Masechet Gittin 56a-62b

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04 Sep 2008

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Gittin 56a-b

On yesterday’s daf we were introduced to the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza and the unfortunate incident at the party to which bar Kamtza was mistakenly invited. As we saw, according to the Gemara, this led to the Roman siege around the city of Jerusalem and eventually to the destruction of the Temple.

On our daf, the Gemara describes how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to escape the city and negotiate with Vespasian, the Roman general in charge of the army surrounding Jerusalem. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai offered words of welcome to him, referring to him as the king. Vespasian argued that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai deserved death for calling him the king when someone else was sitting on the throne in Rome. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai assured him that he had to be the king, since Jerusalem was destined to fall only into the hands of a king. In the course of their conversation a messenger arrived from Rome and informed Vespasian that he had been chosen to be ruler of Rome, an announcement that made Vespasian realize the truth of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s statement. In appreciation he offered to respond favorably to any request that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would make. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked that the city of Yavneh be spared together with its sages, a request that would pave the way for revived Jewish life even after the destruction of the Temple.

Roman historians refer to the year that this occurred as “the year of the four Caesars.” When the year began, Nero was the reigning emperor, and any military general who showed any interest in becoming ruler was immediately sentenced to death as punishment for rebelling against the king – even if there was no real proof that the general had done so. When Nero was killed in an uprising, the leadership figures who were his potential successors fought amongst themselves. The Roman legions that were stationed in the Balkans, Syria and Judea all supported Vespasian, as did the governor of Egypt. While leading the siege around Jerusalem, Vespasian was informed that his allies in Rome had succeeded Vitellius who was acting as emperor in Rome, and he was recognized by all as the Emperor of Rome.

Gittin 57a-b

Continuing with the theme of churban – describing the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – our Gemara applies the passage in Tehillim (44:23) to the story of a woman and her seven children. This story appears in Sefer Chashmonaim II, chapter 7 and in greater detail in Sefer Chashmonaim IV, chapters 8-17, as well as in various midrashim. As it appears in our Gemara, a woman and her seven children were brought before the Caesar and commanded to bow down to an idol. As each one of the children was brought forward to do so, he quoted a different pasuk from the Torah indicating that the one true God was the Jewish God and that he could not bow down before any other. Each child was in turn killed. When the Caesar saw that the last one also refused to bow, he suggested that the child simply bend down to pick up the king’s ring so that it would appear as though he had bowed. The child responded that God’s honor was surely more important than the Caesar’s honor.

The mother asked permission to say a few words to her last child. She instructed him to find Avraham Avinu in the next world and tell him of the woman who was willing to sacrifice not just one, but seven of her children for the honor of God.

The Gemara does not make clear when this story took place. When it appears in Eliyahu Rabbah the story is dated in the time of Hadrian. According to the versions in Sefer Chashmonaim, it occurred during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes – also the time in which Josephus places this story. According to those sources, the woman’s name was Hannah. This was widely accepted in the Jewish community over the generations and thus this story is known as “Chana and her seven children.”

Gittin 58a-b

Our daf continues with stories about the personal tragedies of the churban period – the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Gemara quotes a baraita that tells of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, who traveled to Rome where he heard of a handsome Jewish child who was being held captive in the city. Rabbi Yehoshua went to the entrance of the prison where he was being held and recited the beginning of the verse in Yeshayahu (42:24) which asks “Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers?” In response he heard the child recite the end of the pasuk: “Was it not Hashem against whom we have sinned, and in whose ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient unto His law?” Realizing the unique qualities of this young man, Rabbi Yehoshua felt certain that he would become a great teacher in Israel and committed himself to redeeming the child at any cost. He did so and the child grew up to be the great sage Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha.

Tosafot raise the obvious issue in this story: only a few pages ago (see daf 45) we learned that a Jewish person who is being held captive should not be ransomed for more than his worth, mipnei tikun ha-olam – to encourage the proper workings of society. Tosafot raise a number of possible explanations, among them that Yishmael ben Elisha may have been in mortal danger in prison, or that his great promise to become a talmid chacham allowed him to be redeemed for more than his personal worth. Others point out that the Gemara describes the physical beauty of the young man, implying that the Romans planned to make use of him for immoral purposes. When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah “interviewed” him by means of the pasuk, he realized the emotional pain and suffering that he would undergo and felt it essential to save him from that degradation.

Gittin 59a-b

Following a lengthy discussion of rabbinic enactments made mipnei tikun ha-olam – to encourage the proper workings of society – our Mishnah introduces a new set of similar enactments that were instituted to establish certain norms of behavior mipnei darchei shalom – in order to keep the peace. One example is the rule that a kohen will always be called to the Torah first, a Levi second, and only afterwards will others be called. Several amoraim are quoted by the Gemara as noting that there are pesukim in the Torah that serve as sources for this rule. This leads Abayye to question why the Mishnah refers to this rule as darchei shalom when, in fact, it is a biblical law. Abayye rejects the possibility that the Mishnah is simply referring to a biblical law as darchei shalom, since all of the laws of the Torah are based on concepts of shalom (see Mishlei 3:17). Instead he posits that while the Torah suggests that the kohen should be honored and given priority, the Mishnah is teaching us that a kohen must go first, and that even if he wants to allow someone else to take his place, he cannot, since this will ultimately lead to strife.

From the conclusion of our Gemara it seems clear that the rule giving precedence to kohanim has its basis in biblical law. From the Talmud Yerushalmi it appears that there is a disagreement between the sages as to whether this law is truly biblical (based on the quoted sources) or if it is only mipnei darchei shalom.

Although the tradition in all communities is to accept Abayye’s position and to call a kohen up to the Torah first under all circumstances, according to the Rambam the ideal would be for a Torah scholar to be called to the Torah first. He suggests that our Gemara is only discussing cases in which there is no Torah scholar in the room or the kohen himself is a Torah scholar, but that the honor due to the Torah requires that we prefer a scholar over a kohen. The Rambam’s position notwithstanding, general practice is to always call up a kohen first.

Gittin 60a-b

Rabbi Chelbo was asked the following question by a community in the Galilee: Can the obligatory Torah reading be carried out by reading from Chumashim – individual books of the Torah – in public? He did not know the answer, nor did several of the other sages to whom he turned. When the question was raised in the bet midrash – study hall – one suggestion was that this case should be similar to reading from a Sefer Torah that is missing one column, which is not acceptable. The Gemara rejects that comparison by arguing that in the case of the Sefer Torah, there is something wrong with the text in question. In our case, there is a full Chumash with nothing missing. The Gemara concludes by quoting both Rabbah and Rav Yosef as ruling that Chumashim cannot be used for public Torah readings because it demonstrates a lack of kavod ha-tzibbur – honor for the congregation.

Most of the rishonim explain the case of Chumashim to be one in which the scroll was written properly with all of the requirements of a sefer Torah; the only problem with it is that it does not contain the whole Torah, but rather contains only a single book of the Torah. While our Gemara is clear that such a Chumash cannot be used, in a responsum the Rambam rules that in a case where no complete sefer Torah is available, a Sefer Torah that is missing a word or letter can be used. His reasoning is that Chumashim are certainly less desirable than a damaged or missing sefer Torah, yet even use of Chumashim is restricted only because of kavod ha-tzibbur and not because there is something inherently problematic with them.

Most of the rishonim disagree with the Rambam and argue that the problem of kavod ha-tzibbur that is raised with regard to Chumashim is only true in situations where the Chumashim are full and complete. Such Chumashim are certainly better than a damaged sefer Torah that is missing letters or words. The Rashba suggests that a sefer Torah that is missing letters or words in one Chumash cannot be used for public reading in that Chumash, but can be used, if necessary, for the other Chumashim.

Gittin 61a-b

As we have seen, our perek has begun to deal with rabbinic enactments that were instituted to establish certain norms of behavior mipnei darchei shalom – in order to keep the peace (see daf 59). Several of these enactments deal with cases of possession and ownership. If a child picks something up, can it be taken from him? If a poor person drops fruit to the ground from a tree, can someone take it or does it belong to him? In cases like these, even though it appears that there is no real kinyan – formal act of acquisition – mipnei darchei shalom we view these things as having been claimed. Rabbi Yossi believes that we view it as a full act of acquisition (at least on a rabbinic level) and that taking such an object is forbidden not only because of darchei shalom, but because it would be actual theft.

One case from the Mishnah that is discussed in our Gemara is the case of someone who sets traps for wild animals. When the animal is trapped, does it actually belong to the person who set the traps? Here too, we find a disagreement as to whether taking it is forbidden because of darchei shalom or because it is actual theft. Our Gemara points out that there are different types of traps. Nets and traps that actually hold the animal within them are certainly viewed as having brought the animal into the possession of the trapper, and taking an animal from such a trap would be stealing. The argument is in the case of lechi ve-kokri.

Rashi explains that a lechi is a hook while kokri is a long string that holds many hooks. The Geonim suggest that kokri is a stone board that is leaned on a stick that has bait attached to it. When the bait is pulled away, the heavy board falls on the animal and traps it.

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi all agree that in the case of a trap that is small in size, where the animal is readily taken out by the trapper, the trapper has taken possession of the animal and it belongs to him. In a case where the trap is large and the trapper will need to chase the animal even once it has entered the trap, we do not perceive him as having taken full possession of the animal and we will have the disagreement between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yossi.

Gittin 62a-b

The sixth perek of Masechet Gittin, which begins on our daf, returns us to the issues of Jewish divorce law. Specifically, this perek focuses on shelichut – arranging for a messenger to play a role in the divorce.

There are two types of shelichut that are discussed regarding a get:

  1. Shelichut le-holakhah – a messenger established by the husband to deliver the get. In this case the divorce will take effect when it reaches the wife’s hands and she takes possession of it.
  2. Shelichut le-kabalah – a messenger established by the wife to accept the get. In this case, the divorce will take effect the moment that the messenger accepts it on behalf of the wife.

One issue that concerns our Gemara is whether a woman can act as a shelihah le-holakhah on behalf of a man or if a man could play the role of a shaliach le-kabalah for a woman. Rabbi Akiva Eiger explains this question as stemming from a basic issue about shelihut in Jewish law. In Halacha, creating a messenger is based on the rule of shaliach shel adam ke-moto – that a person assigned to perform a task acts as the person himself. Therefore we generally assume that a person can only be a formal messenger for a certain halakhic requirement if he or she is also obligated in or connected with that same law. Since in the event of a divorce a woman cannot make a shaliach le-holakhah and a man cannot make a shaliach le-kabalah perhaps they cannot act in the roles that they cannot themselves create.

The Gemara’s conclusion is that both men and women can play these roles. Apparently it is not essential that the shaliach be able to fully step into the role of the principal party with regard to all the details of the halakhah; it is enough if the law applies to the shaliach. Divorce laws do apply to both men and women even though they play different roles within the framework of those laws. Therefore both men and women can act as shelihim for all aspects of gittin.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.