Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 27

AJS Review 41:2 (November 2017), 287313 © Association for Jewish Studies 2017



Moshe Simon-Shoshan

In Memoriam Sacvan Bercovitch (1933 2014)

Tell me a story, said the Baroness … “ What sort of story, asked Clovis … “ One just true enough to be interesting and not true enough to be tiresome, said the Baroness. The Chronicles of Clovis , Saki

Abstract: This article will examine the development of Yavneh as a lit- erary and cultural construct from tannaitic sources through the two versions of the story of the deposition of R. Gamliel, in Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1 and Bavli Berakhot 27b28a. It will explore the ways in which the talmudic storytellers present a more developed narrative world complete with a social and political culture. It will then analyze the complex relationships between the narrative worlds of the Yerush- almi and Bavli and their respective social and ideological contexts. Based on this analysis, I shall propose a model for understanding the way in which the Yavnehs of both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi func- tioned in amoraic and postamoraic society to create a nuanced and self-critical rabbinic cultural identity.

Many of the best-known and most studied rabbinic sage stories belong to a grouping that has recently become known as the Yavneh cycle. 1 A series of interrelated rabbinic narrative traditions interspersed throughout the corpus of rab- binic literature, the Yavneh cycle stories depict the establishment of Yavneh and its vineyard as the center of rabbinic scholarship and authority following the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent intrarabbinic struggles that occurred there. The stories of the Yavneh cycle can be seen as collectively forming a foun- dation myth for its creators civilization. They establish the norms on which the society of the beit midrash is founded and the ground rules by which rabbinic

Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jeru- salem in July of 2013 and at the departmental colloquium of the Department of Literature of the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University in the fall of the same year. I would like to thank Naomi Goldstein, Geof- frey Herman, Catherine Hezser, Rella Kushelevsky, Moshe Lavee, Hindy Najman, and Jeremy Rosen- baum Simon for their input. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers for AJS Review and this journals former editor, Christine Hayes, for their help in editing the final version of this article. 1. Daniel Boyarin, The Yavneh-Cycle of the Stammaim and the Invention of the Rabbis,in Creation and Composition: The Contribution of the Bavli Redactors (Stammaim) to the Aggada, ed. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 23792.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

study, dispute, and decision-making are to be conducted, giving them legitimacy by rooting them in a legendary past and the deeds of the heroic founders of rab- binic culture. The true star of the Yavneh cycle is perhaps Yavneh itself. In these narra- tives, Yavneh, with its central beit midrash, is more than just a physical locale. Each of these stories constructs Yavneh as a narrative world, made up of social, political, and ideological structures in addition to its physical features and human personalities. It is through the narrative world of Yavneh that the Yavneh cycle undertakes some of its key cultural work of forging a collective rab- binic identity rooted in a legendary past while at the same time holding up rabbinic institutions to scrutiny and critique.



In recent decades, the concept of narrative worlds has gained importance in the critical vocabulary of scholars of narrative. 2 For the purposes of this study, I define the term narrative world as referring to the totality of the environment in which a story takes place. The narrative world of a story includes the geography and history of the physical space in which the events of the plot take place, as well as the individuals who populate that space. Also part of a narrative world are the social, political, cultural, and normative structures and dynamics that govern rela- tionships and events in the story. Relevant physical and metaphysical laws that operate within the story, such as whether or not miracles, prophesy, and/or magic exist, further help define a narrative world. Narrative worlds are constructed in the mind of the author and constituted through the text of the story. They are reconstituted and experienced by the story s readers. 3 Of course, no reader will reconstruct the world of a story in the exact same way in which the author intended or in which other readers will. 4 For the purposes of this study, however, we can reasonably reconstruct the outlines of the narrative worlds of our texts as they would have been commonly understood by their authors and original audiences. Narrative worlds range greatly in their size and depth. They can be as limited and simple as an image of a doctor s office created with a few pen strokes in a New Yorker cartoon. At the other extreme, narrative worlds can be as vast and richly detailed as George Eliot s Middlemarch or Tolkien s Middle Earth. Never- theless, all narrative worlds are necessarily limited: no text or human imagination can encompass the infinite details that constitute an actual human environment. 5 Furthermore, narrative worlds are always presented from a particular perspective.

2. Recent book-length studies of this topic include Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds:

The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012) and Eric Hayot, On Literary Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

3. Lubomir Doležel, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 1998), 21.

4. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 55.

5. On the question of the incompleteness of narrative worlds see Dolež el, Heterocosmica,



Creators of Worlds

The way a narrative world is perceived is always filtered through the narrator s choice of which aspects of the world to present and how to present them. As such, implicit in most presentations of narrative worlds is also an evaluation of that world and especially its social and moral order. Narrative worlds are frequently referred to as fictional worlds. Indeed, the critical discussion of this concept largely grew out of efforts to define the ontolog- ical status and referential nature of fiction statements. 6 However, the creation of narrative worlds is by no means limited to fictional texts. A historical account of the Jack the Ripper case constructs a narrative world of Victorian London no less than a Sherlock Holmes story.


Yavneh and its vineyard first appear as the meeting place of the sages in several brief tannaitic traditions. Most of the key tannaitic sources are referred to and reinterpreted in one or both of the talmudic versions of the deposition story. 7 These earlier sources portray what appear to be occasional great meetings of the sages in which halakhic traditions were organized and transmitted, and dis- puted issues resolved. The phrase the vineyard at Yavneh appears twice in the Mishnah, in Ketubbot 4:6: This interpretation was presented by R. Eleazar b. Azariah before the elders in the vineyard at Yavneh, and in Eduyot 2:4: Rabbi Ishmael said three things before the sages in the vineyard at Yavneh. These texts, and several similar ones elsewhere in tannaitic literature, 8 refer to a meeting of sages in which halakhic traditions were presented to the assembly by individual rabbis. It is not clear from these sources if the vineyard was the site of a onetime gathering, occasional meetings, or a permanent institution. However, the fact that the meeting occurred in a vineyard rather than in a building suggests a relatively informal institution lacking a high level of infrastructure or stability. 9

6. Thomas Pavel, Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

7. In a separate study I trace the development and redactions of the deposition narratives from

the earliest sources to the story as it appears in the Talmuds: The Transmission and Evolution of the Story of the Deposition of R. Gamliel,in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: The Interbellum 70 132 CE, ed. Joshua J. Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson, CRINT 15 (Leiden: Brill, forth- coming). Earlier attempts to trace this development include Robert Goldenberg, The Deposition of Rabban Gamliel: An Examination of the Sources,Journal of Jewish Studies 23 (1972): 16790, Chaim Shapira, The Deposition of R. Gamliel, between History and Legend[in Hebrew], Zion 64, no. 1 (1994): 34570, and Jeffery Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 7780. See also Devora Steinmetz, Agada Unbound:

Inter-Agadic Characterization of the Sages in the Bavli and Implications for Reading Agada,in Rubenstein, Creation and Composition, 293337.

8. T. Yevamot 6:6, 10:3; T. Tevul Yom 2:9; Sifrei Bamidbar, Korah, pis. 118, to Numbers 18:15

and Hukat, pis. 124, to Numbers 19:9 (ed. Horovitz, pp. 138, 158).

9. We cannot discount the possibility that already in the tannaitic sources the term vineyard

should not be understood literally. Cohen notes the parallel between this name for the rabbinic academy and the names of the Athenian philosophical academies, the Porch, the Walk, and the Garden. However,


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

The most extensive discussion of the vineyard at Yavneh appears at the begin- ning of Tosefta Eduyot, which opens with the following framing narrative: When the sages entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said, The time will come in the future

when a person will seek a teaching of the Torah and will not find it, a teaching of the scribes and will not find it they said let us begin with Hillel and Shammai.’” In this account, the gathering of the rabbis in the vineyard at Yavneh is portrayed as a turning point in the history of the study and transmission of the Oral Law. It was then that the first steps were taken towards the organization of the Oral Law with the cre- ation of the tractate of Eduyot, which sought to preserve a wide array of halakhic traditions organized by tradent. 10 This text is unclear as to whether this meeting was a onetime event or the beginning of a more permanent institution. Another important narrative about Yavneh is in Tosefta Sotah 9:5, which presents an extended homily of R. Eleazar b. Azariah about the nature of Torah study. The homily is framed by a narrative in which R. Yoh anan b. Beroka and

R. Elazar b. H isma come from Yavneh to Lod to visit R. Joshua. R. Joshua



requests that the younger rabbis relate to him words of Torah from the beit midrash in Yavneh, asking them, Whose Sabbath was it? The students respond, It was R. Eleazar b. Azariah s, and then proceed to relate his teaching. 11 The meaning of the phrase, shabbat shel mi hayetah , Whose Sabbath was it? remains obscure. Rubenstein suggests that this phrase means, Who happened to speak on that Sabbath in the house of study? 12 Unlike the previous texts we have cited, this source would then imply that Yavneh was a relatively permanent institution that met week in, week out. However, the Tosefta s account is likely a later reworking of the parallel versions of this story found in the Mekhilta and in Yerushalmi Sotah. 13 These versions do not contain the phrase shabbat shel mi hayetah . 14 Instead, R. Joshua asks, mi shavat sham , Who was there? Thus the

as we shall see, the tannaitic sources overwhelmingly seem to portray an occasional gathering of the sages rather than a permanent institution. Shaye J. D. Cohen, Patriarchs and Scholars,Proceeding of the American Academy of Jewish Research 48 (1981): 5785. See also Adolph Büchler, Learning and Teaching in the Open Air in Palestine,Jewish Quarterly Review 4 (191314): 498.

10. Hanoch Albeck, Shishah sidre mishnah, Seder nezikin, (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1953), 275.

11. For a study and survey of previous scholarship on this passage and its parallel in Bavli

H . agigah 3ab, see Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, 91115.

12. Ibid., 111. Rubenstein cites Saul Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshutah, vol. 7 (New York: Jewish

Theological Seminary, 1973), 680, as his source for this reading, but Lieberman does not explicitly read the Tosefta in this way. For another possible reading, see Y. N. Epstein, Mevo ot le-sifrut ha-tanna im (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1957), 419.

13. Both Shamma Friedman and Amram Tropper argue that in many cases, toseftan materials

reflect a later stage of development than their parallels in the tannaitic midrashim. Shamma Friedman,

Tosefta atiqta (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002), 7577; Amram Tropper, Ke-h omer be-yad

ha-yoz . er: Maase h akhamim be-sifrut h azal (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2011), esp. 2326. In

an unpublished paper Friedman noted several examples of this phenomenon, specifically in T. Sotah.

14. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, par. Bo, to Exodus 13:2 (ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 59); Y. Sotah

3:4 (18d); Y. H agigah 1:1 (75d).






Creators of Worlds

likely earlier sources of this tradition suggest only a meeting of the sages and not any sort of permanent institution at Yavneh. There is another key phrase in the Mishnah, which, while it does not explic- itly refer to Yavneh, does portray an important meeting of the rabbis in the gener- ation following the destruction of Jerusalem. In Yadayim 3:5 and 4:2 as well as Zevah im 1:3, the Mishnah reports that R. Shimon ben Azzai said, I received

[this teaching] from seventy-two elders on the day on which R. Eleazar ben Azariah was seated in the yeshivah .Like the Mishnah s accounts of the vineyard at Yavneh, Ben Azzai here identifies a particular halakhic ruling as having been transmitted at a particular great meeting of the sages. This transmission of halakhic teachings takes place in the context of an institution referred to as the yeshivah. 15 As suggested by the reference to the seating of R. Eleazar ben Azariah, this was a group that had restricted membership. The induction of a new rabbi into the yeshi- vah was apparently an important event in the life of that rabbi as well as of the group as a whole. Ben Azzai also notes that seventy-two sages were in attendance at the yeshivah, recalling the number of the biblical elders of Israel and the mem- bership of the temple-era Sanhedrin as described in other rabbinic sources. 16 Ben Azzai s statement thus evokes a narrative world, though lacking clear location in space and time, which can be defined as an elite community of rabbinic sages who come together periodically to define and transmit the authoritative teachings of the Torah. The fourth chapter of Yadayim goes on to present a detailed account of the proceedings of the yeshivah on that day,on which R. Eleazar ben Azariah was seated. Unlike the previous texts we have examined, which describe the rabbis working in unison to transmit and preserve the Oral Law, these passages in Yadayim portray the meetings of rabbis of the Yavneh generation as characterized by intensive legal debates. Notably, the Mishnah records a debate between R. Gamliel and R. Joshua. These passages construct a narrative world character- ized by a culture of dispute. However, each of the disputes portrayed is ultimately resolved as the entire beit midrash agrees to follow the opinion that triumphs in the debate. The only factor at stake in the debate appears to be the strength of the argu- ments presented. No underlying personal or political factors seem to influence the debate. The rabbis address each other as my brother,suggesting a collegial environment. The sources we have seen thus far thus portray a narrative world in which the sages come together to collect and transmit the teachings of the Oral Law. These meetings appear to have been occasional, as with one notable exception, there is no clear reference to a permanent institution. At least one of these


15. Gafni argues that the term yeshivah has a specifically juridical implication; however, the context here suggests a body of wider significance and authority. Isaiah Gafni, Yeshivah and Metivta,Zion 43 (1978): 1237. 16. Sources generally give the number of sages in the Sanhedrin as seventy or seventy-one. The appearance of the number seventy-two deserves further exploration. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt as to the overall significance of this number here. See Michael Higger, The Sanhedrin,The Synagogue Light (AprilMay 1944).


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

meetings occurred in the vineyard at Yavneh. The rabbis tend to act as a group without a strict hierarchy. No individual rabbis are singled out as holding leader- ship positions. When disputes do arise they are resolved through open argumen- tation and end with a consensus. There is one more passage in the Mishnah that presents a different picture of Yavneh. The first two chapters of Mishnah Rosh Ha-shanah contain extended accounts of the activities of R. Gamliel s calendrical court in Yavneh. This court took over the responsibilities of the great court in Jerusalem for examining witnesses to the new moon and declaring the beginning of the new month. The Mishnah records a series of cases in which R. Gamliel uses his authority as the head of the court to prevail over his colleagues and their dissenting opinions about matters regarding the fixing of the new month. These incidents culminate in the famous conflict between R. Joshua and R. Gamliel regarding the proper date of Yom Kippur. Unlike the other tannaitic sources, Mishnah Rosh Ha-shanah portrays Yavneh not as a place of occasional study and academic debate but as the seat of a permanent judicial institution that met monthly. It is not clear how many sages other than R. Gamliel attended these meetings, but these were not massive gatherings of the entire rabbinic estate. The meeting took place in R. Gamliels upper chambers (2:8) rather than in an open-air forum. Not even all the most senior sages were necessarily in attendance. In at least one instance R. Akiva was in Lod when the witnesses were making their way to Yavneh (1:6). Furthermore, in M. Rosh Ha-shanah, Yavneh is place with clear hierarchy. R. Gamliel s position prevails not because of the superiority of his argument but because he stands at the head of the court. Related to this political hierarchy is the fact that M. Rosh Ha-shanah s Yavneh is the site of rancorous conflict. In the story of R. Gamliel s confrontation with R. Joshua the halakhic debate becomes personal. R. Dosa mocks R. Gamliel s ruling and R. Joshua openly challenges R. Gamliel s authority. R. Gamliel responded by demanding that R. Joshua publicly submit to his authority. In the end, however, the two figures reconcile amicably, restoring the peace and consensus familiar from the other tannaitic sources. 17


The two talmudic accounts of the deposition of R. Gamliel, in Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1 and Bavli Berakhot 27b28a, follow the same basic plot line:

R. Joshua opposes R. Gamliel s ruling that the Evening Prayer is obligatory. Upon learning of R. Joshua s insubordination, R. Gamliel publicly confronts and embarrasses R. Joshua, forcing him to remain standing throughout the days session at the beit midrash. The members of the beit midrash revolt, forcing R. Gamliel to end the session and ultimately deposing him from his posi- tion as the head of the beit midrash. In his place, they appoint R. Eleazar ben

17. I present a more complete reading of the narratives in Mishnah Rosh Ha-shanah in Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 19397.


Creators of Worlds

Azariah. R. Gamliel goes to R. Joshua s house in order to reconcile with him.

R. Joshua at first rebukes R. Gamliel for his lack of awareness of R. Joshua s

destitute economic circumstances, but ultimately R. Joshua accepts the apology. The two then deliver a message to the beit midrash that their feud has ended, and R. Gamliel returns to his position of power. As is its wont, the Bavli presents a version of the deposition story that is significantly longer than the Yerushalmis, not only providing more details but also including entire scenes that are absent from the Yerushalmi s version. (An English translation of both talmudic accounts can be found in synoptic format at the end of this article.) The first critical difference between the talmudic stories and the tannaitic sources is that in the Talmuds the rabbis do not simply periodically gather to collect and transmit traditions, and debate and issue rulings. Yavneh is now the site of a beit midrash that is a permanent and all-encompassing institution standing at the center of all rabbinic activity. The yeshivah of the Mishnah is understood as a yeshiva, an academy for the study of Torah. Similarly, the talmudic version rejects the simple understanding of the vine-

yard at Yavneh as describing an agricultural site. It reinterprets the term as a met- aphorical description of a vast building, with the rows of the vineyard representing the rows of benches in the academy. The Yerushalmi records a dispute as to whether there were eighty or three hundred rows, suggesting the existence of a per- manent home of the yeshiva of the rabbis with seating for hundreds, with many more occupying the standing room. The Bavli increases the number of benches in the beit midrash, presenting a dispute as to whether there were four hundred or seven hundred benches, establishing the beit midrash as a structure of epic pro- portions, which was host to a population of scholars at least equal to that of a small town. 18 The talmudic stories further depict the beit midrash in Yavneh as an enclosed world. It is portrayed as the location where the rabbis spend the majority of their time, meeting there each day for study sessions. Nearly all of the characters in the story are rabbis and the action largely takes place in the yeshiva building. The few scenes that take place outside the beit midrash are set in various rabbis homes, which appear to be located in or near the town of Yavneh. The TalmudsYavneh is not the collaborative world portrayed in most of the tannaitic sources. It has a hierarchal social order and is riven with personal and ideological conflicts, similar to the Yavneh of Mishnah Rosh Ha-shanah. But the talmudic accounts present an even harsher environment. In M. Rosh Ha-shanah, the issue under debate is the authority of R. Gamliel s court to set the calendar.

R. Joshua s threat to follow his own calculations undermines R. Gamliel s

18. Geoffrey Herman, Insurrection in the Academy: The Babylonian Talmud and the Paikuli Inscription[in Hebrew], Zion 79, no. 3 (2014): 381 n. 18, notes that it is difficult to know what sort of seating furniture is referred to by the term safsal . In some instances it seems to refer to a stool for a single individual, while in others it seems to indicate a bench on which multiple individuals can sit. Herman favors the former option for this case, in which case the number of scholars being portrayed in the beit midrash would be considerably fewer than I have suggested. See Shmuel Kraus, Kadmoniyot ha-talmud, vol. 2a (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1929), 25.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

vision of a single calendar that unites the entire Jewish people. R. Gamliel s deci- sion to aggressively assert his authority in this case is thus understandable. In contrast, the question that sparks the conflict in the deposition narrative, the status of the Evening Prayer, does not appear to be critically important for the unity of the rabbinic community. Furthermore, whereas in the M. Rosh Ha-shanah story R. Joshua openly challenges R. Gamliel s authority, in the deposition story R. Joshua seeks to avoid confrontation with R. Gamliel. R. Gamliel publicly humiliates R. Joshua merely for holding an opposing position. The Talmuds Yavneh and particularly the conflicts between R. Gamliel and R. Joshua that occur there are quite brutal. R. Gamliel emerges as a dictatorial figure who seeks to root out all dissent.


Both the Yerushalmi and Bavli accounts present Yavneh as a total institution that is the site not only of rabbinic study but of intense power struggles. Both focus on the political aspects of the operation of the beit midrash and present a critical perspective on these matters. However, there is a sharp divergence between the world of the Yerushalmi and that of the Bavli regarding the details of these power dynamics and the principles according to which they operate. The world of the Yerushalmi is based on aristocratic principles. There, power and authority belong only to those who were born to it. 19 R. Gamliel inher- ited his position from his forebears, who were members of the Pharisaic elite at the end of the Second Temple period. Many rabbinic sources further attribute Davidic lineage to R. Gamliel. 20 When R. Gamliel is removed from power, there is only one viable candidate to replace him, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, who comes from priestly lineage of the highest order. In the end, however, even among the aristoc- racy, everyone needs to know his place. R. Gamliel demands his position back from R. Eleazar b. Azariah, declaring, Let the sprinkler son of a sprinkler [of ashes of the red heifer], sprinkle; shall he who is neither a sprinkler nor the son of a sprinkler say to a sprinkler son of a sprinkler, Your water is cave water and your ashes are oven ashes? In other words, just as R. Eleazar b. Azariah and the rest of the priestly caste have their own rights and responsibilities regarding cultic matters and questions of ritual purity, the privileges of political and halakhic leadership belong solely to the house of R. Gamliel. In the end, R. Gamliel must return to his proper position. Even so, at the conclusion of the story, R. Eleazar b. Azariah is appointed to the secondary position of av beit din, further consolidating the power of the elites.

19. Devora Steinmetz, Must the Partriarch Know Ukqtzin? The Nasi as Scholar in Babylonian

Agadda,AJS Review 23, no. 2 (1998): 16390, has noted the role of heredity in the Yerushalmi version of the narrative.

20. For a survey and discussion of these sources see David Goodblatt, The Monarchic Principle:

Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1994), 14675.


Creators of Worlds

The Yerushalmi thus contains elements of critique against the rule of an inherited aristocracy. First, it shows how R. Gamliel abuses his power in order to dominate his opponents. R. Gamliel is also depicted as a detached leader who does not understand the difficult economic circumstances of his plebian fol- lowers. In the end, R. Gamliel acknowledges the error of his ways, but the poten- tial for similar such abuse at the hands of R. Gamliel s descendants remains. Along the same lines, the story demonstrates how the aristocratic regime prevents the most talented individuals from coming to power. After R. Eleazar b. Azariah is appointed, we hear R. Akiva s lament at having been passed over for the job, For it is not that he is a greater scholar than I, but rather that he possesses better lineage.Though R. Akiva is surely the most qualified candidate, he is passed over because of his humble origins. Both he and the community as a whole suffer because of the lost opportunity for his leadership. Nevertheless, the Yerushalmi accepts the aristocracy as a given. It criticizes the establishment but ultimately does not call for its removal. The world of the beit midrash portrayed in the Bavli is quite different. In place of the secure stability of the Yerushalmi s aristocratic framework, the Bavlis world is quite volatile, as people rise and fall based on their abilities. The ruling principle appears to be survival of the fittest. One needs to know how to navigate the often fickle political winds of the beit midrash. When R. Eleazar b. Azariah consults with his wife about accepting the position offered to him by the other rabbis she expresses her concern that he may lose favor with the other rabbis as quickly as he gained it. R. Eleazar b. Azariah concurs with her analysis but argues that it is worth the risk. Thus, in the Bavli, R. Gamliel s aristocratic hegemony is far from inevitable. When R. Gamliel is overthrown, so is the entire aristocratic structure he represents. The collective members of the beit midrash decide to elect his replacement on the basis of careful political calculation. R. Joshua is eliminated not because of his actual qualifications, but because of the possible appearance of impropriety given his conflicts with R. Gamliel. The ultimate choice of R. Eleazar b. Azariah is a pragmatic one. His package of qualifications makes him most likely to succeed at the job. His descent from Ezra is but one of these credentials, along with Torah scholarship and wealth. Lineage is presented as important only because it provides a tactical advantage of giving him metaphysical protection against his enemies. 21 Even when one is equipped with all of these resources, external appearances are also important. R. Eleazar b. Azariah s wife objects to his heading the beit midrash because he lacks white hair. In the world of power politics looking the part is a crucial credential. In response to this critique, God miraculously grants R. Eleazar b. Azariah this credential as well. 22

21. Isaiah Gafni, Shevet u-meh okek: New Models of Leadership in the Talmudic Period,in

Kehunah u-melukhah: Yah ase dat u-medinah be-Yisrael u-ve- amim, ed. Isaiah Gafni and Gavriel



Motzkin (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1987), 87.

22. See the discussion of these issues in Steinmetz, Must the Patriarch.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

The difference between the worlds presented by the Yerushalmi and the Bavli can be further illustrated through a close comparison of the stories endings. In the Yerushalmi version, R. Gamliel has little trouble making amends with the majority of the rabbis of the beit midrash, including R. Joshua. The primary obstacle to R. Gamliel s return to power is R. Eleazar b. Azariah. The power has passed from one aristocratic family to another. In the autocratic

world of the Yerushalmi, it is only with R. Eleazar b. Azariah s consent that power can be returned to its original owner. Here, the parable of the sprinkler son of sprinkler,which argues that political leadership belongs by right to

R. Gamliel s line, is directed only at R. Eleazar b. Azariah. When R. Eleazar

b. Azariah agrees to relinquish power, it is he who declares to the other rabbis that you and I shall go up to [R. Gamliel s] door,to recognize him once again

as the leader. In contrast, in the Bavli, R. Gamliel at first goes to reconcile with R. Joshua only. If he is to end his feud with the other rabbis, he must first gain the support of the one he offended. R. Joshua himself accepts R. Gamliel s claim to power on the basis of his lineage. He forgives him only after R. Gamliel asks that he do so for the sake of my father.They then send a request to have R. Gamliel reinstated. The parable of the sprinkler reappears here with the addition of a second, similar parable about one who wears the robe, an image of political authority, again making the argument for R. Gamliel s hereditary entitlement to his position. 23 In the Bavli, though, the case is made not to R. Eleazar b. Azariah, who does not appear in this final scene at all, but to the entire beit midrash, under the lead- ership of their plebian de facto leader, R. Akiva. R. Akiva and his colleagues completely reject R. Gamliel s aristocratic arguments. They further close the doors of the beit midrash in the face of R. Gamliel and his men, fearing that

R. Gamliel will seek to seize power by force. Once again, in the Bavli it is political

strength that is the ultimate factor, not hereditary claims. However, when R. Akiva sees that R. Joshua has made peace with R. Gamliel, he changes his stance. It is

R. Akiva who speaks the phrase, you and I shall go up to [R. Gamliel s]

door.Once the original dispute has been resolved, there is no reason, in principle, not to let R. Gamliel return to power. The concerns here are purely pragmatic, not ideological as in the Yerushalmi. In line with this realpolitik approach, in the Bavli, the rabbis do not agree to return to the status quo. In the end, they attempt to create a balance of power between R. Gamliel and R. Eleazar b. Azariah, instituting a rotation system in which neither of them has absolute power. 24 There is a further ramification of the differing sociopolitical structures of the two worlds. In the Yerushalmi s Yavneh, halakhic authority flows directly from aristocratic power. R. Gamliel s right to impose his halakhic positions on others is never questioned. Similarly, the Yerushalmi emphasizes that R. Eleazar

23. On the symbolism of the robe see Reuven Kimelman, The Conflict between the Priestly

Oligarchy and the Sages in the Talmudic Period,Zion 48, no. 2 (1983): 138. On the phenomena of

the Bavli creating such doublets,see Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, 21112.

24. For an alternative approach to this arrangement, see Steinmetz, Must the Patriarch,181.


Creators of Worlds

b. Azariah was appointed to his position purely based on his lineage, despite the

fact that he was not the preeminent scholar of his day. In line with its world view, in the Bavli s Yavneh, Halakhah is determined through open debate. Torah schol- ars are portrayed as shield bearers, gladiators who face each other in combat in

the arena of the beit midrash. R. Gamliel initially sought to limit this open debate by restricting access to the beit midrash to those whose inside is like his outside.

R. Gamliel s exact intentions are unclear here, but from the context it seems that he

sought to evaluate the purity of students motivations and inner life. R. Eleazar b.

Azariah removes this moral test. Under the new regime students are evaluated based only on the knowledge and dialectical prowess that they display in the beit midrash. The result is an influx of talent and energy and an immediate explo- sion of creative scholarship. The Bavli declares that in addition to the formulation and dissemination of the teachings recorded in Yadayim chapter 4 and all of Eduyot, on that day, no outstanding question in the beit midrash went unre- solved. In the Bavli, then, the world of Yavneh combines a freewheeling political environment with an unfettered commitment to the pursuit of truth through intel- lectual investigation. The story s ambivalence towards this arrangement is most clearly expressed in the scene describing R. Gamliels response to the new developments in the beit midrash. R. Gamliel expresses concern that, given the productive outcome of R. Eleazar b. Azariah s open-door policy, his previous policy of restricting access to the beit midrash to those whose purity of motivation could be ascertained was mistaken. R. Gamliel receives a vision in a dream of white casks full of ashes. The dream is described by the Bavli as a message from God communicat- ing divine disapproval of R. Eleazar b. Azariah s new regime, despite its benefits to the world of Torah scholarship. This vindication of R. Gamliel s approach stands in tension with the rest of the story, which presents R. Eleazar b. Azariah s reform as an overwhelming success. 25



Earlier scholars viewed these stories as providing us a window, however clouded, onto the circumstances of the historical Yavneh. 26 Over the past genera- tion, scholars have gradually come to the consensus that the amoraic accounts of the Yavneh era are not rooted in reliable historical traditions, and that there is little connection between the events described and actual occurrences in rabbinic circles at the turn of the second century. Nevertheless, contemporary scholars still tend to view these stories as direct reflections of historical circumstances

25. The next line in the story states that God sent R. Gamliel the dream only to put his mind at

peace.Rubenstein cogently argues that this forced effort to resolve this tension is in fact a later gloss. He sees it as evidence of continued debate among the Stammaim over this very issue. Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, 89. 26. See for example Levi Ginzburg, Perushim ve-h iddushim be-yerushalmi, vol. 3 (New York:

Ktav, 1971), 174220; Gedalyah Alon, The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age, trans. Gershon

Levi (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 31922; Ephraim E. Urbach, The Halakhah:

Its Sources and Development , trans. Raphael Posner (Jerusalem, Yad La-Talmud, 1986), 27880.



Moshe Simon-Shoshan

as relatively transparent commentaries on the dominant social and political systems in the worlds of their authors in later amoraic or postamoraic Palestine and Babylonia. A careful reading of the deposition narratives, however, will show that their relationship with the circumstances of their authors is hardly so clear-cut, and it may be nearly as problematic to use these texts as sources for later rabbinic history as it is to use them as evidence for the earlier period they purport to portray. Let us begin with the Yerushalmi version of the story. Devora Steinmetz

argues that this account reflects the status of the patriarch in the amoraic period, where the hereditary office was primarily political in nature and was not necessar- ily filled by a great scholar. 27 Chaim Shapira goes further, seeing the Yerushalmi account as indirectly relating R. Yoh anan s perspective on his conflicts with the

patriarch of his day, R. Judah Nesiah. 28 This view sees the narrative world of Yavneh as merely a thinly disguised adaption of the real world of its creators. There are certainly aspects of the story s depiction of R. Gamliel that recall the later patriarchate. Notably, R. Gamliel is portrayed as an aristocratic patron of the rabbis who is ignorant of, and perhaps indifferent to, the true extent of the eco- nomic distress of some of his dependents. Shapira also notes that the phrase nashkim le-pith . o , go up to [R. Gamliel s] door, apparently refers to the Roman practice of salutatio , a formal visit expressing fealty to the emperor or ones patron, which was practiced in the court of the patriarch in the third century. 29 These elements portray R. Gamliel as part of the Roman aristocracy, something not attested in early sources regarding R. Gamliel, but an accurate depiction of Rabbi and his successors. 30 Additionally, as we have already noted, the story assumes the existence of a permanent academy under R. Gamliel, which was also apparently true only of R. Judah and his descendants. There can be little doubt that members of the original audience of the Yerushalmi s story would have made the link between the office and figure of R. Gamliel and that of the patriarch of their own day, and would have understood the story as in some way commenting on their contemporary situation. There are also very significant disjunctures between the Yerushalmi s Yavneh and the world of the Palestinian Amoraim. The term patriarch never appears in either version of the story. Indeed, R. Gamliel and R. Eleazar b. Azariah are not described as possessing any broader political powers over the Jews of the Land of Israel as a whole. In the story, their authority is purely halakhic and does not seem to extend beyond the circle of their fellow rabbis. They are both presumed to be outstanding scholars, even if they ultimately owe their positions to their lineage. This contrasts sharply with what we know of the patriarchs of the amoraic period, who were political leaders of the entire Jewish community but


27. Steinmetz, Must the Patriarch,187.

28. Shapira, Deposition of R. Gamliel,1922.

29. Ibid., 18.

30. Sacha Stern, Rabbi and the Origins of the Patriarchate, Journal of Jewish Studies 54

(2003): 193215.


Creators of Worlds

not outstanding scholars. 31 In this respect, the image of R. Gamliel that emerges from the story is far more similar to the position of the historical R. Gamliel, as portrayed by contemporary historians, than it is to that of the later patriarchate. In the current view, R. Gamliel was merely the leader of the nascent rabbinic movement, not a figure of political significance on the wider scene of Palestinian Jewry. 32 It was Rabbi who first bore the title of patriarch and served as the political and spiritual leader of the Jews of the Land of Israel. 33


The Yavneh of the Yerushalmi s account thus stands in a complex and ambiguous relationship with both the world that it purports to represent and the world in which it was formed and first recounted. In order to properly understand this text as a historical and cultural artifact we will need a new paradigm for study- ing the relationships between stories and reality ”— narrative worlds. Thus far we have treated narrative worlds as autonomous literary phenom- ena. Theorists of narrative worlds indeed frequently emphasize the gap between fully constructed narrative worlds and the real world of the creators and consum- ers of a given story. Notably, Richard Gerrig has studied the experience of readers of stories being transported from their own environments into the alternative reality of the story, both in fiction and nonfiction stories. 34 Yet narrative worlds are never created ex nihilo. They are inevitably constructed by authors and reconstructed by readers by cannibalizing elements of other possible worlds to which they have access through their personal experience and their cultural and intellectual environment. Here possible world refers to any integrated cognitive-imaginative construct through which an individual or culture conceptu- alizes a possible physical environment. The most important possible world on which creators of a narrative world draw is, adapting a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author s or reader s primary world. 35 A person s primary world is the one she perceives as the real world in which she directly experiences her day-to-day life. From an onto- logical perspective, primary worlds have privileged status vis-à-vis other possible worlds because they are constructed from direct sensory data acquired by individ- uals about the material environment in which they live. Yet primary worlds remain

31. On the patriarchate in the third and fourth centuries, see Stern, ibid.

32. For a survey of the emerging scholarly consensus on this issue, see Catherine Heszer, The

Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997). See also Sacha Stern, Rabbi and the Origins of the Patriarchate.

33. Stern, following Jacobs, goes so far as to argue that Rabbi was not even of the Gamliel line,

severing any direct connection between the religious leadership of R. Gamliel II and his son Shimon and the patriarchate established by Rabbi. M. Jacobs, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen:

Eine quellen- und traditionskritische Studie zur Geschichte der Juden in der Späntantike (Tübingen:

Mohr Siebeck, 1995).

34. Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of

Reading (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 217.

35. J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories,in Tree and Leaf (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964), 37.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

subjective psychological constructs. Each of us makes sense of the world around us based on our beliefs and ideas, conditioned by our individual experiences and sociocultural backgrounds. 36 Primary worlds are particularly important to the con- struction of narrative worlds because they are always the most extensively devel- oped and detailed world to which a person has access. A person s primary world is their default world to which they instinctively first reach when they need to fill in the gaps of the narrative world of the story. 37 Other important categories of possible worlds on which authors and readers draw in constructing narrative worlds include contiguous worlds, worlds that individuals perceive as being within the same physical universe as their own, but removed from their direct experience, temporally or geographically. These are worlds that exist in the past or in faraway places. Like primary worlds, these worlds have nonfictional statuses in the minds of those who create or rec- reate them. Their raw material, however, is not sensory experience, but texts and other modes of representation. Another important set of possible worlds belong to the class of ideological worlds. These are conceptualizations of how the world should, or should not, work. For example, many stories occur in worlds in which good inevitably tri- umphs over evil, even though in the primary world of the author this is not the case. The most obvious examples of narrative worlds rooted in a particular ideo- logical world are utopian narratives, which present worlds that are instantiations of a theory about what an ideal community or world should look like. Utopian nar- rative worlds function in an exemplary manner exactly as the theories behind them predict. Ideological worlds do not necessarily reflect only our rational or philo- sophical belief systems; they also draw on our emotional lives, reflecting our irra- tional desires and fears. 38 Finally, in constructing narrative worlds authors sometimes draw on the nar- rative world of a preexisting story or stories. Similarly, broader literary genres often collectively construct narrative worlds, constituting literary worlds, which later authors and readers draw on in the process of writing and reading new works. To create narrative worlds, authors and readers draw on aspects of a set of possible worlds of the types here described. Narrative worlds are inevitably inter- connected with the historical, cultural, intellectual, and emotional worlds of their creators. But once created, narrative worlds cannot be so easily reverse engineered into their constituent parts. Each narrative world is a new creation, which synthe- sizes components of other worlds together with new material into an original unity. Narrative worlds tend to blur the distinctions between the possible worlds on which they draw.

36. Jerome Bruner, The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Inquiry 18, no. 1 (Autumn

1991): 121.

37. This is what Marie-Laure Ryan calls the principle of minimal departure.Marie-Laure

Ryan, Fiction, Non-Factual and the Principle of Minimal Departure, Poetics 9 (1980): 406.

38. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories,38.


Creators of Worlds


The Yerushalmi s Yavneh mixes together aspects of its authors and original audiences primary world with those of the contiguous world of the historical Yavneh as it was understood in amoraic times. R. Gamliel and R. Eleazar ben Azariah are generally portrayed as halakhic authorities who only rule over the other rabbis. This comports with current understandings of the Yavneh eras his- torical reality. At the same time, the story also gives R. Gamliel some of the trap- pings of the aristocratic patriarchs of the amoraic period. The Yavneh of the Yerushalmi thus blurs the distinctions between these worlds, creating a new reality whose exact relationship with either the historical Yavneh or the world of the Palestinian Amoraim is difficult to discern. Elements of the ideological worlds of its creators are also evident in the Yerushalmi s Yavneh. It reflects not only historical realties of various periods, but also various ideals about what the beit midrash and rabbinic society in general should look like. As we have seen, the Yerushalmi s beit midrash reflects the culmination of a gradual development in the sources in which Yavneh trans- forms from a site of an informal and/or occasional meeting of rabbis to a more established institution. This parallels changes in the real world of the rabbis, which historians believe underwent a process of increasing institutionalization over the course of the first four centuries CE as the rabbis became increasingly urbanized and influential among the wider population. 39 But the Yerushalmi s Yavneh is significantly more centralized, institutionalized, and insulated from the wider world than any actual beit midrash the Palestinian Amoraim would have known. Though we know very little about the workings of amoraic acade- mies in Palestine, the evidence indicates that they were generally local affairs, often made up of nothing more than study circles gathered around an individual rabbi, and did not have buildings of their own. Almost certainly, there was no single centralized beit midrash that had room for thousands of students and encom- passed the entire rabbinic establishment in a structured total institution. 40 The story portrays a utopian beit midrash that is an insular and unified community united in a single physical and institutional structure. From our vantage point, it is difficult to determine where the Yerushalmi s depiction of the real beit midrash as they experienced it ends and where the portrayal of an ideal beit midrash begins. We can also trace the impact of ideological worlds on the Yerusahlmi s depiction of the aristocratic power structure in Yavneh. To be sure, the patriarchate was an aristocratic institution passed from father to son and rooted in the patri- arch s claims of descent from an illustrious line of leaders. Similarly, aristocratic priestly families apparently remained politically and economically powerful in the

39. Hayim Lapin, The Rabbinic Movement in Israel,in The Cambridge History of Judaism,

vol. 4, ed. Steven Katz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21825.

40. Lee I. Levine, The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Yad

Ben-Zvi, 1989), 7677; Catherine Heszer, Social Structure , 195214.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Land of Israel into the amoraic period. 41 These realities are to some degree reflected in the figures of R. Gamliel and R. Eleazar b. Azariah in our story. Ultimately, though, the story focuses on power relationships within the closed world of rabbinic study and legal deliberation and not on the sociopolitical structure of Palestinian Jewry as a whole. Here too, historians going back to Gedalyah Alon have argued that in Palestine, rabbinic positions were at least in some cases passed on from father to son and that coming from an established rabbinic family advanced one s position in rabbinic society. 42 We do not know the exact extent of the influence that these aristocratic tendencies

played in determining the social and po litical hierarchy among the rabbis. It is clear, however, that in historical Roman Palestine aristocratic structures did not exert the same decisive influence on who rose to power among the rabbis as they do in the world of the Yerushalmi s story. To give but one prominent example, R. Yoh anan attained a preeminent position in rabbinic society

despite his apparently humble lineage. 43 The dominance of hereditary factors in the authority structure of the Yerush- almi s Yavneh cannot, therefore, be seen as merely reflecting the primary world of the story s authors and original audience. Rather, it seems that the Yerushalmi s Yavneh also draws on contemporary ideological worlds that portray the appropri- ate place that hereditary factors should play in an ideal world. In addition to pro- viding evidence for the existence of aristocratic practices among the Palestinian rabbis, Alon and subsequent scholars have also marshaled significant evidence for the existence of a long-standing debate between various Palestinian rabbis about whether or not aristocratic practices and values have a place in an ideal rab- binic world. Some rabbis thought that Torah should be the domain of a hereditary elite, while others advocated a meritocratic system that values ability and achieve- ment, but not birth. Alon cites a passage from Avot de-Rabbi Natan that records a dispute between the houses of Hillel and Shammai regarding the credentials that should be required of students of Torah. Shammai argues that only students with proper lineage should be taught Torah, whereas Hillel argues that all should be taught in order to attract and cultivate the best possible students as the next gen- eration of sages. 44 Similarly, in a series of studies, Moshe Beer analyzes the mid- rashic discussions about the sons of Moses, Eli, and Samuel, all of whom failed to follow in their fathers footsteps. Beer argues that these discussions reflect a debate in Palestinian sources between advocates and critics of aristocratic practices in


41. Kimelman, Conflict.Several recent scholars have argued for the rise of priestly leadership

in the era immediately following the completion of the Yerushalmi and the end of the patriarchate. See

for example Oded Irshai, Confronting a Christian Empire: Jewish Culture in the World of Byzantium,in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, ed. David Biale (New York: Schocken, 2002), 189204.

42. Gedalyah Alon, Sons of the Sages[in Hebrew], in Meh karim be-toldot Yisrael , vol. 2 (Tel

Aviv: Ha-kibbutz Ha-meuh ad, 1970), 5873; See also Isaiah Gafni, Shevet u-mehokekand Heszer,

Social Structure, 25767.



43. Kohelet Rabbah 9:10 and Heszer, Social Structure , 258.

44. Alon, Sons of the Sages,61; Avot de-Rabbi Natan, B:4 (ed. Schechter, pp. 1415).


Creators of Worlds

rabbinic circles. 45 Isaiah Gafni has similarly noted the range of positions reflected in Palestinian sources regarding the question of whether rabbinic society should be meritocratic or aristocratic. 46 These sources demonstrate the existence of two com- peting ideological worlds among the rabbis, with opposing visions of an ideal rab- binic society. In constructing their narrative world, the creators of the Yerushalmi story made use of both of these ideological worlds. On the one hand, the dominant place that figures of Davidic and priestly descent play in the political hierarchy of the Yerushalmi s Yavneh reflects the ideal world of those who believed that rab- binic authority should be hereditary. On the other hand, the Yerushalmi s Yavneh is hardly a utopia. The story highlights dysfunctional elements of the aristocratic system by depicting R. Akiva s marginalization due to his lack of lineage and R. Gamliel s detachment from the harsh economic realities faced by other rabbis. This critique reflects an opposing world view that posited that an ideal rab- binic society would be a meritocracy or at least have a significant meritocratic element. Previous scholars of rabbinic narrative have certainly been aware that these stories present narrative worlds that integrate elements of existing ideological worlds. Thus, Chaim Shapira suggests that the Yerushamli s story is more than just a reflection of amoraic rabbinic society, concluding that the story is ultimately propatriarchal, expressing recognition of the patriarchs leadership. He argues that on the one hand, the story presents a position which sees the sages as a central factor, whose purpose is to balance the power of the Patriarch and which can even use its power to remove him from office. On the other hand, the story clearly expresses the recognition that there can be no replacement for the dynasty of R. Gamliel and that it is necessary to recognize the authority of the Patriarchs even when their behavior departs from accepted norms. 47 Shapira sees the Yavneh of the Yerushalmi as consisting of a combination of the authors own primary world, which he identifies as the patriarchal court in the third century CE, and an ideological world whose ideal is a balance of power between the patriarch and the leading rabbis of the time, a world he identifies with the position of R. Yoh anan. 48 Shapira thus ignores the significant differences

between the rabbinic position of the head of the beit midrash and the largely secular role of the patriarch of the third century. If this story were a simple roman à clef about the patriarch and his authority, it could certainly have portrayed R. Gamliel s role in a more fitting manner. Shapira s evaluation of the underlying

message of the story similarly ignores the story s focus on the privileges of both


45. Moshe Beer, The Sons of Samuel in Rabbinic Legend,” “ The Hereditary Principle in

Jewish Leadership,and The Sons of Eli in Rabbinic Legend[in Hebrew], in H akhme ha-mishnah

ve-ha-talmud: Hagutam, poalam u-manhigutam (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2011), 362

73, 37381, 38296.

46. Isaiah M. Gafni, Rethinking Talmudic History: The Challenge of Literary and Redaction

Criticism,Jewish History 25 (2011): 367.


47. Shapira, Deposition of R. Gamliel,21.

48. Ibid., 22.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

the Davidic and priestly aristocracy. It is hardly obvious that this story was meant to promote the authority of R. Yoh anan or other leading rabbis who lacked pres-

tigious rabbinic pedigree. Nor is the Yavneh of the Yerushalmi just a veiled rep- resentation of the patriarchal court and its affiliated rabbinic academy. This story cannot fit neatly into an exact social and historical matrix. It presents an autonomous world that interacts with and comments on various other possible worlds only indirectly and ultimately inconclusively.



As in the case of the Yerushalmi s account, numerous scholars have under- stood the Bavli s story as reflecting and commenting on the academic milieu in which it was produced. To be sure, the world of Yavneh as portrayed by the Bavli is in many ways reminiscent of the image of the Babylonian academy as described elsewhere in the Bavli. The Bavli frequently describes debate in the beit midrash as a form of open combat in which the best scholars and the best argu- ments ultimately prevail. 49 Similarly, there is little reason to doubt that the Baby- lonian academies had their share of power politics like those described in the story. However, they were not nearly as freewheeling as the beit midrash of Yavneh of the Bavli s story. 50 Indeed, as Geoffrey Herman writes, the Babylonian yeshiva was characterized by strict formality, ceremonialism, order, rigid hierarchy and wealth. 51 The Babylonian rabbis valued pure lineage to an extreme degree, even more so than the rabbis of the Land of Israel. Though lineage is presented in the Bavli version of our story as merely one factor in choosing a leader, valued only for its prophylactic advantages and not as an end in itself, in reality, it seems that such status could play a decisive role in one s rabbinic career. 52 It appears that the Babylonian rabbis gave particular weight to priestly descent, especially with regard to the appointment of rashe yeshivah . As Herman has demonstrated, the majority of the Babylonian rabbis identified in Rav Sherira Gaon s epistle as rashe yeshivah and whose lineage is mentioned in the Bavli were related to the priesthood by birth or marriage. 53 Herman has also shown that the Bavli frequently uses royal imagery to describe the yeshivot

49. Rubenstein, Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 5456.

50. The question of the exact timing of the emergence of the Babylonian yeshivot as fully devel-

oped institutions is beyond the scope of this study. Similarly, it is not my intent to take a position on the

thorny question of the date of the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud and the role of the Stam- maimin this endeavor. For our purposes it sufficient to note that, one way or another, scholars agree that the Bavli was redacted in the context of highly developed yeshivot similar to the institutions known to us from geonic sources. For recent discussion of these questions see Jeffrey Rubenstein, The Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy: A Reexamination of the Talmudic Evidence,JSIJ 1 (2002): 5568; Gafni, Rethinking,35575.

51. Herman, Insurrection,381.

52. Rubenstein, Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy,80101. See also Geoffrey

Herman, Ha-kohanim be-Bavel bi-tekufat ha-talmud(MA thesis, Hebrew University, 1998).

53. Geoffrey Herman, Priests and Amoraic Leadership in Sassanian Babylonia,Proceedings

of the Twelfth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division B, History of the Jewish People (Jerusalem:

World Union of Jewish Studies, 2000), 59*68*.


Creators of Worlds

and their leaders. 54 All of this suggests that, as in the case of the Yerushalmi, the original audience of the Bavlis account would have found the world of Yavneh at once familiar and strange. While the audience would have recognized the rough-and-tumble world of the beit midrash as portrayed in the story, the notion that individuals rose to the top of rabbinic society almost entirely based on their abilities and credentials would not have conformed with their experience. Like amoraic Palestine, the Babylonian rabbinic world was governed by a combination of aristocratic and meritocratic principles, though in a different balance. 55 The Bavli s Yavneh does not generally reflect these aristocratic aspects of the primary world of its creators and their intended audience. To the extent that these aristocratic forces are portrayed in the story in the person of R. Gamliel, they appear as ultimately subservient to the meritocratic forces of the beit midrash. The Yavneh of the Bavli s story is rooted not only in the reality of the Babylonian yeshivot but also in an idealized notion of a beit midrash fully based on a radically meritocratic ethos, consumed in a constant state of internecine war that selects for the best Torah scholars and the most capable leaders. This ideo- logical position is reflected in the many sources in the Bavli that valorize the indi- vidual sage who lives by his wits, his Torah knowledge, and his political savvy. 56 Once again, it is exceedingly difficult to evaluate the exact relationship between the narrative world of the Bavlis story and the real and ideological worlds of its creators. Indeed, the creators of the story themselves might not have had such a clear distinction in their own minds between these two realms. While the Yavneh of the story does resemble the ideal academy advocated by some voices in the Bavli, it is hardly taken to be a utopia. The story in its final form reflects clear elements of ambivalence towards such a world. Most notably, it raises the possibility that R. Gamliel s more elitist approach to admission to the beit midrash was in fact favored by God himself, which suggests the influence of an alternative ideological world in which violent meritocracy is not the ideal. As in the Yerushalmi, the Bavli presents a particular vision of the ideal beit midrash while depicting that vision as flawed. In doing so, the Bavli combines two opposing ideological worlds into its narrative world. 57 Yet, we do not find in the Bavli story the same tension between its creators primary world and their historical memory of the early tannaitic period that we found in the Yerushalmi. The portrayal of the leader of the beit midrash as a pow- erful individual who exerted significant influence on the rabbinic world but did not hold political power over the wider Jewish community fits the Babylonian rosh yeshivah . Nevertheless, the fact that the story is set in the distant past and stars the renowned heroes of the formative age of rabbinic Judaism is hardly incidental.

54. Herman, Insurrection, 37980.

55. Gafni, Rethinking,367.

56. Rubenstein, Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, 5456.

57. For a survey of the place of wealth and social status in rabbinic culture in Palestine and Bab-

ylonia throughout the rabbinic period, see Alyssa M. Gray, The Formerly Wealthy Poor: From Empathy to Ambivalence in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,AJS Review 33, no. 1 (2009):



Moshe Simon-Shoshan

If nothing else, it emphasizes that Yavneh is a world distinct from the regular milieu of the authors and their original audience, to which they must be trans- ported in the process of experiencing the story. In the case of the Bavli, there may be yet another class of possible worlds that contributes to the construction of Yavneh. In a recent article, Geoffrey Herman argues that the authors of the Bavli s account of the deposition story repeatedly allude to aspects of the Sasanian royal court, suggesting an equivalence between the beit midrash and the royal court and between the head of the beit midrash and the emperor. According to Herman, this lends a certain imperial atmosphere, to the Bavli s story. In particular, he draws a series of parallels between the Bavli s account of the deposition of R. Gamliel and the account related in the late third-century Paikuli Inscription, which tells of a contemporary succession struggle over the Sasanian throne. Herman argues that these parallels link the Bavlis story to a wider genre of Persian and general ancient Near Eastern epic tales of intrigues within various royal courts. 58 Translated into our terms, according to Herman, in creating their Yavneh, the Bavli s storytellers drew from contemporary cultural and literary worlds that portrayed the social and political environment of Persian court life. The Bavli s portrayal of the power politics of Yavneh thus cannot be described as a transparent representation of the Babylonian rabbinic academies. Rather, it is a literary construct that draws on a range of literary and cultural models and sources. This account of the Bavli s Yavneh bears some similarities to, as well as crucial differences from, Daniel Boyarin s understanding of this story. Boyarin argues that the Bavli s version of the deposition story represents a coded stam- maitic portrayal of the emergence and triumph of their own academic institutions, culture, and ideology. He sees the Yavneh of the entire Babylonian Yavneh cycle as reflecting the world and views of the Stammaim, whom he credits with shaping these stories in their final form. This Yavneh is a world in which contention, quarrel and the interpretation of texts, reflect an ideology of endless dispute for its own sake, of a divinely justified polynoia ,and which would have been understood by the original performers of these traditions as the ideal situation of our Yavneh, the Yavneh that we inhabit, as it were, today namely, the today of the redactors. 59 Boyarin argues that while this Yavneh is in fact only a utopian beit midrash , 60 it would have been identified by its performers with their own academies and their culture of dispute. At the same time, Boyarin acknowledges that in the Bavli s accounts of Yavneh, conflict [is] a malignant presence and its resolution is the violent exer- cise of power.61 Boyarin sees these elements of the stories as reflecting another possible world, which he calls the bad old days. This world, which Boyarin identifies with earlier Palestinian rabbinic culture, stands in contrast to the

58. Herman, Insurrection,395407.

59. Boyarin, Yavneh-Cycle, 247, 253.

60. Ibid., 241.

61. Ibid., 42, quoting David Stern, Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 37.


Creators of Worlds

endless debate and pluralism of Babylonian culture. It is marked by a search for absolute truth and an effort to create a clear dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy. Boyarin understands the Bavli s version of our story as portraying the transformation of Yavneh from the bad old days into a utopian beit midrash in accord with Babylonian norms and values. He sees this narrative as a displaced account of an actual historical revolution that he attributes to the work of the Stammaim in Babylonia at the end of the rabbinic era. For Boyarin, in this story, the Talmud makes its values entirely transparent. The new regime of open access to Torah is firmly and definitively approbated by the authoritative voice of the Talmudic narrator, matching up well with the literary practices of the talmudic and midrashic redactors as well. 62 Underlying Boyarin s reading is his assumption that he can pull apart the different elements of the story s narrative world and identify them with particular ideological and historical worlds. He uses these identifications to map the conflicts and development of the plot onto particular historical events. Yet, as we have seen, these elements of the story s world cannot be so simply disentangled. The open discourse and debate of Yavneh that Boyarin associates with the authors ideal beit midrash is in fact inexorably intertwined with power politics that he associates with the bad old days. The story presents the world of the beit midrash warts and all, showing both the great potential of its culture of open debate as well as the ugly side of its at-times brutal politics that results from its relative lack of hier- archy. As we have seen, this world is hardly a transparent portrayal of the reality or ideals of the Babylonian academies. Furthermore, to the extent that R. Gamliel does represent a perspective that advocates elitism and authoritarianism, this could just as well be understood as reflecting the imperial reality and ideology of contemporary Babylonian rashe yeshivah rather than the circumstances of the distant world of earlier Palestinian Judaism. While there can be no doubt that the Bavlis story directly engages its authors own cultural and ideological reality, we cannot reverse engineer the story in order to establish the exact contours of this relationship. Furthermore, the story does not appear to be taking an unequivocal stand on any of the issues of its day. It rather seems to be an effort to dramatically portray and engage these issues without presenting a clear-cut agenda.


If we cannot read these stories as containing clear social commentary, how then are we best to understand the way in which they functioned within their initial social and ideological environments? The experience of journeying back and forth between an individual s primary world and a narrative world involves a blurring of boundaries between the reader s experience of the real and the ideal, the past and the present, and the literary and the prosaic. 63 Upon returning from the narrative world, readers potentially carry over this experience into their interactions with other possible worlds, most notably their primary and ideological worlds, bringing

62. Boyarin, Yavneh-Cycle, 260.

63. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds, 1617, 196241.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan

them to new understandings and opinions about their material, social, and ideolog- ical environments. Thus, the experience of reading or hearing the deposition stories would have indirectly helped to shape their audiences perceptions of their primary worlds of amoraic rabbinic culture and their beliefs about how rab- binic society should ideally function. The Palestinian and the Babylonian versions of Yavneh each fuse elements of postdestruction early rabbinic society with the social and political realities of later rabbinic academies to form a single integrated narrative world. The experi- ence of being transported into this world would have instilled in its performers an organic sense of connection between their own circles and their endeavors and those of the first generations of rabbis. Each time these stories, and others like them, were performed, they would have reinforced the sense among the later rabbis that they are the authentic inheritors of the small group of sages who survived the destruction and set out to reconstruct Judaism in Yavneh and throughout the Land of Israel. The story similarly would have served to legitimate the regnant social and political structures and ideologies in late antique rabbinic societies by creating the impression that these arrangements go back to the times of the earliest rabbis. We might see the tradition of the deposition of R. Gamliel as functioning as what I have elsewhere called an authoritative discourse, a narrative structure that seeks to consolidate the collective identity and legitimacy of the individual rab- binic communities and their social and ideological status quo. At the same time, the experience of the Yavneh stories could also have helped to generate a dis- course of authority,which stimulates its participants to interrogate and potentially reevaluate those same social and ideological structures. 64 Narrative worlds are neither stable nor complete entities. They are inherently fragmentary and dynamic systems that must be reconstructed each time a performer encounters the text. By isolating certain aspects of their real and ideological worlds and recon- structing them in a new context, insulated from the immediate pressure of their day-to-day environments, narrative worlds give performers the opportunity to reexamine their assumptions and opinions in a different light. The narrative world of Yavneh would have provided an experimental arena in which the potential implications of the various ideologies and values present in their societies could be played out. By shifting the action to the semilegendary world of Yavneh and isolating particular ideological and social structures, these stories would have made it possible to discuss sensitive and even potentially explosive issues in a more controlled and indirect manner. In the case of the Yer- ushalmi, the experience of its narrative world would have stimulated its readers to consider the pros and cons of the aristocratic theories and practices of their society in a way that did not directly attack those who were deeply invested in the aristo- cratic power structure. 65 The Bavli s story would have served a similar function

64. Simon-Shoshan, Stories of the Law, 22731.

65. On the potential dangers of publicly criticizing the patriarch for his abuse of power, espe-

cially vis-à-vis the priesthood, see the story of Joseph of Maon, Y. Sanhedrin 2:6 (13b).


Creators of Worlds

with regard to its culture s meritocratic ideas and structures. These stories do not take an unequivocal stand on these matters and cannot predetermine how they will impact the views of any given reader. What they can do is help their tellers and audiences reevaluate ideas and situations that they may have taken for granted.

***** Focusing on the question of narrative worldsin the study of rabbinic nar- ratives in general, and the Yavneh cycle in particular, helped us understand how perceptions of Yavneh changed through the course of the rabbinic period and pro- vided a framework for analyzing the social and political structures and values por- trayed in each version of the story. The analysis showed that an understanding of the complex and inherently ambiguous relationship between the world of the story and the various possible worlds on which the authors drew in creating that world has important implications for the use of this story and others like it as historical sources. Talmudic stories cannot so easily be mined for information about and insight into the world of the Amoraim and Stammaim that produced them. While we can often identify parallels between the world of the story and various aspects of the primary and ideological worlds of its creators, it is generally difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of this relationship. Finally, the tension between a narrative world s autonomous nature and its inherent interdependence with other possible worlds can help us to think about the dynamic cultural role that talmudic stories played in the societies that created and transmitted them.

Moshe Simon-Shoshan Bar-Ilan University


Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Bavli Berakhot 27b28a

Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1

It happened that a certain student came before R. Joshua:

He said to him:

Is the Evening Prayer optional or compulsory? He said to him: Optional. He came before R. Gamliel. He said to him:

Is the Evening Prayer optional or compulsory? He said to him: Compulsory. He said to him: But R. Joshua told me optional! He said to him: Wait until the shield bearers enter the beit midrash.

When the shield bearers entered, the questioner stood and asked:

Is the Evening Prayer optional or compulsory?


Gamliel said to him: Compulsory.


Gamliel said to the sages:

Is there anyone who disagrees concerning this matter?

R. Joshua said to him: No.

He said to him:

But they told me optional in your name!

He said to him: Joshua, stand on your feet, and let them testify against you.

It happened that a certain student came and asked R. Joshua:

What is [the law concerning] the Evening Prayer?He said to him: Optional. He came and asked R. Gamliel:

What is [the law concerning] the Evening Prayer?He said to him: Compulsory. He said to him: But R. Joshua told me optional! He said to him: Tomorrow, when I enter the bet ha-va ad, stand and ask this law. On the next day, that student stood and asked R. Gamliel:

What is [the law concerning] the Evening Prayer?He said to him: Compulsory.

He said to him:

But R. Joshua told me optional!

R. Gamliel said to R. Joshua:

Is it you who says optional? He said to him: No. He said to him: Stand on your feet, and let them testify against you.


Joshua stood on his feet and said: If I were alive and he dead the living can contradict the dead. But now that I am alive and he is alivehow can the living contradict the living?


Gamliel was sitting and teaching, and R. Joshua was standing on his feet,


Gamliel was sitting and teaching, and R. Joshua was standing on

until all the people shouted and said to H uzpit the turgeman: Stop,and he



his feet, until all the people shouted and said to R. H uzpit the

turgeman: Dismiss the people.


66. Translations of the Bavli and Yerushalmi passages adapted from Steinmetz, Must the Patriarch, 165 70.


Creators of Worlds

They said to R. Zenon the h azzan : Say Begin’” ; and he said:


Begin. [? This passage is obscure.] And all the people stood on

their feet and said to him: For upon whom has your evil not come always? [Nahum 3:19]

They then said: How long is he [R. Gamliel] to go on insulting him [R. Joshua]? On New Year last year he insulted him; he insulted him in the matter of the firstborn in the affair of R. Z adok; now he insults him again! Come, let us depose him!” “ Whom shall we appoint? Shall we appoint R. Joshua?he is involved in the matter. Shall we appoint R. Akiva? he might be punished, because he has no ancestral merit. Rather, we shall appoint R. Eleazar b. Azariah, for he is


They went and appointed R. Eleazar b. Azariah to the academy. He was sixteen years old, and his whole head became full of gray hair.

wise, and he is rich, and he is tenth [in descent] from Ezra. He is wise if And R. Akiva was sitting and feeling troubled, and he said: It is not

that he is a more learned man than I, but he is more a descendant of great people than I. Happy is the man whose forefathers have gained privilege for him! Happy is the man who has a peg on which to hang! And what was R. Eleazar b. Azariah s peg? That he was the tenth generation from Ezra.

one asks him, he can answer him. And he is rich if he has to go to the court of the Caesar to pay honor, he too can go pay honor. And he is tenth [generation] from Ezrahe has ancestral merit, and he cannot be punished.

They went and said to him: Is it agreeable to the master to become head of the academy? He said to them: I will go and consult my family. He went and consulted his wife. She said to him: Perhaps they will remove you.He said to her: Let a man use a valuable cup for one day, and let it be broken on the next. She said to him: You have no white hair. That day he was eighteen years old. A miracle occurred to him, and eighteen rows of his hair turned white. And that is why R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: Behold, I am as if seventy years oldand not seventy years old.It was taught: That day they removed the doorkeeper, and permission was given to the students to enter. For R. Gamliel used to announce, saying:

Any student whose inside is not like his outside shall not enter the beit midrash.


Moshe Simon-Shoshan


A PPENDIX (contd. )

Bavli Berakhot 27b28a

Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1

That day many benches were added. R. Yoh anan said: Abba Yosef and the


rabbis dispute this; one said 400 benches, and one said 700 benches.

R. Gamliels mind was disturbed. He said: Perhaps, God forbid, I have withheld Torah from Israel.He was shown in a dream white casks filled with ashes. But it was not so; that was shown to him to settle his mind. It was taught:

Eduyot was studied on that dayand wherever we say on that day, it was on that day and there was no law which had been left hanging in the beit midrash which they did not explicate. And even R. Gamliel did not withhold himself from the beit midrash even for a moment, as we learn: On that day, Judah the Ammonite proselyte came before them in the beit midrash. He said to them:

Am I permitted to enter the congregation?R. Gamliel said to him: You are forbidden to enter the congregation.R. Joshua said to him: You are per- mitted to enter the congregation.R. Gamliel said to him: But it has already been said: An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord[Deut 23:4].R. Joshua said to him: And are Ammon and Moab still dwelling in their places? Sennacherib, king of Assyria, already has gone up and mixed up all of the nations, as it is said: And I have removed the boundaries of peoples and have plundered their treasures, and I have brought down their inhabitants as a mighty one[Isa 10:13]and anything that is separated, is separated from the majority.R. Gamliel said to him: But it

And how many benches were there? R. Jacob b. Sisi said: There

were eighty benches of scholars there, excluding those standing behind the fence.R. Yose b. Abun said: There were 300 there, excluding those standing behind the fence.As we learn there: On the day on which R. Eleazar ben Azariah was seated in the yeshiva. We learn there: This midrash R. Eleazar b. Azariah taught before the sages in the vineyard at Yavneh. And was there a vineyard there? Rather, these are the scholars who used to be arranged in rows, like a vineyard.


Creators of Worlds

already has been said: And afterward I shall return the captivity of the children of Ammon, says the Lord [Jer 49:6]and they already have returned. R. Joshua said to him: But it already has been said: And I shall return the captivity of my people Israel [Amos 9:14]and they have not yet returned.Immediately, they permitted him to enter the congregation.

R. Gamliel said: Since it is thus, I will go and appease R. Joshua.When he

came to his house, he saw that the walls of his house were blackened. He said to him: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a charcoal burner. He said to him: Woe to the generation of which you are the leader, for you do

not know of the troubles of scholars, how they support themselves and how they sustain themselves. He said to him: I submit to you; forgive me. He paid no attention to him.

Do it for the honor of my father. He was appeased. They said: Who will go and tell the rabbis?

R. Joshua sent to the beit midrash: Let him who wears the garment wear the garment; but shall he who does not wear the garment say to him who wears the garment: Take off your garment, and I shall wear it ? R. Akiva said to the rabbis: Bolt the doors, so that the servants of R. Gamliel do not come and trouble the rabbis. R. Joshua said: It is better that I get up and go to them. He came and knocked on the gate. He said to him: Let the sprinkler son of a sprinkler sprinkle; but shall he who is neither a sprinkler nor the son of a sprinkler say to the sprinkler son of a sprinkler: Your water is cave water, and your ashes are from roasting ?R. Akiva said to him: R. Joshua, have you been appeased? Have we done anything other than for

your honor? Tomorrow, I and you will rise early to his door. They said: What shall we do? Shall we remove him? We learn that one increases in sanctity but does not decrease. Shall one master teach one Sabbath, and one master one Sabbath? That will lead to jealousy. Rather, let

R. Gamliel teach three [or: two] Sabbaths, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah one

Sabbath.And this is what a master said: Whose Sabbath was it? It was

R. Eleazar b. Azariah s.

Immediately, R. Gamliel went to each one to appease him in his house. He went to R. Joshua. He found him sitting and making needles. He said to him: Are these how you make a living?

He said to him: And until now you need to know!Woe to the generation of which you are the leader!

He said to him: I submit to you.

And they sent to R. Eleazar b. Azariah a certain launderer, and some say it was R. Akiva. He said to him: Let the sprinkler son of a sprinkler sprinkle; but shall he who is neither a sprinkler nor the son of a sprinkler say to the sprinkler son of a sprinkler: your water is cave water, and your ashes are from roasting ?

He said to them: Are you satisfied? I and you will rise early to the door of R. Gamliel.

Nevertheless, they did not depose him from his greatness; rather, they appointed him av beit din.