ט״ז בטבת ה׳תשע״ב (January 11, 2012)

Bekhorot 58a-b – Ben Azzai and the Sages

In the Mishnah on yesterday’s daf (=page) there was a difference of opinion among of the Mishnah with regard to the exact date of establishing the animal tithe around the time of Rosh HaShanah. Due to this disagreement, Ben Azzaisuggests that all animals born in the month of Elul should be viewed as a single group for the purpose of tithing.
The Gemara on today’s daf asks why Ben Azzai suggests a compromise rather than choosing to rule like one of the opinions based on its merits. In response to the suggestion that perhaps Ben Azzai was unable to ascertain the basis for each opinion, the Gemara retorts that Ben Azzai was known to say: ‘All the Sages of Israel are in comparison with myself, as thin as the husk of garlic, except that bald head.’ Ultimately the Gemara concludes that the differences of opinion in the Mishnah were not based on logical arguments but on oral traditions, which could not be clarified by means of rational reasoning.

The commentaries ask how Ben Azzai could possibly have claimed in such a callous manner to be smarter than the rest of the Sages, given his statement in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:3) “Do not scorn any man.” Some suggest that he was simply stirring up his students in an attempt to encourage them to labor at their studies, as he did with his own. The Iyun Ya’akov suggests that Ben Azzai’s statement was a metaphor for his relationship with the Sages, for while he was as sharp as garlic and able to delve into the deepest mysteries of the Torah, it was the Sages whose constant vigilance protected him from madness, much as the husk protects the garlic. He pointed to the ‘bald head,’ i.e., Rabbi Akiva, as the only one who could study the mysteries of the Torah without need for such protection.