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When The Student Becomes The Rebbe

By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Mahari Bruna (born 1400 in Germany) was asked the following question: If a student surpasses his rebbe in Torah scholarship, does he still have to honor him? Of course he still has to treat his former rebbe respectfully, as he would any talmid chacham. However, does the former student still have to accord his past rebbe with the honor reserved for a rebbe?

The Mahari Bruna said that perhaps an answer may be derived from a daf learned this week. The Gemara declares (Eiruvin 92a), “If Rebbe Yehudah haNasi did not teach it to Rebbe Chiya, how would Rebbe Chiya know it?” Rashi explains that Rebbe Chiya was a student of Rebbe Yehudah haNasi. The Gemara seems to be saying that Rebbe Chiya’s primary source of Torah knowledge was Rebbe Yehudah.

Yet a Gemara in Nidah (14b) quotes Rebbe Chiya as telling Rebbe Yehudah, “Even you are treating this like a stain.” Tosefos notes that this statement seems to be disrespectful. A talmid should not address his rebbe by the plain term “you.” An honorific title should be added or the statement should be rephrased. Tosefos says we would have expected Rebbe Chiya to say, “Even you, Rebbe, are treating this . . .” Tosefos concludes from this that Rebbe Chiya excelled to the point that he became an equal to his rebbe. This phenomenon is referred to as becoming a talmid chaver. Now that Rebbe Chiya was Rebbe Yehudah haNasi’s peer, he no longer had to address him with the honorific title of “Rebbe.” Every rebbe who sincerely cares for his students would feel pride when a former student becomes equal to or greater than themselves.

Certainly Rebbe Yehudah haNasi could appreciate what his former student Rebbe Chiya accomplished, because he did the same thing! The Gemara in Nidah that was just quoted goes on to cite an interesting anecdote. Rebbe (R’ Yehudah) was conversing with Rebbe Yishmael the son of Rebbe Yossi. Rebbe told Rebbe Yishmael that an individual named Rebbe Chama, the son of Bisa, was a really great man. Rebbe Yishmael requested that the next time Rebbe Chama comes around, he should be sent to him. Eventually, Rebbe Chama presented himself to Rebbe Yishmael.

Rebbe Yishmael told him, “Ask me a question on any topic.” Rebbe Chama bar Bisa complied and asked him a question relating to hilchos nidah. Whereupon Rebbe Yishmael replied, “Would you like me to answer according to my father’s (Rebbe Yossi’s) opinion or according to Rebbe Yehudah haNasi’s opinion?” Rebbe Chama replied, “Rebbe Yehudah haNasi.” Rebbe Yishmael then said, “Why would you want to hear the student’s opinion, when you could hear the rebbe’s?”

Tosefos states that it is evident from this story that Rebbe Yossi was Rebbe Yehudah haNasi’s rebbe. However, there is a Gemara in Sanhedrin that states that if Rebbe Yossi had been alive at a certain time, he would have sat in front of Rebbe Yehudah haNasi and accepted his rulings. It seems that Rebbe Yossi was fitting to be a student of Rebbe Yehudah haNasi. How could it be that he was his rebbe? Moreover, our Gemara itself asks, why in fact did Rebbe Chama bar Bisa want the student’s opinion and not the rebbe’s?

Tosefos understands that one answer solves both problems. Rebbe Yossi was at one point greater than Rebbe Yehudah haNasi and indeed served as his rebbe. However, subsequently Rebbe Yehudah haNasi served as the head of a yeshiva and therefore his scholarship surpassed even that of his rebbe’s. Tosefos explains that Rebbe Yehudah haNasi had many students and the Torah discussions with them led to his increased greatness. His greatness increased to a point that Rebbe Yossi would have theoretically accepted him, a former student, as a teacher.

Surely Rebbe Yehudah haNasi had a very busy schedule as rosh yeshiva. He constantly had to attend parlor meetings. He had to make sure that the yeshiva complied with all government regulations. As rosh yeshiva, he had to respond to all controversies started by bloggers. Yet with all his increased duties and responsibilities as rosh yeshiva, he excelled. Rebbe Chama bar Bisa felt that Rebbe Yehudah haNasi excelled to the point where the halachah is in accordance with him over his own rebbe!

There are times when we have to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others and our communities. One would think that becoming rosh yeshiva is such an example of having to give up on the dream of growing greater in Torah knowledge. But it is not. Apparently, becoming rosh yeshiva and becoming more involved in communal affairs does not diminish one’s scholarship. The opposite is true! The greatness that one gains from teaching students far surpasses what one could have accomplished on his own.

My rosh yeshiva, zt’l, would always encourage his talmidim to be involved in harbatzas haTorah. One of the often-cited arguments not to be involved in kiruv or teaching Torah is that one will not be able to attain his dream of becoming a gadol or otherwise excelling in learning. However, the Chasam Sofer says this argument is spurious and quite the opposite is true. The following is a free translation of the Chasam Sofer’s introduction to his responsa on Yoreh Deah:

If the servant of Hashem says that my soul desires Hashem and wants to come close to Him, and how can I possibly be engaged in teaching others Torah when this will decrease the amount of time I spend on my own learning and working on my spiritual perfection? First you should know that Chazal tell us, “I learned a lot from my rebbe, more from my peers, and most of all from my students.” Further, is it impossible for Hashem to replace your spiritual loss that you sacrificed? You did what you were commanded to do, to teach Torah to the masses, and Hashem will do His part. You make His will your will, and He will make your will His will. He will let you taste the spiritual perfection. The short amount of time you spend working on yourself and learning will suffice to enable you to reach greater spiritual and scholarly levels than you could have reached otherwise.

Nevertheless, my rosh yeshiva cautioned those in the field of kiruv or teaching Torah that they must still set aside time for intensive study of Torah and mussar. The Chasam Sofer only says that the small amount of time set aside for learning will replace the many more hours one could have been learning had he not been involved in disseminating Torah. However, a kiruv or Torah professional who does not set aside any personal time for Torah or mussar will not see these amazing results. 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 June 6, 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.