Masechet Sanhedrin 105a-111b

hero image
Olam Haba
25 May 2010

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.

Sanhedrin 105a-b: Performing mitzvot is always worthwhile

According to the Mishnah (daf 90a), aside from the categories of people who have no share in the World to Come and the three kings who have lost their portion, there are four hedyotot – ordinary people – whose activities will keep them from attaining this ultimate reward. The first of these people is Balaam, prophet to the nations, who was hired by King Balak of Mo’av to curse the Jewish people (see Bamidbar Chapter 22).

According to the story in Sefer Bamidbar (see Chapter 23), three times Balaam asked King Balak to bring 14 sacrifices – seven bulls and seven rams – in order to appease God and allow Balaam to curse the Children of Israel. In each of these cases, the sacrifices did not succeed and the prophetic words uttered by Balaam were blessings rather than curses.

Were Balak’s sacrifices totally unsuccessful?

Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as saying that unbeknownst to Balak, these sacrifices served a very important purpose, so much so that we learn from them a general principle – mi-tokh she-lo lishmah, ba lishmah – that a person should always involve himself in Torah and mitzvot, even without the proper intent, since performing those activities – even without proper intent – will, eventually, bring him to proper intent. In fact, the reward for bringing these sacrifices was the eventual birth of a descendant – Rut ha-Moaviyah – who would marry into a Jewish family and produce the line that would become the Davidic dynasty (see Megillat Rut).

Although Balak’s intentions were certainly negative ones, the commentaries note that the idea of mi-toch she-lo lishmah, ba lishmah should not be understood as encouraging negative behavior. Thus, we encourage everyone to learn Torah, even if their intention is not pure, but were someone to desire to study Torah in order to disprove or belittle it, we would not allow him to do so.

Sanhedrin 106a-b: Know when to be silent and when to speak up

Continuing the Rabbinic traditions regarding Balaam, the prophet to the nations, the Gemara on today’s daf relates that Balaam had a longstanding relationship with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. The Gemara makes use of a homiletical interpretation of the passage (Bamidbar 24:21) where Balaam sees the Keini and offers words of prophesy. The Gemara suggests that this should be understood to mean that Balaam turned to Yitro saying “Keini! Were you not with us when Pharaoh decreed that the boys born to the Israelites should be killed? How did you merit that your descendants would sit with the strong ones of the world?”

The reference is to a well-known midrash taught by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Sima’i, which tells of three famous biblical characters who were brought before Pharaoh and asked to give advice on how to deal with the population explosion of the Children of Israel. Eventually, each received his just deserts, middah ke-neged middah:

Balaam advised Pharaoh to kill the Jewish children, and he was killed (see Sefer Bamidbar 31:8)

Iyyov remained silent, and he was punished with suffering (see the book of Job)

Recognizing that the terrible decree would be carried out, Yitro chose to flee, and his children ended up as members of the Sanhedrin.

Many raise the question: why did Iyov’s silence make him deserving of the intense suffering that he endured, unlike Balaam and Yitro, who each received the equivalent of his own advice?

One suggestion is that his silence was viewed as acquiescence, so, in effect, it was his agreement that sealed the fate of the children who were killed, and thus he was held accountable. According to the Zohar, Iyov did not remain entirely silent during the discussion. He recommended that the Jewish people should not be killed, but rather should be tortured and have their valuables taken from them — the very sufferings that Iyov himself eventually experienced.

Sanhedrin 107a-b: Teacher-student relationships should always include encouragement

The Mishnah (daf 90a) taught that one of the people who has no portion in the World to Come is Gechazi, the student of the prophet Elisha. In II Melakhim, or Kings (chapter 5) we learn that Gechazi was condemned to suffer from leprosy because he accepted a reward from Na’aman, a foreign general whose leprosy was cured by Elisha. The Gemara concludes from this story that a person should always encourage a relationship, even when rebuking a student — le-olam tehe semol dohah ve-yemin mekarevet — a person should push aside with his weaker hand while bringing closer with his stronger hand. Elisha is presented as having failed as a teacher and mentor, having pushed Gechazi away with both hands.

Another example of this kind of fault is the story of Yehoshua ben Perachya, who is presented as having pushed aside Yeshu ha-Notzri — Jesus — with both hands. The story that is told is that Yehoshua ben Perachya was returning to Jerusalem following his flight to Alexandria in Egypt, together with his student, Yeshu ha-Notzri. When they stopped in an inn and were treated well, Yehoshua ben Perachya mentioned to Yeshu that the service was good. Yeshu responded that the innkeeper was unattractive. This response led Yehoshua ben Perachyah to ban Yeshu, and Yehoshua ben Perachya was unable to change his mind until it was too late and Yeshu had turned away from traditional Judaism.

In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu ha-Notzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived. It should be noted, however, that the story of Yehoshua ben Perachya who was driven from Jerusalem by King Yannai, could not have taken place any later than 76 BCE. Thus the reference to Yeshu ha-Notzri cannot be connected with the individual who established the Christian faith. Many commentaries suggest that all of the Talmudic references to Yeshu refer to another person, or else that there is more than one person with that name who lived during the times of the Mishnah.

Sanhedrin 108a-b: What was life like in Noah’s ark?

According to the Mishnah (107b), the entire generation of the flood lost their portion in the World to Come. This teaching leads the Gemara to discuss the story of Noah in some detail. Among the descriptions that are brought we find a discussion about what life was like on the ark during the full year that Noah and his family shared close quarters with the animals.

Rav Hana bar Bizna described a conversation between Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, and Noah’s son, Shem. Eliezer asked Shem about the passage (Bereshit 8:19) that indicated that the animals left the ark by families, implying that they kept to their normal activities and behaviors while on the ark. How was Noah’s family able to manage the needs and desires of an entire menagerie?

Shem told Eliezer that life on the ark was very difficult. Noah’s family had to feed the nocturnal animals at night and the diurnal animals during the day. The lion fell ill with a fever, and went for a time without eating, surviving on his body fat. There was one particular animal – the zikita – that they didn’t know how to feed. Once, when Noah was peeling a pomegranate, and a worm fell out, which was immediately eaten by the zikita. Only from that time on did Noah learn to prepare food for this animal.

What was this zikita?

According to the Geonim, the zikita was a small bird. A more popular identification of the zikita is a chameleon, a common type of lizard that is found around the world. A chameleon can grow to between 20 and 30 centimeters, and its skin color can change according to the light, its mood or the background that it is standing on.  It eats insects that it catches with is long tongue (up to 45 cm. long). There are many legends told about chameleons, including the story that it does not eat, rather it lives on air, which may be the reason the Gemara emphasized that Noah discovered that it did need to eat like any other living creature.

Sanhedrin 109a-b: Everything is for the best

Nahum Ish Gam Zu always believed that whatever happened was for the best.

The Gemara relates that once the Jewish community needed to send a tribute to the Caesar, and they decided to send it with Nahum Ish Gam Zo since he was someone for whom miracles occurred. When stopping on his trip, he was queried in the inn regarding his mission and he admitted that he was bringing a tribute to the Caesar. That night, his hosts removed the valuables from his case and replaced them with dirt. Nahum Ish Gam Zo continued on his way and was shown before the Caesar who was insulted by the gift and ordered that Nahum Ish Gam Zo be killed. Nahum Ish Gam Zo’s reaction was simple: “this is also for the best.”

According to the Gemara, Eliyahu appeared amongst the crowd and suggested that perhaps this is miraculous dirt that the Jews were rumored to have since the days when Avraham fought his enemies with dirt that turned to spears and straw that turned to arrows. They checked it and found that it was true; later they conquered a city with it that they had never been able to conquer before. In appreciation the Caesar sent Nahum Ish Gam Zo to collect whatever he wanted from the treasury.

On his way home, Nahum Ish Gam Zo again stopped in the inn where he told the people that the dirt that he had brought had granted him this reward. Hearing this they brought more dirt to the Caesar, but they were killed for their efforts.

In his Sefer HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Betzalel (the Maharal’s brother) offers the following explanation. Nahum Ish Gam Zo recognized that his present had been changed, but felt that what was important was not the value of the present, but the idea that a present was offered, so he continued with his mission. Upon arriving before the Caesar he explained that the dirt symbolized that the Jews were surrendering before him and that it was the patriarch Avraham’s dirt, meaning that Avraham successfully fought wars, but he knew when the best policy was not to fight but to humbly negotiate. Taken with this radical concept, the Caesar tried negotiations with the city that he could not capture, and found that he was successful in his efforts.

Sanhedrin 110a-b: Accusations in the desert

The Mishnah (108a) lists a number of groups who will not merit a portion in the World to Come. These include, for example, the biblical spies whose testimony about the Land of Israel caused the Children of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years. Basing himself on the passage in Sefer Bamidbar (14:35), Rabbi Akiva believes that the entire generation of those who left Egypt lost their share in the World to Come, but Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. Rabbi Akiva also suggests that those people who joined Korach’s rebellion lost their share in the Resurrection of the Dead, based on Sefer Bamidbar 16:33, although again, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees.

This last discussion brings the Gemara to focus on the story of Korach’s rebellion. One passage that is examined is the brief moment when Moshe lost his ability to argue with them, and simply fell on his face (Bamidbar 16:4). What accusation was made against Moshe that led to his despair?

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani quotes Rabbi Yonatan as teaching, based on Sefer Tehillim (106:16) that Moshe was accused of adultery. In fact, Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzhak taught that when Moshe set up a tent – Ohel Mo’ed – outside of the encampment (see Shemot 33:7), the entire nation began to suspect him of committing adultery with their wives.

The Ri’af explains this simply, that when any member of the community had an issue to discuss, they would turn to Moshe who was in his tent outside of the camp. It is clear that women as well as men would turn to Moshe for direction, and this led to suspicion. The Torah, however, dispels any such claim by emphasizing that Yehoshua, Moshe’s protégé, never left the tent (see Shemot 33:11). The Margoliyot ha-Yam notes that the Ohel Mo’ed was set up outside the camp immediately after the Sin of the Golden Calf, when the women refused to hand over their gold jewelry to build the calf. This led their husbands to suspect that they listened to Moshe more than to their own husbands.

Sanhedrin 111a-b: Mitzvot – must I do them all?

How many will be left at the end of days?

The Gemara on today’s daf presents a series of disagreements between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan on this topic. In each of them, Reish Lakish presented a pessimistic view regarding the people who would merit a future world, while Rabbi Yochanan argued that the pesukim should be understood in a less literal sense.

  1. Yeshayahu 5:14 presents she’ol – the netherworld – as swallowing “without measure. Reish Lakish understands this to mean that anyone who misses a single chok – a single commandment – will be swallowed up. Rabbi Yochanan objects, saying that anyone who learned a single chok would be saved.
  2. Zechariah 13:8 teaches that only one-third will survive. Reish Lakish suggests that this means that only the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, will survive. According to Rabbi Yochanan it means one-third of the entire world.
  3. Yirmiyahu 3:14 says that only one from a city and two from a family will be saved. Reish Lakish takes this literally, while Rabbi Yochanan teaches that if there is one meritorious person in a city or two in a family, all will survive.

In Rav Yosef Albo’s Sefer ha-Ikarim he explains that the disagreement between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan is dependent on a basic question – when we say that a person’s portion in the World to Come is dependent on his fulfilling the mitzvot in this world, is a person required to engage the entire hierarchy of commandments in full, or does every individual commandment contain an element of merit that would bring a person to this level? According to Reish Lakish, someone who is missing even a single commandment will be lacking in spiritual development and would be unable to merit the World to Come. Rabbi Yochanan, however, believes that every commandment is a whole unto itself, and proper fulfillment of any commandment raises a person spiritually.

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.