As important as that is, the workplace is not the place for such honourifics[3].

Yet at the same time the moneychanger is referred to as “Rav Chana the moneychanger”. Unlike Rav Yochanan, there are few teachings in the name of Rav Chana. Yet clearly he was an accomplished scholar or else he would not have attained the title Rav. In Talmudic times the idea of relying on the financial support of others so that one could learn was almost unheard of—and according to many was actually forbidden. The Talmud (Taanit 21a) relates that Rav Yochanan himself sought employment and returned to the Beit Midrash only upon hearing a heavenly voice.

“One who benefits from his hard labour is greater than one who fears Heaven” (Brachot 8a). The greatness of a rabbi was demonstrated by his combining Torah knowledge with self-sufficiency through work. For most, the Beit Midrash and the marketplace were meant to be flip sides of the same coin. Both offered the opportunity to serve G-d and to sanctify His name. Bar Nafcha and Rav Yochanan are one and the same.


[1] I find it telling that in determining the kashrut of an animal, it is the size of a coin that is used. Generally, when discussing food requirements, the Talmud uses other foods as measurements the most common being “similar to an olive”. For our Sages the biggest concern in declaring an animal treif is not the fact that one can't eat it—there are always other animals one can eat —but the monetary loss involved.

[2] The Gemara does raise the possibility that the reason we stand for those bringing bikkurim is to ensure they will come again. If after traveling for days carrying fruit to the Temple they go unnoticed, they may decide it’s not worth the trip—a perhaps sad, but insightful, comment about human nature. Yet even so the fact that they were worried about bikkurim and not other items brought to the Temple demonstrates the importance of this mitzva.

[3] Rashi understands that this law applies only to an employee. One who works for him or herself has no such leniency and must make the effort to stand before a Torah scholar even at work. Fascinatingly, the Tosafists disagree arguing that honouring Torah scholars does not require monetary outlay and thus one need not take the time—even just a few seconds—to rise. As research has shown, interrupting one’s focus and concentration even temporarily can set one back much farther.