Unlike any masechet previously studied, Eduyot is not dedicated to a particular topic. Instead the Mishnayot are tied together by the day on which they were studied. The Gemara (Brachot 28a) teaches that “Eduyot was studied on that day and whenever it states [in a Tanaic text] ‘On that day’”. We must therefore learn what happened “on that day”.
The Gemara teaches that this was the day that Rabban Gamliel was removed from office and R’ Elazar ben Azarya was elected to be the Nasi. There were significant ramifications in this change of office as it brought with it a change in educational philosophy. Rabban Gamliel prevented any student from entering the Beit Midrash unless “his inside is like his outside” (tocho ke’baro). The Maharsha explains that this means that the person studies Torah (externally) and also has (internally) the requisite fear of Heaven. Even a guard was stationed at the entrance of the Beit Midrash to enforce this criteria. When R’ Elazar ben Azarya took office, the guard was removed and everyone was allowed to enter the Beit Midrash. The influx of students required the addition of between four-hundred and seven-hundred benches. At the tremendous gathering, people brought with them “testimonies” (Eduyot) of traditions relating to halachot. This, combined with intensive discourse, enabled the clarification and resolution of all outstanding halachot.
What was behind this debate? There is a principle that “Whoever teaches an unworthy student is as if he throws a stone at a Merkulis” (Chulin 133a). The Merkulis was a form of idol-worship that was served by throwing stones at it. Therefore if someone, in disgust, threw a stone at such an idol, the would in fact be acting in the very opposite way to which they intended. Similarly one who teaches an unworthy student is actually doing damage. The Ein Yaakov explains that R’ Elazar ben Azarya however felt that this principle only applies if the teacher knows with certainty that the student is not worthy; in all other cases however, the student should be admitted.38 Furthermore he held strongly by the principle that “one should always be engaged in Torah and Mitzvot, even not with pure intentions, for through it they will arrive at performance with pure intentions” (mitoch she’lo lishma ba lishma).
The Ben Yehoyada asks, where were the rest of the sages in this debate? Had they all disagreed with Rabban Gamliel then he would never have been able to institute such a policy. It must be that they all agree with Rabban Gamliel and then after with R’ Elazar ben Azarya. What caused the change in heart? He explains that sages where influence by the miracle experience by R’ Elazar ben Azarya. It is well known that R’ Elazar ben Azarya was only eighteen years of age when he was elected. Miraculously, on that day he grew eight rows of white hair in his beard. The Ben Yehoyada asks that this appears to be a pointless miracle. If someone is old, that should demand respect even if they do not have a white beard. Conversely, if they are young, a coloured beard would not be device that garners their respect; here everyone knew how old R’ Elazar ben Azarya was. He explains that indeed the miracle was a purposeful sign that related to this very debate. It was indeed important that anyone, even though, ein tocho ke’baro be admitted because of mitoch she’lo lishma ba lishma. Even though R’ Elazar ben Azarya’s inside, his true young age, did not resemble his outside, the miracle nonetheless occurred to aide in garnering the required honour, as eventually his inside will catch-up. Similarly, with learning, even if ein tocho ke’baro, he should be admitted, as the talmid will eventually make the transition to learning lishma and his “inside” will catch-up.
The Ben Yehoyada explains another strange detail in this story. The Gemara relates that when Rabban Gamliel saw the masses of talmidim enter the beit midrash he was concerned that maybe his policy resulted in preventing Torah from Am Yisrael. His mind was set at ease as later he was shown in a dream a white cistern full of ashes. The implication being that even though those now entering appear pristine they were not worthy. The Gemara adds that this is not really true, yet Hashem wished to set his mind at ease. The Ben Yehoyada asks why is “not really true”? Is Hashem showing Rabban Gamliel a lie just to make him happy? He explains, that there is difference if the cistern was filled with ash (eifer) and dust (afar). Ash itself will never come to anything. Earth on the other hand may be fashioned into utensils. Really, philosophically, Rabban Gamliel was wrong; we do consider mitoch she’lo lishma ba lishma. Nonetheless, Hashem was showing Rabban Gamliel those that entered that day, who he would have rejected, their insides were ashes and would not have made this transition. Nonetheless this is an assessment only Hashem can make so – we are not prophets. Therefore R’ Elazar ben Azarya’s approach still stands.
38 See Rambam Talmud Torah 4:1, and the Kesef and Lechem Mishnah.
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