Menachot 18: Loving Torah

By: rabbi jay kelman |

“Blessed are Torah scholars for whom the words of Torah are very dear to them” (Menachot 18a). One can tell much about a person by seeing what makes them happy. For the true scholar there is almost nothing that brings greater joy than gaining further knowledge and insight into the subject matter at hand. Whether or not there is practical significance to the new discovery of knowledge is almost irrelevant. Knowledge is valuable and worth celebrating for its own sake, period.

In our last post we discussed how, upon doing one of the sacrificial rites, even thinking that one may eat from a sacrifice beyond its specific time renders it invalid; and one who goes ahead and eats such a korban, even within the prescribed time, would be liable for the penalty of karet, excision.

But what if the improper thought was not regarding eating the korban but the sprinkling of the blood? As part of the sacrificial rite one must sprinkle some of the blood of the animal on the altar[1]. Would one’s intent to sprinkle the blood on the morrow of the slaughter, or not to sprinkle it all, also invalidate the sacrifice? Or must we only concern ourselves with thoughts regarding the actual korban itself? Not surprisingly, this question is subject to debate. But the technical details of this debate – especially in an era where there is no Temple – pale in comparison to how to frame the debate.

The Talmud relates that Rebbe – who died some 150 years after the destruction of the Temple - went to visit Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua[2].  When he arrived, Yosef Habavli was “sitting before [Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua] and it was very dear to him[3]” (Menachot 18a). Or at least it was until Yosef Habavli asked what the law was regarding one who slaughters a sacrifice with the intent to sprinkle its blood on the morrow. Rabbi Elazar answered that the sacrifice remains valid. Apparently not satisfied with the answer, Yosef Habavli asked the same question again, and again and once again, each time receiving the exact same answer; the korban is kosher! Unaware of concept of three strikes and you’re out, he asked a fourth time and once again Rabbi Elazar affirmed the kashrut of the korban.

However, this time he noted the dissenting view of Rabbi Eliezer who invalidates such a korban. Upon hearing this “Yosef Habavli’s face lit up” with joy.

Rabbi Elazar was taken aback by such a reaction, assuming that only this teaching found favour in Yosef Habavli’s eyes. “Yosef, it seems to me that my teachings were not accurate until now”, he exclaimed. Yosef Habavli assured him such was not the case. Rather, “Rabbi Yehuda taught me that [such a korban] is invalid. And I went around to all his disciples, seeking from me a friend [i.e. another student who had also heard this from him] but I could not find one. Now that you have taught me that it is invalid you have returned to me that which I had lost”.  

Yosef Habavli recalled hearing a teaching of Rav Yehuda that he had heard as a young student. But no one else remembered such a teaching and Yosef Habavli was troubled, fearing he had forgotten them. When he heard these words of Torah confirmed years later he was full of joy. The Torah of his youth had returned.

That the halacha does not follow Rav Yehuda is of little relevance. Learning words of Torah, any and all parts of the Torah is the most sublime of activities, connecting one to the Divine. While in practice one must accept one view over another, even rejected views are an expression of the Divine will.  

There was a further element to his joy. The words of his teacher were dear to him, and even if they are to be rejected, one rejoices upon hearing them.

In fact, Rav Elazar told Yosef Habavli that Rav Yehuda himself was only quoting the (rejected) view of Rabbi Eliezer out of his love towards him. The basis of that love was the fact that his father, Rav Elai, was a student of Rabbi Eliezer. Thus when he himself would teach he would teach the words of Rabbi Eliezer because they were dear to him. What respect for his father! What respect for a teacher!

No wonder “Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua’s eyes streamed with tears, and he said: Happy are you, Torah scholars, for whom matters of Torah are exceedingly dear[4]”.

 

[1] As the Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) explains regarding a sin offering, blood is the essence of life and the blood of the korban is the symbolical killing of the sinner who according to the strictest application of justice deserves to die. Why should one who sins against G-d be allowed to live? Of course, such is beyond possible in reality, but as a reminder to avoid sins at all costs, we must sprinkle blood, i.e. life, on the altar.

[2] The Gemara presents two possible reasons for the visit. Either Rebbe wanted to ask for clarification of issues that Rebbe was having difficulty understanding, or he went to listen and to learn from whatever Rabbi Elazar might be teaching. It matters little save for the fact that when scholars visit each other they do much more that have some cake and idle conversation.
 

[3] The Talmud does not actually explain what was dear to him. Presumably, it was the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Elazar that was so beloved. However, one can also explain that just being in the presence of a great scholar brings great joy.  


[4] Yosef Habavli is quoted only on four occasions in the Talmud and unlike the more famous of our Tanaim, it is likely that few have heard of him. Yet, perhaps we can argue that his influence extends much further. The Talmud (Yoma 52b) identifies Yosef Habavli with Issi ben Yehuda. It was Issi ben Yehuda who taught that the verse to honour the elderly requires we honour all elderly, perhaps even idolaters (Kiddushin 32b). This story began when Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi, the editor of the Mishna, went to visit Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Rebbe records that when he got there Yosef Habavli was there and while waiting his turn to learn from his teacher witnessed the exchange between Yosef Habavli and Rabbi Elazar. Perhaps this is the reason that upon editing the Mishna, Rebbe included views that were not accepted in practice.