Rav Meir's Legacy (Nazir 49)

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

 

While it was Rav Yehuda Hanassi who edited the Mishna it is the teachings of Rav Meir, who lived in the generation prior, that form the basis of much of the Mishna; stam Mishna k'Rav Meir, an anonymous Mishna follows the opinion of Rav Meir (Sanhedrin 88a). Meir means light and it was Rav Meir means who "enlightened the eyes of the sages in [their understanding] of halacha" (Eiruvin 13b). Yet despite his undisputed greatness there is much ambivalence regarding his legacy. And that ambivalence begins with his greatness.
 

"Rav Acha bar Chanina said: It is revealed and known before Him Who spoke and the world came into existence, that in the generation of Rav Meir there was none equal to him; then why was the halacha not fixed in agreement with his views? Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his mind, for he would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, the ritually clean to be unclean and also supply plausible proof." Sometimes being a super genius has its drawbacks. One can be 'too smart' questioning or even disproving the established law, something that can make one extremely unpopular.
 

Yet the ambivalence grows even stronger. The anonymous teachings of the Mishna may follow Rav Meir but that is because these teachings likely reflect the consensus view. But in disputes with others, mainly Rav Yehudah, we rarely follow the view of Rav Meir. He was given the appropriation achereem, the other, so that often instead of quoting Rav Meir directly we are taught Achereem omrim, others say (Horayut 13b). This reference to achereem likely reflected the Sages coolness towards the friendship and, even more 'dangerous', Rav Meir's willingness to continue to learn from Elisha ben Avuya, the prominent and most learned heretic who was known as Acher, the other, the one beyond the pale[1].
 

Who exactly was Rav Meir? "His name was not Rav Meir but Rav Nehorai...His name was not Nehorai but Rav Nechemia or others say Rav Elazar ben Arach" (Eiruvin 13b). This is not a debate about a name but rather about a legacy. Nehorai is Aramaic for light and Nechemia means comfort. Historically it is not possible to identify Rav Meir with Rav Elazar ben Arach[2]. Yet just as light and comfort attest to his greatness such identification is a great compliment as Rav Elazar ben Arach was the greatest of the students of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai. "Abba Shaul said in his [Rav Yochanan ben Zackai's] name that if all the sages of Israel...were on one side of a balance scale, and Rabbi Elazar son of Arach were on the other side, he [Rabbi Elazar] would outweigh them all" (Avot 2:8).He was as the Mishna describes an "ever-flowing well" to go along with having "none equal to him."
 

Yet if one scratches a little deeper - especially in the context of the Gemara in Eiruvin - being identified as Rav Elazar ben Arach may be far less than complimentary. The Gemara (Shabbat 147b, see my discussion of this fascinating Gemara here) describes how Rav Elazar ben Arach moved away from the Beit Midrash dwelling in a city full of luxury but devoid of sages. His alienation from Torah was so thorough that upon his return he could barely read. We need not identify Rav Meir with Rav Elazar ben Arach to extol his greatness as the Talmud has just done that - it rather appears as a veiled critique of Rav Meir and a wish that his Torah should be forgotten.
  

With this background perhaps we can understand the following. "Our Rabbis taught: After the death of Rav Meir, Rav Yehudah said to his disciples, 'Do not allow the disciples of Rav Meir to enter here, for they are disputatious and do not come to learn Torah, but come to overwhelm me with citations from tradition" (Nazir 49b). The students of Rav Meir apparently could also bring sources to overturn the consensus.
 

"Sumchus [a student of Rav Meir] forced his way through and entered. He said to them, 'Thus did R. Meir teach me... Rav Yeudah became angry and said to them, 'did I not tell you not to allow the pupils of Rav Meir to enter here, because they are disputatious?... Rav Yossi commented: People will say, 'Meir is dead, Yeudah is angry, Yossi is silent, what is to become of the Torah?' And so Rav Yossi explained[3]...
 

When a great rabbinic leader dies, especially one who was somewhat controversial, great debate is likely to ensue. While the leader may have been begrudgingly accepted the same may not be true of his students.
  

Whether Rav Meir's students were primarily focused on creating disputes or the honest pursuit of the truth was likely a matter of perspective. For those who would have removed Rav Meir himself from the Beit Midrash they likely did not take kindly to his students. 

 

It took Rav Yossi to stop the spiraling dissension in its tracks. The death of Rav Meir[4] led to “anger” and Rav Yossi could not remain silent. He rose to explain what Sumchus had taught in the name of Rav Meir.  
 

When great Rabbis are filled with anger it is time to speak up and do what we can to lower the temperature. Sadly there are few able to succeed as Rav Yossi. May we have more like him.

[1] Perhaps the most negative comment regarding Rav Meir is to be found in Rashi's explanation of "ma'aseh d'Bruriah", the incident of Beruriah, the scholarly wife of Rav Meir (Avodah Zara18b). Please G-d we will discuss this incident when we reach masechet Avodah Zara in some two and a half years' time. I will sadly note that when teaching this story this past summer I came across a wonderful article explaining this most difficult Rashi, written by Rav Eitam Henkin HY"D. 
 

[2] Rav Elazar ben Arach was a leading student of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai who already in the year 70 when the Temple was destroyed was quite elderly. Rav Meir was a student of Rabbi Akiva who rose to prominence in the years after the death of Rav Yochanan ben Zakaai and Rav Meir flourished in the following generation having likely been born after the death of Rav Elazar ben Arach. 
  

[3] The discussion at hand was the obligation of a nazir to shave off all their bodily hair and restart their nezeerut when coming in contact with a corpse or even part of a corpse - hence its inclusion in Masechet Nazir.

 

[4] It is to my mind most noteworthy and Rav Yossi does not refer neither to himself or his disputing colleagues the title Rabbi.