Among the many discussions about prayer kinds, times, regularity and more, we’re escorted in to the beit midrash of old, and introduced to various interactions and exchanges among the sages. Between pages 27:b and 28:a, we come across a fascinating story. A student, not to be named until the end of the anecdote, asks Rabbi Yehoshua: is the evening prayer obligatory or optional? Rabbi Yehoshua says, optional. We’d think the student would be happy with this response, but seemingly dissatisfied, he seeks a second option, that of Rabban Gamliel, head of Sanhedrin. Again he asks: Is the evening prayer obligatory or optional? And Rabban Gamliel says, obligatory. The student, maybe, can choose which he answer he prefers, but possibly being interested in something else other than “an” answer, says, ‘but Rabbi Yehoshua said it’s optional! Rabban Gamliel invites the conversation to continue with the sages, which causes great upheaval. Without giving the whole story away, eventually, Rabban Gamliel decides to go and make peace wit Rabbi Yehoshua. As this is not a Disney / Hollywood film, the peace making hits its own challenges. Here’s the text:
אָמַר רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל: הוֹאִיל וְהָכִי הֲוָה, אֵיזִיל וַאֲפַיְּיסֵיהּ לְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ. כִּי מְטָא לְבֵיתֵיהּ, חֲזִינְהוּ לְאַשְׁיָתָא דְבֵיתֵיהּ דְּמַשְׁחֲרָן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מִכּוֹתְלֵי בֵיתְךָ אַתָּה נִיכָּר שֶׁפֶּחָמִי אַתָּה. אָמַר לוֹ: אוֹי לוֹ לַדּוֹר שֶׁאַתָּה פַּרְנָסוֹ, שֶׁאִי אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ בְּצַעֲרָן שֶׁל תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים, בַּמֶּה הֵם מִתְפַּרְנְסִים וּבַמֶּה הֵם נִזּוֹנִים.
Rabban Gamliel said to himself: Since this is the situation, that the people are following Rabbi Yehoshua, apparently he was right. Therefore, it would be appropriate for me to go and appease Rabbi Yehoshua. When he reached Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he saw that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua in wonderment: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith, as until then he had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to engage in that arduous trade in order to make a living. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Woe unto a generation that you are its leader as you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves.
We see here that the argument between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua is not simply a disagreement over this and that issue, which can be resolved with a simple sorry, but a mirror to a whole different way of life and a different outlook. While both are wise, scholarly and knowledgeable, RG is rich, secure in his life and position, rightfully or not, and RY works hard to make a living; and we know from another story that he’s not good looking and mocked for it. When RG enters RY’s home, he’s puzzled by the dark walls, and realizes that even though they argue with fervor, how much do they really know about each other?
This touches on an issue the Talmud is fond of: what are the lines between public and private domain? Between a performance at the beit midrash and one’s home? And which way is better, the strict, traditional RG or the open, progressive RY? The beauty and glory of the Talmud is its ability to hold both.