The Mishna (104b) teaches that an underage yevama (widow) who received halitza should have it done a second time when she reaches physical maturity. In our Gemara, Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that this is only the opinion of Rabbi Meir, but others rule that a ketana (female minor) can have halitza.
In the course of searching for the source of that opinion, the Gemara shares a fascinating story that sheds light on the norms and behaviors of the world of the yeshiva in Talmudic times.
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were discussing whether a person should look upwards during prayer (based on the passage in Eikha 3:41) or downwards (based on the passage in I 9:3). Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose overheard their discussion and shared his father’s teaching – that a person should look upwards but direct his heart downwards in order to fulfill both passages.
As they were talking, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi entered and the students – who sat in assigned places on the floor during the lecture – all hurried to find their seats. Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose was heavy-set and was unable to reach his place easily, so he appeared to be “walking on people’s heads” as he made his way to his seat. The Gemara then records the following exchange between Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose and Abdon (short for Abba Yudan), one of Rabbi Yehuda’s HaNasi’s students:
Abdon: Who is stepping on people’s heads?
Rabbi Yishmael: It is I, Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose, who has come to learn Torah from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
Abdon: And are you worthy of studying with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi?
Rabbi Yishmael: Was Moses worthy of studying from God?
Abdon: Do you think that you are Moses?
Rabbi Yishmael: Is your teacher God?
At that point, a yevama came in who appeared to be underage, asking whether she needed to have a second halitza. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sent Abdon to investigate whether she had reached maturity, but before he left the study hall, Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose quoted his father as ruling that halitza done with an underage yevama is valid. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, accepting the ruling of Rabbi Yose, called Abdon back, leading Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose to declare “someone who the community needs can step on the heads of the community. But why should someone who is not needed by the community do so?”
Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yose lived in the last generation of tanna’im. He was close friends with the family of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and thus accepted him as his teacher, even as he was de facto head of the city of Tzippori, a position he inherited from his father. From all appearances, Rabbi Yishmael was a wealthy businessman and landowner who was forced to work for the Roman government, but we know little about his family or his personal life.