A bissel Talmud

Yes, yes, Yom Kippur begins tonight. But I like Pesach better, and encountered a fun (or so I think) Seder-related anecdote I’m going to share.

In drips and drabs, I study Talmud as I get chances. I was reading, today, the story of Rabban Gamliel’s ejection from the position as Nasi (in Berakhot 27b-28a, for those keeping score at home). R. Gamliel publicly humiliated Rabbi Joshua several times over the course of a year, and the rest of the rabbis, having finally had enough, decided to replace R. Gamliel as Nasi (head of the rabbinic world at the time).

If you’re going to replace the guy in charge, you need to know who the new whipping boy will be. The rabbis reject R. Joshua–he’s too connected to the reason for the demotion, and they don’t want to give excessive offense to R. Gamliel (who happens, historically, to be very wealthy and financially may have been sustaining much of the rabbinic movement at the time).

They also reject Rabbi Akiva who, though brilliant, is lacking in zekhut avot–the merit of the forefathers. R. Akiva, you see, was basically a country bumpkin who became the most brilliant sage of his generation. But R. Gamliel–again, bankrolling much of the rabbinic world at the time–might also have been offended to have been replaced by someone a bit, er, declasse. So R. Akiva is out.

The rabbis settle on Rabbi Elazar b. Azariah. He’s wise, they note. He’s wealthy–important for access to the Roman governing authorities. And he has zekhut avot as a tenth-generation descendant from Ezra.

The rabbis offer R. Elazar the job and, like many before and after him, says, “I will ask my wife”! (Smart move, that.)

He goes home and asks his wife what to do, and she raises two objections. First, she says, what if they turn on you!? His response: one day you drink from a crystal goblet, and the next day it’s smashed. (How very Buddhist!)

Next, his wife objects that he’s not old enough. A rosh yeshiva should be older and should have gray hair. Yet we learn that R. Elazar is eighteen years old at the time.

And then–like Hanukkah, perhaps?!:

That day, he was eighteen years old; a miracle happened to him, and eighteen rows of hair turned white! And this is what he [R. Elazar] meant when he said, “Behold, I am like a seventy year-old,” but not “I am a seventy year-old.”

What’s that about? Recall the text of the Haggadah, where it reports R. Elazar saying, “I am like a seventy year-old, and I have never been privileged to hear the story of the exodus from Egypt … until Ben Zoma interpreted the words of the Torah: ‘In order that you will remember your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life’ – ‘the days of your life’ are the days, but ‘all the days of your life’ indicate that the nights are included, too.”

And so, nine or so months from now, when you sit down for Seder and you wonder, “What the heck is he talking about there”? Now you have the answer!

May you have a meaningful Yom Kippur and, if you’re fasting, an easy fast.