Blog Yomi – Yevamos #15

We left off yesterday by agreeing that cogitating about the differences in the positions held by בֵּית שַׁמַּאי וּבֵית הִלֵּל can, to paraphrase the words of רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, feel like someone is trying to crush you skull between two mountains. We begin today atop דף ט״ז עמוּד א, with more proof that בֵּית שַׁמַאי was consistent in their contrarianism to בֵּית הִלֵל, and firm in their opinion.

תָּא שְׁמַע: בִּימֵי רַבִּי דּוֹסָא בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס הוּתְּרָה צָרַת הַבַּת לָאַחִין. שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ עָשׂוּ: שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ

As Sefaria explains, The Gemara states: Come and hear another source that indicates Beis Shammai did act upon their opinions: In the time of רַבִּי דּוֹסָא בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס, the צָרָה of a daughter was permitted to the brothers. Conclude from this that Beis Shammai did act in accordance with their opinions. The Gemara summarizes these proofs and indeed, one may conclude from these sources that Beis Shammai did put their rulings into practice. But … the חַכָמִים decided to send an impressive trio of great on a fact-checking mission to see if this was true:

  1. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ
  2. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה
  3. עֲקִיבָא בֶּן יוֹסֵף (*the* רַבִּי עַקִיבָא)

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas, who was quite wealthy, entertained his inquisitors in succession on a bed of gold. Apparently this was a welcoming way to socialize with guests, even when the visit was interrogatory in nature. And now I’m going to stick my neck out a bit, and apologize in advance if I am offending anyone by what comes next. Rabbi Stern said yesterday on his video that “it’s funny what guys remember”, in regard to how the Talmudic icon “אַחֵר” got his name. I suspect the same may hold true for the “Daf reaction” on this topic from Miriam Anzovin, who encourages her audience to engage with Jewish literature, history, and tradition in creative ways authentic to each individual, no matter their level of knowledge, belief, or observance. What she says in the video will certainly be memorable for content as well as delivery.

Here’s the pertinent language of the Gemara:

הִתְחִילוּ מְסַבְּבִים אוֹתוֹ בַּהֲלָכוֹת, עַד שֶׁהִגִּיעוּ לְצָרַת הַבַּת. אֲמַרוּ לוֹ: צָרַת הַבַּת מַהוּ? אָמַר לָהֶן: מַחְלוֹקֶת בֵּית שַׁמַּאי וּבֵית הִלֵּל. הֲלָכָה כְּדִבְרֵי מִי? אָמַר לָהֶן: הֲלָכָה כְּבֵית הִלֵּל. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: וַהֲלֹא מִשִּׁמְךָ אָמְרוּ הֲלָכָה כְּבֵית שַׁמַּאי

Out of courtesy, the three wise men did not wish to broach the subject with רַבִּי דּוֹסָא בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס immediately. Rather, they began to beat around the bush with different halachos, until they came to the case of the צָרָה. They said to him: What is the halacha with regard to the צָרָה? He said that it is a matter of dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. They asked him: According to whose statement is the halacha? He said to them: The halacha is in accordance with the opinion of Beis Hillel. They said to him: But didn’t they say in your name that the halacha is in accordance with the opinion of Beis Shammai?

אָמַר לָהֶם: דּוֹסָא שְׁמַעְתֶּם, אוֹ בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס שְׁמַעְתֶּם? אֲמַרוּ לוֹ: חַיֵּי רַבִּי, סְתָם שָׁמַעְנוּ. אָמַר לָהֶם: אָח קָטָן יֵשׁ לִי, בְּכוֹר שָׂטָן הוּא, וְיוֹנָתָן שְׁמוֹ, וְהוּא מִתַּלְמִידֵי שַׁמַּאי

רַבִּי דּוֹסָא בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס said to them, did you hear that דּוֹסָא said the halacha is in accordance with Beis Shammai, or that בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס said it? On your life, Rabbi, we heard simply בֶּן הַרְכִּינָס. Ah, he answered, if so it is no wonder. I have a younger brother who is the firstborn of the Satan.

At this point I’ll embed this fascinating take our Gemara by Dr. Jeremiah Brown of Talmudology:

On today’s page of Talmud, Rav Dosa calls his brother Yonatan a little devil. Literally:

יבמות טז, א

אָמַר לָהֶם: אָח קָטָן יֵשׁ לִי, בְּכוֹר שָׂטָן הוּא, וְיוֹנָתָן שְׁמוֹ, וְהוּא מִתַּלְמִידֵי שַׁמַּאי

I have a younger brother who is the firstborn of the Satan, and his name is Yonatan, and he is among the disciples of Shammai…

Rashi explains that he meant this in a good way:

בכור שטן הוא: חריף ועומד על שמועה ועושה מעשה ואינו שב משמועתו לעשות כרבים

The first born of Satan: He is very sharp. He stands by what he teaches, and doesn’t give in to the majority…

which is why the Schottenstien Talmud translates the phrase as “he is a first-class adversary.”

Following Rashi’s lead, many other commentators explain that the phrase “firstborn of the Satanis really a compliment. It means clever, or crafty, or, as we might say today, “devilishly clever.” But that is not how it was used by Tuviah Cohen, the seventeenth century physician who wrote an important encyclopedia called Ma’aseh Tuviah.

Tuviah Cohen has long been a favorite of historians of science and Judaism. Perhaps this is because he was a reformer of sorts, ready to sweep away old superstitions and replace them with scientific knowledge. Perhaps it is because his book, Ma’aseh Tuviah, was “ … the best-illustrated Hebrew medical work of the pre-modern era,” full of wonderful drawings about astronomy and anatomy. Perhaps it is because his book is so clearly printed and a pleasure to read in the original. Or perhaps it is because Cohen was so adamantly opposed to Copernicus that he called him the “Firstborn of Satan”—which made his the first Hebrew work to attack Copernicus and his heliocentric system.

Tuviah painfully remembered one particular area in which he lacked knowledge: the discipline of astronomy. It was astronomy that the Talmud considered to be the example par excellence of Jewish wisdom that would be acknowledged by Gentiles. Examining the verse “For this is your wisdom and understanding among the nations” [Deut. 4:6], the Talmud had concluded that it referred to “the calculation of the seasons and the constellations,” that is, the ability to create an accurate calendar and to forecast the positions of the stars and planets. Tuviah was especially troubled by the taunts that Jews had no proper astronomical understanding, given the pride of place of astronomy in the Talmud. He recalled his days in the university:

We would undertake long debates with us every day about questions of belief, and would many times embarrass us asking “where is your wisdom and understanding—it has been taken from you and given to us!” Although we were knowledgeable in Bible, Talmud and Midrashim, we were like paupers when we debated them. This is why I became a zealot for the Lord and swore that before I died I would neither sleep nor rest until I had written a work that included knowledge and skills…for although we walk in this dark and bitter exile God has been our light and there are still wise and learned men among us. . . .

He therefore addressed this topic in detail in his encyclopedic Ma’aseh Tuviah.

The first depiction of the heliocentric system in Hebrew literature. From Ma’aseh Tuviah, Venice, 1708, 50b.

COPERNICUS IS “THE FIRSTBORN OF SATAN”

Which brings us, finally, to the phrase on today’s page of Talmud. Tuviah’s section on astronomy included the first depiction in Hebrew literature of the new(wish) heliocentric model of the universe, first published by Nicolas Copernicus in 1542. But having explained the new model (which by then was nearly two centuries old) he rejected it in favor of the traditional earth centered or geocentric model. And he did so with an unforgettable chapter title:

Chapter Four.
Bringing all the claims and proofs used by Copernicus and his supporters

showing that the Sun is at rest and the Earth is mobile;

and know how to refute him, for he is the Firstborn of Satan.

Is it possible that since the phrase could be taken as a backhanded compliment, Tuviah also meant it that way? One historian, Noah Rozenbloom, believes that this may indeed be the case. He suggested that Cohen may actually have been a secret admirer of Copernicus, and that the name “Firstborn son of Satan” should not be understood as an affront. 

Although Rozenbloom’s suggestion is an intriguing possibility, it is highly unlikely that Tuviah Cohen was a closet Copernican. The entire structure of the chapter (as well as its very title Olam HagalgalimThe World of the Spheres) demonstrated Cohen’s allegiance to the old Ptolemaic system in which the earth was stationary, and he laid out several objections to the Copernican model. Tuviah was not a closet Copernican. But he was certainly persistent in his opposing the new astronomy. He was gifted, and refused to be swayed by others. Perhaps, then, it is Tuviah who should be given the accolade “the firstborn of Satan.” In a good way, of course.

About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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1 Response to Blog Yomi – Yevamos #15

  1. doctuhdon says:

    Incredibly loaded Blog Yomi post ! Len , you’re as charismatic as a בכור שטן !

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