On yesterday’s daf (=page) we learned of the differences of opinion between Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel on the one hand and Rabbi Me’ir and Rabbi Natan on the other hand. The Bet Shmuel explains that the following discussion in the Gemara offers some background to their disagreement.
Rabbi Yohanan taught: On the following point there is a difference of opinion between Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and the Sages. One view is that “Sinai” – a well-read scholar – is superior to an “oker harim,” literally “one who uproots mountains,” i.e. a sharp dialectician and the other view is that the sharp dialectician is superior. Rav Yosef was a well-read scholar; Rabbah was a sharp dialectician. A question was sent up to the scholars in Israel: Who of these should take precedence? They sent them word in reply: ‘A well-read scholar is to take precedence’; for the Master said, ‘All are dependent on the owner of the wheat’.
The Gemara continues and says that Rav Yosef, nevertheless, did not accept office so Rabbah headed the yeshiva for twenty-two years and only after this period did Rav Yosef take up the office. Out of respect for Rabbah, Rav Yosef did not allow the doctor to visit him at home during this period.
According to the Bet Shmuel, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was a sharp dialectician but did not have great erudition, which is why Rabbi Me’ir and Rabbi Natan’s attempted coup was based on the assumption that he would not be able to teach Masechet Uktzin. Rabban Shimon clearly believed that his analytical abilities made him the appropriate choice to head the Sanhedrin.
The idea that ‘All are dependent on the owner of the wheat’ is explained by Rashi as meaning that ultimately the basic knowledge of Mishnah and the final legal rulings are what is essential. The Me’iri explains that even without keen abilities of analysis, someone with a breadth of knowledge will be able to compare and contrast different legal rulings, while the dialectician is more likely to err based on his reasoning, and will not be familiar enough with precedent to be certain that he is correct.