By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
During the Second Temple period, Eretz Yisrael suffered from a great famine. The great sage Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani survived by subsisting on dried bread and salt. His student Rebbe Elazar bar Rebbe Tzadok, who was better off, was moved by the plight of his rebbe. He told of his rebbe’s dire circumstances to his father, Rebbe Tzadok, who was a sage in his own right. Rebbe Tzadok sent a gift of fresh olives with his son to bring to his rebbe. However, Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani noticed that the olives were moist with olive oil and refused to eat them.
Produce cannot become susceptible to tumah while still attached to the tree or ground. After harvesting, it becomes susceptible to tumah after coming into contact with any of seven particular liquids, one of which is olive oil. It does not actually become tamei, however, until the produce comes into contact with an actual source of tumah. Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani saw that the olives were moist and assumed that they were susceptible to tumah, and he suspected that they might have actually become tamei. He therefore refused to eat them. He thanked his student profusely but refused to accept the gift, with the explanation of, “I don’t eat olives.”
Rebbe Tzadok saw beyond the excuse offered by Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani. He sent the olives again as a gift, this time with the message that the olives were in fact tahor, whereupon Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani graciously accepted the gift.
Tosefos notes that Rebbe Tzadok was a kohen. Kohanim need to be very strict with the laws of tumah and taharah. Why did Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani suspect that the olives in Rebbe Tzadok’s possession might have been tamei? Tosefos explains that Rebbe Tzadok was a talmid of Beis Shammai, so perhaps he relied on leniencies of Beis Shammai. Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani followed the views of Beis Hillel. It was only when he was reassured that the olives were tahor even according to the higher standard of Beis Hillel that he ate the olives.
Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, said that this demonstrates how careful our sages were in matters of kashrus. These olives were 100% kosher. Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani was not a kohen. He theoretically could have eaten the olives even if they were tamei. However, he voluntarily accepted the rabbinic stringency of only eating food that is tahor.
Moreover, the olives likely were tahor. Even if Rebbe Tzadok followed the views of Beis Shammai, he still would have been very careful to keep sources of tumah away from the olives. (For that very reason, Rabbeinu Yitzchak rejects this version of the story, and he says there was no reason at all to suspect that the olives were tamei.) Yet Tosefos maintains that there was chance, albeit extremely slim, that the olives did indeed become tamei. Therefore, Rebbe Yochanan initially refused to eat the olives.
Still, it was a time of famine. Presumably, Rebbe Yochanan was malnourished, as he was surviving on meager rations of dried bread. Given all the above, couldn’t he have been lenient? We see that our sages could not be budged in their strict adherence to their kashrus standards, no matter how dire the circumstances.
Rav Aharon Kotler said there is yet another lesson to be derived from this story. Why did Rebbe Yochanan refuse the gift by stating, “I don’t eat olives”? This was a lie but was permitted so as not to offend Rebbe Tzadok. (It wasn’t a total lie, as the intent was “I don’t eat olives that are moist with olive oil.”) Why didn’t he merely ask Rebbe Tzadok if the olives were tahor even according to the Beis Hillel standard? Since he badly needed the nutrition from the olives, this would have seemingly been the prudent approach. It is true that Rebbe Tzadok figured out the true reason for his refusal, but perhaps Rebbe Tzadok would have taken the statement at its face value that Rebbe Yochanan didn’t eat olives.
Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani realized that to ask whether the olives met the Beis Hillel standard would be slightly offensive to Rebbe Tzadok. Rebbe Tzadok was a talmid of Beis Shammai and was certainly justified in following his yeshiva’s rulings. Moreover, the food was certainly kosher, and the question related to a rabbinic stringency of taharah. Yet to ask Rebbe Tzadok if his food met the Beis Hillel standard would have been marginally disrespectful. He therefore simply refused the gift by declaring, “I don’t eat olives.” Rebbe Yochanan HaChorani would rather go hungry than slightly offending someone else by suggesting that he followed a lower standard of kashrus.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.