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Teaching Lessons From The Tanna’im

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

We sometimes assume that the focus on teaching techniques is a recent phenomenon. After all, in ancient times didn’t students just learn because it was expected of them? Didn’t they always try their hardest even without any special encouragement? However, the daf this week offers us brief insights into the pedagogical skills of two famous Tanna’im.

To understand the relevant passages, a brief introduction is in order. In ancient times, multiple houses shared a common courtyard. In turn, multiple courtyards shared a common area which led to the street. This common area is called a mavoi. It was generally walled on three sides, with the fourth side open to the street. One is only allowed to carry on Shabbos in that mavoi if some sort of rectification is made to the entrance on the fourth side.

A mishnah in Eiruvin records the following disagreement between Rebbe Akiva and his student. A talmid said in front of Rebbe Akiva: Rebbe Yishmael said that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel did not have a dispute about the rectification necessary for a mavoi with an entrance width of less than four cubits. Rather, their dispute pertained to a mavoi whose entrance was more than four cubits wide. Rebbe Akiva disagreed. Rebbe Akiva was certain that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel disagreed about the rectification necessary both in cases of a mavoi with an entrance less than four cubits wide and in cases of where it was wider than four cubits. The simple reading of the mishnah implies that Rebbe Akiva disagreed with Rebbe Yishmael’s understanding of the machlokes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel.

The Gemara (13a), however, elaborates that there was actually more going on here. Not only did Rebbe Akiva disagree with Rebbe Yishmael’s version of the machlokes, he opined that Rebbe Yishmael never even said such a thing. The statement the student attributed to Rebbe Yishmael was a complete fabrication, albeit unintentional. The Gemara concludes that Rebbe Akiva nevertheless ruled that the halachah follows the student’s version of the machlokes.

Whereupon, the Gemara seizes upon the incongruity of Rebbe Akiva’s statement. How did Rebbe Akiva know that Rebbe Yishmael could not have actually said what the student alleged he did? Apparently it was so obviously wrong that Rebbe Yishmael, the great sage that he was, would not have made such a blatant error. Yet Rebbe Akiva ruled that the halachah is in accordance with the student’s version of the machlokes which was mistakenly attributed to Rebbe Yishmael. If it was so patently wrong, how could it be codified as practical halachah?

The Gemara answers that Rebbe Akiva just said that the halachah is in accordance with that particular student to sharpen the minds of the students. The Gaon Yaakov explains that in truth the halachah was not like that talmid. However, while the talmid was incorrect, he displayed acute mental acumen and solid Talmudic reasoning. There was a strong basis to believe that his understanding was correct. Rebbe Akiva consequently wanted his students to exercise their minds and feel free to express their thoughts even if their conclusions were erroneous. He praised the talmid by saying that the halachah follows him as a way of giving the student a pat on the back for his thought process. This would also encourage other students to do the same.

Alternatively, Rebbe Akiva was testing his students to see if they could spot the fallacy. He first informed his students that Rebbe Yishmael was not actually the source of the aforementioned version of the dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. However, he did not inform his students the reason for his assertion. He did concede that the source was from a student. They would now feel free to challenge it since the source was not from a major sage like Rebbe Yishmael but rather from one of their peers. Then Rebbe Akiva purposely misled his students by saying that the student was correct. The students would feel comfortable engaging in an animated discussion challenging the veracity of their rebbe’s conclusion, which was exactly Rebbe Akiva’s intent. (Loosely based on the second explanation of the Gaon Yaakov.)

Rebbe Meir, who was Rebbe Akiva’s talmid, followed in his rebbe’s footsteps. However, he may have gone too far. The Gemara records on 13b: Rebbe Acha the son of Chanina said, “It is revealed before the One Who said and the world came to be, that there was no one in Rebbe Meir’s generation who was his equivalent in his mastery of Torah. For what reason is the halachah not in accordance with his opinions? His friends were not able to fully comprehend his arguments. On something which was tamei, he would say it was tahor and explain why it was so. On something which was tahor, he would say it was tamei and explain why it was so.”

The commentators point out that very often the halachah is in accordance with Rebbe Meir. Rebbe Shrira Gaon posits that Rebbe used Rebbe Meir’s teachings as a basis for the mishnayos, because of Rebbe Meir’s erudition and brevity. Rebbe Yochanan ruled that the halachah is in accordance with an anonymous mishnah. Since Rebbe Meir’s teachings were the source of the mishnayos, an anonymous mishnah is following Rebbe Meir’s opinion. In other words, Rebbe Yochanan taught that the halachah is in accordance with Rebbe Meir when his position is recorded anonymously in the mishnah. The Gemara therefore cannot be understood literally that the halachah never follows Rebbe Meir.

Rather, the commentators explain that the intent of the above passage is that the halachah does not always follow Rebbe Meir. However, the question needs to be raised, why would Rebbe Meir argue that something he knew to be tamei was tahor? The Ben Yehoyada explains that he did this to stimulate thoughtful discussions among his students. They would challenge him and improve their Talmudic reasoning. Yet perhaps Rebbe Meir went too far. The Ben Yehoyada explains that there could not be a general rule that the halachah always follows Rebbe Meir. This is because his fellow sages could not be sure if he seriously intended to make a certain argument or if it was just offered to generate discussion. They could erroneously follow a supposed ruling which just mentioned in shiur for the sake of his students. To preclude that possibility, they refrained from enacting a rule that the halachah always follows Rebbe Meir.

I remember once my rosh hayeshiva, zt’l, was explaining that a rebbe should never make things too clear for his advanced students. Rather, he should leave some things a little vague to encourage the talmidim to think on their own. I vividly remember a friend of mine asking the rosh hayeshiva, “Is that why the rosh hayeshiva makes his shiurim so hard to understand?” The rosh hayeshiva just smiled and didn’t answer! v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at

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Posted by on March 21, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.