Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world. 

The Talmud was the product of a Jewish society strongly concerned with hierarchy and deference. That has been clear in many ways throughout the Daf Yomi cycle, but never more so than last week, when we finished the brief Tractate Horayot. Horayot means “decisions,” and the tractate begins by discussing how a court can atone for making an incorrect ruling. In its last pages, however, the tractate turns to the subject of protocol: in Jewish society, who outranks whom? And what happens when Sages, who are notoriously proud and touchy, get into a contest over who is the most learned? At the same time, as often happens, the end of the tractate serves as a kind of grab-bag of moral sayings and aggadah on various subjects.

The point of connection between incorrect rulings and issues of deference comes in the second chapter of Horayot, which discusses the obligations of kings and High Priests. By the time the mishna and Gemara were compiled, in the first centuries CE, these offices had long stood vacant, as they do to this day. Legal judgments came from courts made up of rabbinic scholars, who were experts in the law. But in the days of the monarchy and the priesthood, kings and high priests were also empowered to issue legal judgments—which means that they also had the opportunity to make mistakes. How does a king or a High Priest atone when he issues an incorrect ruling?

The brief answer is that these figures, too, must bring an offering, and the rabbis discuss various problems in this connection—for instance, what to do if a High Priest must atone for a sin committed before he became a High Priest. In Horayot 10a, however, the discussion goes off in a new direction, as the rabbis parse the Biblical phrase “When a king sins.” In context, in Leviticus 4:22, it is clear that the Torah is prescribing the means by which a king can atone if he commits an unintentional sin—namely, offering a male goat as a sacrifice.

But why, the rabbis ask, does the Torah use the word “when” (asher), and not “if”? “One might have thought that this is a decree,” the Gemara points out—in other words, it sounds like a king will inevitably sin, so he will necessarily have occasion to make atonement. To counter this implication, the rabbis point to an earlier verse, Leviticus 4:3, which says, “If the anointed priest shall sin.” This “if” should apply to kings as well as priests: with either authority, mistakes are possible but not inevitable.

Probing the subject further, the Gemara points out that when a king is afflicted with leprosy, he is no longer fit to rule. That was what happened to King Azariah, who contracted leprosy and had to leave the palace and “live in an independent house.” The Gemara seizes on the word “independent” and draws an interesting implication: if a non-king is “independent,” it would seem that a king is dependent—that is, a servant. In this way, the rabbis arrive at the notion that a king is meant to be the servant of his people: power is a form of responsibility, not a means of enjoyment.

What is true of kings is also true of Sages. The Gemara goes on to relate a story about how Rabban Gamliel, the head of the rabbinic academy, was informed that two of his students were “so wise that they know how to calculate how many drops of water there are in the sea,” yet they lived in poverty, with “neither bread to eat nor a garment to wear.” Accordingly, Rabban Gamliel decided to honor the two students by seating them in the front row of the academy. But when he sent word to them about this promotion, they were so modest that they refused to respond. This led Rabban Gamliel to explain that leadership in the academy was not a privilege but a form of community service: “Do you imagine that I am granting you authority? I am granting you servitude.” The Talmud is consistent in viewing the exercise of power as a heavy obligation, something that should be avoided if at all possible: “Love work, hate lordship and do not become familiar with the government,” says Pirkei Avot.

This analysis of the word asher leads Rabbi Nachman bar Chisda to interpret another verse where the word is used several times, from Ecclesiastes: “There are righteous men to whom it happens according to the action of the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the action of the righteous.” What is the meaning of this ambiguous statement? According to Rabbi Nachman bar Chisda, it means that the righteous experience in this world what the wicked will experience in the World to Come—namely, suffering. This is a tenet of Talmudic ethics that the rabbis frequently invoke, since it does a lot of explanatory work. Why do bad things happen to good people? It is because good people get their suffering out of the way here on earth, in order to enjoy perfect happiness in the afterlife; while bad people enjoy themselves in this life, but are storing up torment in the afterlife.

There is, however, an obvious problem with this idea, which Rava points out: “Is that to say that if the righteous enjoyed two worlds it would be awful for them?” Why should a good person have to suffer in this life in order to be happy in the next? Why can’t he just be happy in both? Rather, Rava says, the good should be happy in this life as well—though his definition of happiness is modest. Two sages once came before Rava and he asked them: “Have you mastered this tractate and that tractate? Have you become somewhat wealthy?” Yes, they replied: they each studied the law and they each owned a plot of land that could sustain them. In that case, Rava said, “Happy are the righteous”: a good person needs nothing more than a livelihood and a chance to learn Torah.

Later, in Horayot 13a, the mishna gives the order of precedence for ranks in Jewish society. A king precedes a High Priest; a High Priest precedes a prophet; and a High Priest from the First Temple, who was anointed with holy oil, is of higher status than a High Priest from the Second Temple, who wore sacred garments but did not have access to the oil. (That is because the oil, which was made by Aaron and miraculously survived undiminished for centuries, was hidden by Josiah near the end of the First Temple period.) Of course, there is no situation in which a First Temple High Priest could confront a Second Temple High Priest, and by the time of the Gemara there had been no Temple at all for several centuries. But it is important to the Sages to establish rank order, even if only theoretically.

The list continues: a regular priest precedes a Levite, who comes before an Israelite, who comes before a person of illegitimate birth, who comes before a convert. But the Sages end with an important proviso: a Torah scholar comes before every other category, even a king, regardless of his lineage. After all, the Gemara says, “in the case of a sage who dies, we have no other like him; but in the case of a king of Israel who dies, all Israel are fit for royalty.” Any Jew could be appointed a king—there was nothing especially distinguished about Saul or David before they were chosen—but only a wise and learned man can be a rabbi. In this passage, we can see a crucial transition in Jewish history taking place. Where once there was Judea, a kingdom ruled by a king and a high priest, now there is Judaism, a religion that can be practiced anywhere, and that needs Sages if it is to survive.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.