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Parshat Shemini: One who teaches halakha before his teacher

Nissan 5783 | April 2023

The issue of rabbinic authority is one of the greatest challenges facing the modern religious community. Which rabbis should we defer to? Who has authority to teach halakha? Is it better to listen to veteran, more experienced rabbis or can we prefer younger rabbis that we feel are more “connected” to our lives?

We tend to think that there are two important elements to halakhic decision making – knowledge and ability to apply it to a given situation. In order to decide halakha – for oneself or others – one must have a breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding of the relevant halakhic issues, as well as the experience and capacity necessary to apply this knowledge to reality. We can learn from Parshat Shemini that there is another vital component – “knowing your place.”

The commentaries struggle to understand what sin Nadav and Avihu committed to warrant death; the number of answers is commensurate with the magnitude of the question. The many answers generally take one of two approaches to the problem. The first explains that the sin was the product of a misunderstanding or unintended overstep; Nadav and Avihu acted in opposition to God’s command when they entered the Sanctuary, perhaps when they were drunk and not thinking clearly.[1] The second approach explains that their transgression was a result of their arrogance – according to one midrash Aharon’s sons thought no woman was good enough for them and refused to get married.  According to another, they thought they knew better than Moshe and Aharon and actively anticipated the time when they would take over positions of leadership.[2]

Let’s focus on one midrash, and try to understand which approach it takes:

We taught in a braita, Rabbi Eliezer said: The sons of Aharon only died when they taught halakha in the place of Moshe their teacher. What [source] was expounded (darush) [upon]? ‘The sons of Aharon the Priest put fire on the altar.’ They said: Even though the fire descends from the heavens, there is a mitzvah to bring it from the mundane.

Rabbi Eliezer had a student who taught halakha in place of his teacher. Rabbi Eliezer said to Ima Shalom, his wife: I wonder if he will live out the year. And he did not live out the year. She said to him: Are you a prophet? He said to her: I am not a prophet nor son of a prophet, but I received [a tradition] that anyone who teaches halakha in his rabbi’s place deserves [the] death [penalty].[3]

Rabbi Eliezer explained that Aharon’s sons’ transgression was that they “taught halakha in place of their teacher.” The phrase “moreh halakha bimkom rabbo” literally means “teaches halakha in his rabbi/master’s place,” and is used in connection with the phrase “teaches halakha before (bifnei) his rabbi.” As we will see, “place” (bimkom) and “before” (bifnei) can have more than one meaning. In  this case it seems that Nadav and Avihu decided the halakha without asking Moshe or allowing him to determine the correct conduct even though he was nearby. Rabbi Eliezer is so certain that this is the reason they died that he’s convinced the same thing will happen to his student who taught halakha “before him.”

Rabbi Eliezer doesn’t explain why deciding halakha “before” one’s rabbi is problematic. Is the issue that this person may not use proper judgment and consequently make a mistake? If so this would align with the first approach the commentaries use to explain the sin of Aharon’s sons, that of unintentional overstep. When there’s a halakhic question one shouldn’t rely exclusively on their own opinion, they should turn to an expert for guidance.

Yet it’s also possible that the issue is the disrespect exhibited by one who bypasses their teacher. This explanation fits with the second approach to understanding the sin; it doesn’t matter whether or not their decision was correct, the fault is the haughty attitude that led them to make such a decision independently. Rabbi Eliezer explains that they based their decision by expounding (drasha) on the protocol for burnt-offerings as commanded in the first chapter of Vayikra. He does not say that their drasha was mistaken, perhaps indicating that the content was not the problem, the problem was their decision to make their own drasha in the first place.

Teaching halakha “before” one’s own teacher

Other Talmudic sources reflect varied approaches to understanding the problem of teaching halakha before one’s rabbi. One source states that one may not teach without permission from his teacher.[4] This is supported by the story of a man who taught halakha without phrasing it properly; his negligence had terrible consequences.[5] Before a new rabbi can be certified to teach they must be externally evaluated on their knowledge and skills. Yet another Talmudic source teaches that someone who teaches halakha in their rabbi’s place does not have Divine assistance (siyata dishmaya).[6] One might say that consulting with the greater authority guarantees the pesak (halakhic decision) is correct.

Other sources are not as straightforward. One midrash relates that a young pre-prophetic Shmuel taught halakha before Eli, the High Priest and foremost sage of the generation.[7] In this case Shmuel correctly analyzes the sources, but the content is not the problem; Eli is inclined to punish Shmuel for the act of halakhic instruction in his presence.

The cumulative wisdom of these sources is that one must ask for permission to teach, but permission alone is insufficient. Even if qualified, one may not teach halakha in the same geographic area as their rabbi. Even if someone asks this “junior” rabbi for an answer, the rabbi should not answer if their rabbi is located within a radius of three parsas (approximately 4 km.).[8] Rashi relates this regulation to the aftermath of the Golden Calf, when Moshe removed his tent from the Israelite camp, and the Torah teaches that the people went out to him to “seek God,” instead of making due with Torah scholars inside the camp.[9]

The geographic explanation is another indication that teaching halakha in proximity to one’s rabbi is disrespectful, and possibly rebellious. Nevertheless, there is room for new scholars to teach under certain circumstances. Here the difference between one’s rabbi’s “place” and “presence” is noteworthy. A talmid-chaver (someone who is both a student and a contemporary) is allowed to teach in a different, but nearby city, although a talmid muvhak (someone who mainly studied with that rav) may not. Tosafot allows the latter to teach in a nearby city if they received express permission from their rabbi to do so; nevertheless, they are still prohibited from teaching in their rabbi’s city.[10] So it seems that permission is not only a necessary stamp of approval certifying the rabbi’s skills, but also a way of showing that the new rabbi is continuing their teacher’s tradition and not acting brazenly by forging an alternative path.

Rambam also combines these two considerations. First, geographically – one may not establish a yeshiva in his rabbi’s area (makom), but it’s permissible to teach halakha if there’s some geographic distance. Secondly, one needs permission – a person can teach halakha in their rabbi’s area if they have received permission from him to do so.[11] At the same time, sources as early as the gemara agree that one may even teach halakha in their teacher’s presence (bifnei) to prevent someone from transgressing; meaning if this “junior” rabbi sees someone about to transgress they may comment to stop them.[12]

The story of Nadav and Avihu teaches us that when the younger generation tries to forge a path independent from those with more authority and experience, their conduct is both inappropriately haughty and likely to lead to mistakes. It’s somewhat ironic for a person who wants to make decisions within the halakhic system to disrespect the system itself, which is constructed from protocols practiced by generations and accepted rabbinic authority.

Yet the halakhic system also recognizes that students can grow to be teachers in their own right. While it’s inappropriate to do so “in their teacher’s place,” they can find their own place. This is not in opposition, but rather a continuation, after receiving permission from the person who taught them most of the Torah they know. The ideas of continuity and humility are essential to both studying and teaching Torah. Therefore, it’s vital to remain respectful to one’s teacher and avoid injury to their honor or their status; this can be achieved by finding a new place to plant themselves, rooted in their rabbi’s teachings, so they may flourish and stretch their own branches,  ensuring the continuous spread of Torah for the next generation.

[1]  TB Eruvin 63a

[2] Vayikra Rabba 20:10

[3]TB Eruvin 63a

[4] Translator’s note: Hebrew is gendered and the default is always male. When the original text can be understood as referring to both men and women we try to reflect that by using non-gendered language in English. While we maintain that women may receive permission from their teachers to teach halakha, and that this is in accordance with longstanding Jewish tradition for capable women to give appropriate halakhic instruction (reflected in sources as far back as Tanakh and Talmud), women did not receive the traditional semicha that our sages refer to here, so it’s only appropriate to use male pronouns in some contexts, as it would be disingenuous to translate some phrases as non-gendered.

[5] TB Sanhedrin 5a-b

[6] TB Ketubot 60b

[7] TB Brachot 31b

[8] TB Sanhedrin 5b

[9] ibid s.v. K’neged makhaneh

[10] Tosafot Sanhedrin 5b s.v. ela im ken

[11] Rambam Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:2-3

[12] TB Eruvin 63a

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.