Eruvin 50 Tannaic versus Amoraic authority and “רב תנא הוא ופליג”

In the Mishna on 49b, we are told that  a person who is on a journey home on erev Shabbos and realizes that it is starting to get dark and he is still not within 2000 amos of his home or city (but is within 4000 amos) , may designate a place that he knows along the way as his shabbos base, thus allowing himself to walk a further 2000 amos from that designated space and reach his home on Shabbos.

The Mishna stresses though that simply declaring his shabbos base to be under a particular tree does not do the trick- he needs to specify where under the tree, such as at its base, otherwise “he has not done anything.”

Rav and Shmuel dispute what the Mishna means by “has not done anything.”

Rav is of the view that he has disqualified his current position from being his shabbos base by showing that he does not intend it to serve this purpose, but has also not successfully declared a new shabbos base, and he is thus confined to his 4 amos for the duration of shabbos (as explained by Rashi, but see Rambam Eruvin 7/5 who appears to rule like Rav but understand that his current position remains his shabbos base.)

Shmuel, in contrast, holds that so long as the entire area under the tree is within 2000 amos of where he is, he may walk to the area under the tree and 2000 amos from it.  However, seeing as he did not specify which area under the tree is to be his shabbos base, this area has the law of a חמר גמל  (donkey and camel man- see earlier post on Eruvin 35) and he may only walk within 2000 amos of the furthest part of it from where he wishes to go.

Most of our daf is dedicated to discussing this issue, and on 50b, the Gemara brings a Beraisa in support of Shmuel and in refutation of Rav, yet the Gemara answers that bringing a Beraisa against Rav is not sufficient to prove him wrong, seeing as “רב תנא הוא ופליג” -Rav is  a “Tana” and argues (with other Tannaim.)

It is taken as axiomatic throughout the shas that the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnaic period) are more authoritative than the Amoraim (sages of the Talmudic period) and that an Amora may never disagree with a Tana unless he has another Tana to back him up- The main job of the sages of the Gemara is to interpret, reconcile, and adjudicate between the Tannaim but not to disagree with them.

Yet on our daf, in addition to various other places in the shas, we are told that the leading Babylonian Amora of the first generation of Amoraim, Rav, is an exception, and is considered a Tana who may and does argue with Tanaim.

In another place where this exception is made (Kesubos 8,) Rav and Rabbi Yochanan are both quoted separately as stating that a groom can be counted in a minyan but a mourner can not (what precisely this is referring to is discussed there.)

The Gemara brings a Beraisa to refute Rav which says that both grooms and mourners may be included in the minyan but responds that רב תנא הוא ופליג- Rav is a Tana and argues with the Beraisa.

It brings the same Beraisa to refute Rabbi Yochanan and answers that the Beraisa is talking about ברכת המזון  (grace after meals) in which the mourner may be included towards the required 10 for זמון בשם  and Rabbi Yochanan is talking about the שורה  (the line for comforting the mourners) in which the mourners may not be counted.

There appears to be some logic in this distinction, given that the purpose of the minyan for ברכת המזון  is to allow Hashem’s name to be mentioned in the zimun, and a mourner is equally obligated in being part of this than anyone else.  However, the purpose of the minyan for the שורה  is to comfort the mourners, and the mourners are not part of the mitzva of comforting themselves.

Yet despite this seemingly obvious distinction, Tosfos points out that the Gemara saw this as a “forced” distinction and preferred to use Rav’s status as a Tana to answer the difficulty on him.

In contrast, seeing as Rabbi Yochanan does not have the status of a Tana (the Rabbi Yochanan quoted in a Beraisa [Nazir ] is a different person, a Tana by that name, possibly Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri,) the Gemara had no choice but to resort to this distinction.

Given the apparent superiority of Rav over Rabbi  Yochanan to the point that Rav had the status of a Tana and was thus able to argue with Tanaim, and Rabbi Yochanan did not, it seems rather inconsistent that the rule of thumb throughout the Talmud is that we follow Rabbi Yochanan in cases where he argues with Rav.

To solve this apparent inconsistency, it is necessary to examine various possibilities as to why a Tana is more authoritative than an Amora.

1.       One  possibility is that the Tanaim were closer chronologically to the giving of the Torah, and thus their מסורת  is considered purer and more uncorrupted.

2.       Another option is that the Tanaim were objectively greater in learning than the Amoraim.

3.       A third possibility is that the Amoraim simply had  different roles to that of the Tannaim because  once Rebbe sealed the Mishna, its words become like the authoritative ruling of the great court which could no longer be over-ruled. As such, their only role and sphere of authority was now in interpreting, reconciling, and adjudicating disputes in the Mishna.

Whereas possibilities 1 and 3 above are less likely to allow for individual exceptions, the second reason might leave the door open for an unusually great Amora whose learning was equal or greater to that of some Tannaim  to be able to argue with at least some of them.

According to this reason, it could simply be that Rav’s greatness in learning was such that it was recognized throughout the Talmudic world as being on par with the Tanaim, something that other Amoraim lacked.

However, we would then need to explain why Rabbi Yochanan is considered more authoritative than Rav, despite Rav being on par learning-wise with Tannaim and his apparent failure to be considered as such.

According to the first option, it is certainly possible that the generation that formed the transition between the Tannaim and Amoraim (see Meiri/introduction to Avos who clearly defines this transition, and  includes Rav in this list but not Rabbi Yochanan) were close enough to the מסורות  of the Tannaim  that their מסורות  was sometimes treated as almost or equally as pure.  We would still need to explain why Rabbi Yochanan, though living in the same period, was not included in this transition generation but still was considered more authoritative than Rav when it came to disputes between the two of them.

According to the third reason, it is very possible that when Rebbe and his  court sealed the Mishna as authoritative over all future generations, they excluded certain specific Amoraim who were particularly close to them in terms of the chain of transmission from this limitation, and even conferred them with the type of neo-Tannaic semicha (ordination) needed in order to be exempt from this ruling.

An example of Rebbe’s close relationship and partial ordination of Rav before he went to Bavel can be found in Sanhedrin 5a-5b  where Rabbi Chiya arranged for רשות  (permission to rule) to be given by Rebbe to Rabbah bar bar Chana and to Rav. It is apparent from that sugya that Rav was actually the greater of the two in learning!

It is important to note that this was not actual סמיכה  as in the ordination passed down from Moshe, which might or might not have been held by Rav and/or Rabbi Yochanan, but נטילת רשות להורות  (permission to rule) and to be exempt from liability for errors made- this on its own does not serve as proof of Rav’s exclusion from submission to the Tannaim, but simply as an illustration of his extra closeness to Rebbe.

As Rabbi Yochanan remained in Eretz-Yisroel and might also not have had this same connection to Rebbe, it is possible that he simply never received this special status from Rebbe, and was thus bound by Rebbe’s decree that the words of the Tanaim would be henceforth binding on the Amoraim.

This distinction between Rav and Rabbi Yochanan seems to be mentioned by the Ritva (quoted in Shita Mekubetzes, Kesubos 8a) in order to answer our original question- He explains that we follow Rabbi Yochanan over Rav in a local dispute between the two of them due to Rabbi Yochanan’s greater wisdom but that unlike Rav, Rabbi Yochanan never had the “luck” to be ordained as a Tana in the way that Rav had been.

From the fact that the sugya in Kesubos chose to use Rav’s superior status to refute the proof against him from the beraisa rather than give the answer it gave to uphold Rabbi Yochanan against the same beraisa, it seems that this status is strong enough that it is preferential at least to a “forced” answer, and we indeed see various places in the Rishonim (see Tosfos/Menachos 5a for example)  where they say that instead of giving whatever answer is given to reconcile Rav’s words with a seemingly contradictory beraisa, the Gemara could indeed have chosen to use his superior status as a Tana to answer the question.

Yet in contrast, from the fact that the Gemara regularly poises difficulties on Rav’s statements from various Tannaic sources, it is clear that finding a “non-forced” way of reconciling such difficulties is preferable to resorting to his Tannaic status, which is evidently significantly weaker than that of regular Tannaim.

we see further that some Rishonim in our sugya rule like Shmuel against Rav (see for example Tosfos Eruvin 49b and Piskei Rid Eruvin 50b), even though the halocho almost always follows Rav in a dispute with Shmuel, specifically because the beraisa supports him, implying that this status is not absolute, and that although he may indeed argue with a Tana, other Tannaim are more authoritative than him and the halocho follows them against him, at least when Shmuel rules against him (see though Rif and Rosh who base their ruling like Shmuel on other factors as well.)

It is also clear that his status as a Tana is limited to his ability to argue with Tannaim, but does not limit other Amoraim’s ability to argue with him, or in the case of Rabbi Yochanan in particular, to be considered more authoritative than him when involved in a direct dispute with him.

As such, it seems that the third possibility we raised fits best with Rav’s exceptional status, and that the superiority of Tannaim over Amoraim is not based on either their chronological precedence or their innate superiority in learning, but rather on the authority given by Rebbe’s Beis Din to them over Amoraim, something he likely excluded transition figures such as  Rav from.

While his court excluded Rav from the requirement to submit completely to Tannaim, he did not include him in the list of Tannaim that Amoraim are required to submit.

As a curveball, there is a fourth approach which I would like to entertain.

Perhaps, there was never a specific court ruling or decision that Amoraim may not argue with Tannaim, but it was simply an unwritten agreement that developed amongst the Amoraim of the transition period, for some of the above-suggested or other reasons, which later became established practise.

Amongst the Amoraim of this transition period, some were more accepting of this approach than others, and while Rabbi Yochanan went along with it, Rav did not, as least as far as he himself was concerned.

We can recall that Rav was generally fiercely independent in his approach to halachik decision making and did not accept the many rules of psak that delegated more authority to certain Tannaim over others (see recent  post on Eruvin 47), rules which Rabbi Yochanan did accept and have generally  been accepted to this day.

As usual, there is much more to bring, much more to analyze, and the Rambam’s view on all of this  requires its own unique treatment-hopefully we shall have the opportunity to revisit this again when the topic next occurs.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.