Talmud Tips

For the week ending 1 July 2017 / 7 Tammuz 5777

Bava Batra 157 - 163

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Rabbi Zeira said, "I see from this that the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise."

After Rabbi Zeira “went up” from Bavel to the Land of Israel he did a 180-degree reversal in his halachic ruling that he had made regarding a case of inheritance. In Bavel he had ruled one way, and then he changed his ruling when he went to Israel. Because of his changed ruling he concluded that it was due to the “air of the Land of Israel making a person wise”.

The Rashbam explains that Rabbi Zeira reached this conclusion about the special “power” of the air of Israel as follows: Rabbi Zeira said to himself, “Ever since I came up to the Land of Israel I have put my heart (i.e. made great effort and toil in my Torah study) to find fault with my earlier ruling, and to be certain that my conclusion is the pure truth of the matter.” It appears that Rabbi Zeira had a small measure of doubt about his ruling from Bavel, possibly because another Sage, Rabbi Ila, ruled differently than him in Bavel. So when he left Bavel for Israel, he felt a renewal of will and wisdom in his search for truth, and, in fact, he reversed his earlier ruling and came to agree with the ruling of Rabbi Ila as being the true halacha.

The Maharsha cites a reason for the unique “wisdom power” of the air of the Land of Israel. Moshe was informed by Gd that he would not enter the Land of Israel, and he was told: “Go up this Mount Avarim to Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moav that is facing Jericho, and see the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the children of Israel as a possession (Dev. 32:49)”. When Moshe looked at the Land, his gaze infused the Land of Israel with a special capacity for extra wisdom for those who breathed its air.

Rabbi Ovadia Seforno writes a different reason: Since the waters of the Great Flood did not reach the Land of Israel its air was not affected for the worse, unlike the other lands of the world, where the air was affected in a negative manner. This appears to be a scientific explanation for the air of Israel being a potentially positive factor to help a person achieve greater wisdom in the Land of Israel than in other places.

On a lighter note, I recall a certain commercial product that was being sold in Israel a few decades ago (and perhaps today as well). Small, sealed cans of “Air from Israel” were being sold in stores throughout Israel for about a dollar or so each. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I saw a can that mentioned it being “Holy Air from the Holy Land”, and the quotation of our gemara which states that the “air of the Land of Israel makes one wise”. If I recall correctly, it also had a seal of Rabbinical supervision that it was “kosher” and authentic air from the Land of Israel. However, this all seemed somewhat “unusual” and “touristy” at the time, since – after all – air is air! The air in Eretz Yisrael is presumably identical to the rest of the world’s air, and, if tested, it would show the identical molecular and chemical components as any other air. Nevertheless, I considered buying a can to send to a friend in the States to “inhale”, since he said he was struggling with his studies at the time. I didn’t, but perhaps I should have…

  • Bava Batra 158b

Rav drew a shape of a fish, Rabbi Chanina drew a branch of dates, Rav Chisda wrote a “samech” and Rabbi Hoshia wrote an “ayin”.

The gemara on our daf notes that when these Sages were witnesses, and signed a document as proof that they had seen the event mentioned in the document, they drew these various symbols and letters instead of signing their names.

The Rashbam writes that these signs or letters were symbols showing that it was they who signed it, since they were widely-known to sign in this manner. The Rashbam also states that anyone who attempts to give a “reason” for each of these Sages signing in a particular way is “in error”. It seems that they signed in these ways since they merely wanted these symbols to be their signatures. (In our day, I have often seen an extremely literate person sign a check or sign the bill when shopping with a credit card with a quick “squiggle” that bears only a faint resemblance of the person’s actual name; just a flash of the pen to scribble something that is both quick to write and nearly illegible to read. But it is legally considered as the person’s signature.)

However, the Rashbam goes on to suggest a reason for signing with these particular symbols: Rav was known to eat fish, and Rabbi Chanina was known to eat dates. The letters “samech” and “ayin” signed by Rav Chisda and Rabbi Hoshia, respectively, are letters in their names. This second statement of the Rashbam seems to contradict his first statement that it is “a mistake” to assign reasons to their signing with these particular symbols. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) clarifies that the Rashbam’s intent in his second explanation is not that these great Sages merely enjoyed eating fish or date, Rather, he explains, these Sages were renowned for honoring Shabbat with these particular foods — a large fish or top-quality dates.

  • Bava Batra 161b

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