On this Daf, we encounter a fascinating narrative where the sage Chizkiya asks his student, the famous Rabbi Yochanan , a complex question regarding the laws of impurity, and is so impressed with the answer he gives that he exclaims: “This is no man” (but rather an angel, according to Rashi’s explanation.)
A different version of this event is then brought where he exclaims: “THIS is a man.” (ie a real man.)
It appears that there could be a major disagreement between the 2 versions of what Chizkiya said regarding whether an outstanding Torah scholar is to be considered the sign of a truly great man, or an angelic quality, virtually out of reach of a mere human being.
The latter is supported by the well-known statement of Chazal (Bava Metzia 59b) that “לא בשמיים היא “- it is not in heaven. The Torah in supposed to be interpreted, and applied by human beings who have reached the highest levels they can as human beings, NOT by angels, and a voice from heaven is usually not admissible when it comes to halachik rulings.
This is further backed up the exhortation of Hillel (Avos 2\5) that in a place where there is no “man”, one should try to be a man!
However, the continuation of the Gemara does seems to leave both approaches as equally viable options.
It brings the famous statement of Rabbi Zeira in the name of Rava bar Zimuna that אם ראשונים בני מלאכים אנו בני אנשים ואם ראשונים בני אנשים אנו כחמורים… -if the early authorities are like angels, we are human beings, and if they are like human beings, we are like donkeys….
One cannot escape the fact that this statement is brought here in order to refer back to the two different versions of Chizkiya’s statement, and does not only consider both options, but sees the relationship between humans and angels as similar to that between donkeys and humans.
It is clear from this that angelic qualities are considered by our sugya to be superior to human one’s in this regard, but the only debate is as to how we are to be view the qualities of those before us and what Hizkiya considered Rabbi Yochanan’s level to be.
There is much to discuss about it, but one thing that is clear from this sugya is that the later Amoraim considered the scholars of the earlier generations to be far superior in their Torah scholarship to those in their generation.
This is so axiomatic throughout the Shas that entire sugyas are based on ensuring that Amoraim statements do not contradict the statements of the Tannaim before them.
It is necessary, however, to define what precisely this superiority is based on, as well as its scope.
We need to investigate whether this superiority based on the assumption that the quality of quantity of their knowledge and/or reasoning was better, the fact that their divine inspiration and guidance was better, their superiority in righteousness, or their being closer in history to the Sinaitic tradition?
Although Amoraim generally could not or would not argue with Tannaim, its is common for later Tannaim to disagree with earlier Tannaim or for later Amoraim to disagree with earlier Amoraim.
In fact, in a dispute between later Amoraim and earlier Amoraim, we ironically apply the rule of הלכתא כבתראי – the law is like the later authority! (see however Rosh, Bava Metzia 57 who opines that this rule only applies from Abaya and Rava onwards and not before, against the Rif who seems not to differentiate.)
How does this fit in with the idea of אם ראשונים כמלאכים?
In a fascinating case (Brachos 20), Rav Papa asks Abaya why it is that the earlier generations merited to experience miracles, and their generation did not.
He points out that it cannot be because they knew more Torah, as Rav Yehuda’s generation (notably second generation Amoraim) were focused on the part of the Talmud that focusses on damages, and they were focused on all 6 sections of the Talmud.
It also could not be that they understood it better, as Rav Yehuda expressed great difficulty with a certain Mishna while they were able to expand on it with ease.
Yet Rav Yehuda only needed to remove his shoe for rain to come, and their generation could daven all day and nothing happened!
Abaya responded that Rav Yehuda’s generation sacrificed themselves to sanctify Hashem’s name (did risky things in order to preserve the honor of the Torah) and their generation did not.
It seems from here that the superiority of the earlier generations lies NOT in their breadth of knowledge, nor in their greater analytical ability, but rather in their מסירות נפש (self-sacrifice.)
This contrasts greatly with the view expressed by Rabbi Zeira on our daf which seems to put it down to greater analytical ability.
It should also be noted that BOTH of these examples are brought by later Amoraim in reference to earlier ones (whether Rabbi Zeira comparing his generation of scholars to those of Rabbi Yochanan or Abaya comparing his to that of Rav Yehuda.)
Perhaps one answer lies in a radical Rambam (Mamrim 2/1 ) which states that even though when it comes to גזירות made by Chazal, a later Beis Din cannot annul the ruling of an earlier one unless it is greater than them in wisdom and numbers (see Megilla 2a), this does not apply to things that Chazal derives from the Torah itself via the logical rules of interpretation (יג עקרים ).
The Kesef Mishna is extremely bothered by this Rambam, given that we have a rule throughout the Shas that an Amora cannot disagree with a Tanna in anything!
However, a reading of the Rambam’s introduction to the Mishna Torah reveals that he too agrees with this rule, and holds that nobody after the sealing of the Talmud can argue with the ruling of the Talmud either.
This is indeed the answer given by the Kesef Mishna, without reference to the above introduction.
However, his reasoning has nothing to do with the superiority of these different groups of sages in their learning, but rather is explained by the fact that the ruling of the Mishna and later the Gemara were accepted by the entire Jewish people and the leading scholars of the time, and thus had the status of a ruling of the great Sanhedrin.
However, within one period, such as amongst the Tannaim , amongst the Amoraim, or amongst the post-Talmudic sages, there is no such restriction, other than the general rule regarding decrees only being annullable by a greater and more numerous Beis Din.
In case one might argue that such is impossible, as each generation is weaker than the previous one, the Rambam ( Mamrim 2/2) makes it clear that it is certainly possible, even if one cannot get a larger court than that of 71 judges, should there be more Torah scholars who support them.
It is clear from the above that the Rambam has a very limited view of ירידת הדורות and does not subscribe any halachik weight to the statement of Rabbi Zeira on our daf.
It is possible that he views the case in Brachos which attributes the superiority of the earlier generations to their greater מסירות נפש, as the more authoritative of the two, but sees neither case as forbidding disagreement per say with the earlier generations, the only exception being Amoraim disagreeing with Tannaim and post Talmudic authorities disagreeing with Amoraim, for entirely different reasons as mentioned above.
Whether the view of the Rambam is accepted by other authorities and whether this indeed is his view required further study, but in the context of a daf post, this should serve as a basis for opening the discussion.