An Analysis of the Contrast Between the Positions of Rabban Gamliel and the Sages

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXIV, p. 95ff.

The tractate of Rosh HaShanah concludes with the following mishnah:1

Just as the chazzan2 is obligated to recite [the Shemoneh Esreh], each and every individual is obligated [to recite the Shemoneh Esreh].

Rabban Gamliel states: “The chazzan fulfills the obligation on behalf of the community.”

In the explanation of that mishnah, the Gemara cites a beraisa:3

[The Sages] told Rabban Gamliel: “According to your conception, why does the community recite [the Shemoneh Esreh] prayers [individually]?

He answered them: “To allow the chazzan to prepare his prayers.”

Rabban Gamliel asked [the Sages]: “According to your conception, why does the chazzan recite a communal prayer?”

They answered him: “To fulfill the obligation on behalf of a person who does not know [how to recite the prayers himself].”

He replied: “Just as he fulfills the obligation on behalf of a person who does not know [how to recite the prayers himself], he fulfills the obligation on behalf of a person who knows [how to recite the prayers himself].”

According to the conception of Rabbeinu Asher, the difference of opinion between Rabban Gamliel and the Sages focuses on the definition of communal prayer. Our Sages define communal prayer as the community praying together, i.e., rather than praying individually, every member of the community prays together with his colleagues. The chazzan’s repetition of the prayers is an incidental measure: Since there are some individuals who do not know how to pray themselves, the chazzan recites the prayers on their behalf.

Rabban Gamliel, by contrast, maintains that the fundamental element of communal prayer is the prayer recited by the chazzan on behalf of the entire congregation. The only reason every person prays individually before the chazzan’s recitation of the Shemoneh Esreh is to enable the chazzan to prepare himself to pray.4

This difference of opinion between the Sages and Rabban Gamliel is not merely an isolated issue, but instead reflects a difference of a more encompassing scope between their conceptual approaches. From the following incident related by the Talmud ,5 we can appreciate the issues motivating their difference of opinion.

While Rabban Gamliel was Nasi , he would proclaim: “Any student whose inner core does not reflect his external appearance should not enter the House of Study,” and he appointed a watchman at the door to ensure that this approach was followed.

After Rabban Gamliel was replaced by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the watchman was removed, and unrestricted license was granted for students to attend. On that day, hundreds of new students entered, and the House of Study became engrossed in a sequence of unusually productive intellectual interchanges.

What is the core of the difference between the two positions? Rabban Gamliel focused on maintaining the quality of the students of the House of Study. If a student did not possess the moral caliber appropriate for a Torah scholar, Rabban Gamliel barred him from attending the House of Study. Although the quantity of the students would be reduced, the standards of quality would be maintained.

The Sages, whose perspective was put into expression by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, on the other hand, put the emphasis on the quantity of students. Although there would be students of lower caliber — and at the outset, this might detract from the level of the House of Study as a whole6 — it was worth making this sacrifice to expose more students to the Torah.

To illustrate these positions with regard to the previous discussion concerning prayer: Communal prayer possesses two advantages over individual prayer: a) one of quantity; there are more individuals praying at the same time, and b) one of quality; these individuals are forged together into a new entity of which it can be said: The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. The communal entity which emerges is not merely a composite of individuals, but rather a new integrate which exists within a totally different frame of reference.7

Our Sages, who emphasize quantity, focus on the congregation, whose members join together their individual prayers. Rabban Gamliel, by contrast, underscores the advantage of the prayer of the chazzan, the shliach tzibbur. For his prayer is of a different nature entirely. The accent is not on his individual level of refinement — although a chazzan should possess such qualities as well8 — but on the fact that his prayer is the prayer of the community at large. It is as if every word that he recites is being recited by this communal entity as one.9

The contrast between the priorities chosen by Rabban Gamliel and the Sages also relates to a ruling within a totally different context. The mishnah states:10

[When a plaintiff] claims that [the defendant] owes him wheat, and [the defendant] admits owing him barley, [the defendant] is not liable [to take an oath]. Rabban Gamliel maintains that he is liable.

The oath in question is the oath required when a defendant is modeh bemiktzas, i.e., he admits liability to a portion of the claim which is made of him. To incur this oath, the defendant’s admission must relate to the claim made of him. If he admits a liability of a different type, he is not required to take this oath. Thus, according to the Sages, when the defendant admits to owing the plaintiff barley, he is not considered to be admitting part of the claim, for his admission concerns a different matter altogether. To quote our Sages:11 “What he claimed, the other did not admit, and what he admitted, the other did not claim.” The defendant denies entirely the claim that he owes the plaintiff wheat — and when a person denies a claim entirely, he is not required to take an oath according to Scriptural law. The fact that he adds that he owes the plaintiff barley is of no consequence whatsoever.

Why do the Sages reach this conclusion? Quantity, their emphasis in the instances mentioned above, relates to the material dimension of the objects or persons involved.12 And when one looks from a material perspective, wheat and barley are two different entities.

In the instances mentioned above, by contrast, Rabban Gamliel highlights the quality, which relates to the abstract nature of the object or persons. And when one looks abstractly, whether one is claiming that it is wheat or barley which is owed, the fundamental point is the same: A debt, an obligation that has a direct, financial counterpart, exists. Therefore, Rabban Gamliel maintains that, although there is a difference between the subject of the debt which is claimed and the admission that is made, the defendant is still admitting to owing a portion of what the plaintiff claims. Therefore, an oath is required.

Another difference of opinion between Rabban Gamliel and the Sages is reflected in the interpretations which they offer for the verse:13 “The kindness [offered by the gentile] nations is deficient.”14 There are several interpretations offered by the Talmud.15 Rabbi Eliezer states that the gentiles offer generosity in order to receive “greatness” (interpreted by the Maharsha,16 to refer to long life). Rabbi Yehoshua states that they offer kindness, “so that their dominion will continue [to prevail].” And Rabban Gamliel states that the reason for their kindness is “to take pride.”

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua explain that the deficiency in the gentiles’ approach to kindness and charity is that they give in order to receive. They realize that their good deeds will lead to reward, and that is their intent. Rabban Gamliel, by contrast, explains that their fault relates more to individual ethics; they are seeking personal aggrandizement, and give only for that reason.

The differences between these two approaches is an outgrowth of the concepts mentioned above. To explain: Every act of kindness or charity serves two purposes: a) to meet the need felt by the recipient; b) to lift his spirits through the expression of feelings of empathy and compassion. And the second dimension is greater, as our Sages teach:17 “A person who gives a coin to a poor person is granted six blessings; one who gratifies him is blessed elevenfold.” Meeting the person’s needs involves a material gift, while gratifying him involves giving him something intangible.

On this basis, we can see the connection to the concepts mentioned above: Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, the leaders of the Sages who differ with Rabban Gamliel, put the emphasis on the material benefit provided by acts of kindness (the quantity one receives). Since the gentiles are concerned with the reward their generosity will bring them and not the needs of the recipient, there will be a deficiency in their gifts, and they will not satisfy the recipients’ needs completely.

Rabban Gamliel, by contrast, puts the emphasis on the quality of the gifts, the feelings which the giver conveys. Since the gentiles are motivated by their own self-aggrandizement, they cannot properly empathize with the recipient, and there will always be deficiency in the relationship established.

One of the principles of Talmudic study is the avoidance of redundancy. A concept is stated once. If it is repeated, there must be a reason for the repetition, a difference between the two cases which necessitates the restatement of the principle in the second context. This is reflected in the Talmudic construct, utzericha, in which a distinction is made between two instances in which a principle is stated.

Similarly, with regard to the concepts above: We must be able to explain why each of the illustrations of the differences in perspective between Rabban Gamliel and the Sages are necessary.

The first two instances concern the realms of Torah study and prayer. With regard to the quality of Torah scholars, our Sages state:18 “A Torah scholar whose inner core does not reflect his external appearance is not a Torah scholar at all.” With regard to prayer, by contrast, although the prayers of a chazzan reflect a higher level than the individual prayers of the community, the individual prayers of the community are still significant, for they possess two advantages: a) quantity, and b) quality. (Although these prayers are not on the level of the chazzan’s prayer, they still exceed the quality of the pray ers that an individual recites alone.)

Therefore, were Rabban Gamliel’s emphasis on quality to be expressed only with regard to the caliber of Torah students, we would be unable to draw any conclusions with regard to prayer. For a student who lacks the level of refinement required by Rabban Gamliel is not considered significant at all. With regard to the individual prayers of the community, by contrast, we might think that the combination of quantity and quality expressed by the individual prayers of the community would override the higher quality possessed by the prayers of the chazzan. Hence, the need for the statement of both points.

Conversely, were Rabban Gamliel’s opinion to be stated only with regard to communal prayer: a) we would need to mention the case of the qualifications for Torah study to express the position of the Sages,19 and b) we would not know Rabban Gamliel’s opinion with regard to Torah study. For success in Torah study comes through “close association with colleagues, and sharp discussion with students.”20 One might think that some sacrifice might be made with regard to the caliber of the students so that the increased number of students would add to the intensity and vibrancy of the discussion. Hence, it was necessary to mention Rabban Gamliel’s opinion in this area as well.

Continuing the development of these concepts, it is also necessary to explain why once the positions of Rabban Gamliel and the Sages are expressed with regard to Torah study and prayer, it is required to restate them with regard to oaths and charity. It is possible to explain that since Torah study and prayer are primarily spiritual activities, it is apparent why Rabban Gamliel places an emphasis on quality with regard to them. With regard to claims regarding material objects, by contrast, one might think that he would agree that the emphasis could be placed on the material dimensions of the articles. Hence, it is necessary to restate Rabban Gamliel’s position in this context as well.

Conversely, if the difference of opinion was only stated with regard to oaths, we would not be able to appreciate the Sages’ opinion with regard to Torah study and prayer. For it might be presumed that in that context, they would accept Rabban Gamliel’s emphasis on quality.

Similarly, it can be explained that with regard to kindness and charity, what is of fundamental importance is that the needy person receive the assistance which he is lacking. For this reason, our Sages state:21 “When a person loses a coin…, and it is found by a poor person who uses it for his livelihood, it is considered as if he acted meritoriously.” In this instance, the “donor” had no intent of assisting the recipient at all; his gift was made totally involuntarily. Nevertheless, since the recipient derived benefit, the donor attains merit.

With regard to prayer and Torah study, the “quality,” the spiritual content of the act is inseparable from the act itself. For when a person studies (the Oral Law),22 he does not derive any merit from his study unless he understands its content. So too with regard to prayer, proper intention — the awareness that one is praying to G‑d — is of fundamental importance. Without such intention, one’s prayer is not acceptable.23

For this reason, were Rabban Gamliel’s opinion to be stated only with regard to prayer and study, one might think that with regard to charity and deeds of kindness, where quantity is more important, he would accept the position of the other Sages. Conversely, were his opinion to be stated only with regard to charity and deeds of kindness, his position with regard to prayer and Torah study could not be known.

For with regard to charity, the emphasis on quality does not detract from the quantity, while with regard to Torah study and prayer, by highlighting the quality, one actually reduces the quantity. For by restricting the entry of students to those “whose inner core reflects their external appearance,” Rabban Gamliel lowered the number of students attending the House of Study. And by putting the emphasis on the prayers of the chazzan, the prayers of the many are replaced by one communal prayer.24 It is thus necessary to state Rabban Gamliel’s opinion in these instances to show that even when the emphasis on quality is to the exclusion of quantity, his position remains unchanged.

This more encompassing conception of the difference between the approaches of Rabban Gamliel and the Sages has its source in the positions they held. Rabban Gamliel was the Nasi, the leader of the Sanhedrin. The Nasi was not a democratic leader. Instead, as implied by that name which means “uplifted one,” his position resembled that of a king. The authority of a Nasi or a king does not stem from a quantitative advantage, but is a result of the elevated spiritual quality which the king or the Nasi represents.

This concept is emphasized by Rashi ,25 who states: “The Nasi is the entire people.” To refer to the example of the chazzan mentioned above, his prayers were not those of his individual self, but rather those of the community at large. Similarly, the Nasi does not act as an individual, but as the representative of the Jewish people as a collective. For this reason, Rabban Gamliel, who served as Nasi, placed an emphasis on quality.

The Sages, by contrast, were members of the Sanhedrin. Their power stemmed from quantity, as reflected in the fact that in order for the Sanhedrin to hold session, a quorum of 36 judges, the majority of the 71 judges who made up that body, had to be present.26 Moreover, with regard to every particular decision, the ruling of the Sanhedrin was based on the votes of the majority.

The contributions of both the Nasi and the Sanhedrin are both necessary. May we soon witness the reinstatement of both with the fulfillment of the prophecy:27 “And I will return your judges as in former times, and your advisers as at the beginning,” with the coming of Mashiach, the ultimate Nasi, and the return of the Sanhedrin.28