How Did They Know?
Woe to my teachers when I was a little boy! I had the fantastic privilege of sitting on my father’s lap when he taught every topic under the sun. I picked up just enough information to cause problems for the teachers in Eitz Chaim Day School in Toronto.
Mr. E. was writing on the blackboard with his back to the class. One of the children made a loud and disgusting noise. Mr. E. turned around and wanted to know who was the culprit. I remembered a selection of the Talmud that I had recently overheard and knew that although I was not guilty, I had to raise my hand and accept responsibility.
Mr. E. was so furious that even after I received my punishment while leaning over a table, I was sent to the principal’s office.
I was worried that I would have to lean over again, but Rabbi N. surprised my by asking, “Why did you admit to something you didn’t do?”
“I learned it in a Gemara,” I told him. He was dubious, “There is no such Gemara!” “Of course there is,” I insisted, and I showed it to him:
It once happened that Rabban Gamaliel said: ‘Send me up seven [scholars] early in the morning to the upper chamber to calculate the month.’ When he came in the morning and found eight, he asked: ‘Who is he who has come up without permission? Let him go down.’ Thereupon, Samuel the Little arose and said: ‘It was I who came up without permission; my object was not to join in the intercalation, but because I felt the necessity of learning the practical application of the law.’
Rabban Gamaliel then answered: ‘Sit down, my son, sit down; you are worthy of intercalating all years [in need of such], but it is a decision of the Rabbis that it should be done only by those who have been specially appointed for the purpose.’ — But in reality it was not Samuel the Little [who was the uninvited member] but another; he only wished to save the intruder from humiliation.
Similarly it once happened that while Rabbi was delivering a lecture, he noticed a smell of garlic.
Thereupon he said: ‘Let him who has eaten garlic go out.’ R. Hiyya arose and left; then all the other disciples rose in turn and went out. In the morning R. Simeon, Rabbi’s son, met and asked him: ‘Was it you who caused annoyance to my father yesterday?’ ‘Heaven forfend5 that such a thing should happen in Israel,’ he answered.
And from whom did R. Hiyya learn such conduct? — From R. Meir, for it is taught: A story is related of a woman who appeared at the Beth Hammidrash7 of R. Meir and said to him, ‘Rabbi, one of you has taken me to wife by cohabitation.’ Thereupon he rose up and gave her a bill of divorce, after which every one of his disciples stood up in turn and did likewise.
And from whom did R. Meir learn this? — From Samuel the Little. And Samuel the Little? — From Shecaniah son of Jehiel, for it is written, And Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam answered and said unto Ezra: We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing.
And Shecaniah learnt it from [the story told of] Joshua. As it is written, The Lord said unto Joshua, Get thee up, wherefore, now, art thou fallen upon they face? Israel hath sinned . . . ‘Master of the Universe,’ asked Joshua, ‘who are the sinners?’ ‘Am I an informer?’ replied God. ‘Go and cast lots [to find out].’ (Sanhedrin 11a)
Thank God, Rabbi N was so busy laughing that he forgot to add to my punishment. However, he insisted that the Gemara did not apply to a classroom. “Why not?”
“Ask your father!”
I stayed up very late until my father came home from Yeshiva and told him the story. He was not surprised. In fact, he had been expecting something like that to occur because ever since I overheard that Gemara I followed him around asking him, “From where did you learn to do that?”
By the way, he answered me each time.
The most magical part of that selection from the Talmud is that whenever someone acted in a marvelous manner, they asked, “From where did he learn such behavior?” The Sages of the Talmud did not assume that the person was a holy Tzaddik and figured all out on his own. They assumed that he learned the behavior from someone else.
No wonder, Pirkei Avot – Chapters of Our Fathers – a treasure of magnificent behavior, begins with the Mesorah – the Tradition received by Moshe at Sinai and handed down from one generation to the next. Our Mesorah is not only about law; it is a fountain of knowledge of how to behave in challenging situations.
When we learn the lessons of these great Sages, we must understand their situations and how their specific approach guided them through life. We will then be able to answer, “How did you know to respond like that?” Hopefully without having to bear Mr. E’s belt!
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