Our Gemara describes the end of prophecy by stating that from the time that Haggai, Zekhariah and Malakhi died, clear prophecy no longer existed, although a bat kol – a heavenly voice – was still used.
The baraita offers two stories of bat kol use. In the first, the Sages were gathered in the loft of Beit Gurya in Yeriḥo and a heavenly voice came out that said that among them sat an individual who was worthy of receiving prophecy, but he did not because the generation was not worthy. Those present understood that the reference was to Hillel HaZaken, a student of Ezra. In the second story the Sages were gathered in a loft in Yavne, and the heavenly voice again pointed to one of them as being worthy of prophecy, were it not for the undeserving generation. This time the reference was understood to be to Shmuel HaKatan, who was Hillel’s student.
The Talmud Yerushalmi brings other examples of a bat kol announcing information to the Jewish people. From our Gemara it is clear that the bat kol not only made statements, but also acted as the source for the information that the generation no longer merited true prophecy.
Gatherings of the Sages in various lofts or attics – in the aliya, or the second story of the houses at that time – are mentioned on many occasions throughout the Talmud. It appears that such meetings were arranged when the Sages wanted to discuss a matter privately, or, perhaps, even secretly. One example is the decision to add a “leap month” to the calendar, something that was always done privately with specifically invited guests. Others are things that could not be discussed publicly because of political ramifications.
Shmuel HaKatan was one of the tanna’im who lived during the period of the destruction of the second Temple. The source for his title as HaKatan (the small one) is unclear. It may refer to his modesty, or, perhaps, to the claim that he was only slightly “smaller” – i.e. inferior – to the biblical Shmu’el.