With All Due Respect…

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The relationship between a sage and his disciple may be characterized both as that of a father to his son, and of a master to his servant. In effect, a disciple indentured himself to his teacher. Traveling with and attending to him, a disciple remained with his teacher twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. The etiquette governing the teacher-disciple relationship is a fascinating subject. In this article, Shmuel Safrai explores one aspect of that relationship: To what extent could an advanced disciple differ from the opinions of his teacher?

The teacher-disciple relationship stood at the forefront of rabbinic culture. Like two adjoining links in a strong chain, a teacher passed on to his students what he had learned from his teacher. To ensure, however, that this body of learning, otherwise known as Oral Torah, never stagnated, a teacher also passed on his own innovations.

Sage And Students by Helen Twena

Sheltered from the relentless Mideastern sun by the branches of a tree, a sage sits with his students. In the quiet shade of vineyard watchtowers or under the roofed colonnades of bustling markets, sages taught their students in open-air “classrooms.” The teacher and his students are wearing tefillin, both on their heads and upper left arms, although the arm tefillin, covered by the folds of their talliths (outer robes), are not visible. (Note that the Scripture capsules of the head tefillin are extremely small, no wider than a small postage stamp.) Ritual tassels hang freely from the talliths’ corners. Typical of first-century Jewish preferences, their hair is short, and their beards are trimmed. Illustration: Helen Twena.

Sometimes a teacher’s innovations departed from or even contradicted that which his teacher had taught. Rabbinic culture permitted such moments, but they were governed by a strong sense of etiquette. An innovator always showed the utmost respect for his teacher. He could not correct his teacher in public on a mistaken point due to a lapse in his teacher’s memory (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 64b). Nor could he teach near the same place where, at the same time, his teacher was teaching (Leviticus Rabbah 20:6-7). He could, however, cite his teacher’s opinion on some point of halachic or aggadic exegesis, and mention his own opinion after it.

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This article originally appeared in issue 56 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai died on July 16, 2003. He was buried the following day in a section of Jerusalem's Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery reserved for faculty of the Hebrew University. His grave is only a few feet from the grave of his close friend…
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