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"One who greets his teacher . . . causes the Shekhinah to
depart" (bBer 27b)
The topic that the ensuing revolves around is the etiquette of greetings, or more
specifically differences in the etiquette of greetings between social un-equals as
evidenced by the two Talmudim; the Talmud of the Land of Israel and the Talmud of
Differences in the etiquette of greetings are the product or bi-product of many
complex factors and their study belongs more properly to the fields of social
psychology and anthropology. In a personal account of his sojourn in the Arabian
Desert, H.R.P Dickenson tells us about the1 span of cultural differences he
"In Kuwait and in other towns of Arabia a proper man will not rise to greet a superior. . . Englishmen
coming from India to Arabia invariably misunderstand this custom, for the opposite custom rules in
India, and the poor and lowly there must always rise and greet the big man first" (pg. 235)
It may be astonishing to a Western reader to learn that a superior should not greet unequals and even more so that an un-equal should not greet a superior. Just as the
Englishmen arriving in Arabia experienced cultural misunderstandings it would be
natural to find that the very same misunderstandings commonly occurred during the
exchanges and migrations between the Land of Israel and Babylonia. It is well
established that the milieu and cultural settings of the two great Jewish learning
centers, shaped in part by their respective Roman and Sassanian subjugators were
often poles apart. As we will see, in the Land of Israel students were expected to greet
their teachers, while in Jewish Babylonia, at least in some circles, a student was not
allowed to greet his teacher or even to return a greeting which his teacher initiated.
Our starting point in the discussion of the etiquette of greetings in both the Land of
Israel and Babylonia is in the Talmud of the Land of Israel which conveniently
records an exchange between Sages of the two Lands:
Rabbi Yochanan was leaning on Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi and Rabbi Eliezer saw him and hid from him.
[Rabbi Yochanan] said: These two things the Babylonian did to me. First, is that he did not extend me
greeting (‫)לא שאל בשלומי‬. . . [Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi] said to him: so it is this their custom. The smaller
Dickenson, H.R.P, "The Arab of the Dessert; A glimpse into Badawin Life in Kuwait and Sa'udi
does not extend greeting to the greater2 for they fulfill: "Youths saw me and hid" (Job 29:8) (yBer. 2:1
The elder Rabbi Yochanan considers it a personal wronging on the part of the
Babylonian Rabbi Eliezer3 for not greeting him. Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi is able to
placate Rabbi Yochanan by explaining that the student not only meant no disrespect
in abstaining from greeting him but on the contrary, in doing so he abstained from
showing him great disrespect.4
This narrative records clearly the diametrically opposed social practices of the two
communities in encounters between social un-equals. In the Land of Israel proper
etiquette of greeting dictated that the inferior greet the superior ("Engagement
etiquette") while in Babylonia the inferior would not dare do so. Proper etiquette
would seem to have been avoidance and silence ("Avoidance etiquette").5 Rabbi
Eliezer does not simply abstain from greeting Rabbi Yochanan but avoids him
entirely by hiding from him. In effect, the etiquette of greeting between un-equals
was seemingly none.
The anthropologist Firth observes: "Greeting is the recognition of an encounter with
another person as socially acceptable"6 This observation about the nature of greeting
Some interpret the words Za'ira and Rabba as personal names rather than "smaller" and "greater"
This Rabbi Eliezer who is usually mentioned in the Talmud without epithet appears to be
Rabbi Eliezer ben Pedath who ascended from Babylonia to Tiberias to become Rabbi
Yochanan's disciple and eventually the head of his Academy (see Eisenberg, Ronald L.,
"Essential Figures in the Talmud", pg. 52). Rabbi Eliezer held stead-fast to the social practice
which he brought with him. Indeed, the Babylonians (or a segment of them) championed
their "distance" etiquette as the correct and scripturally ordained practice.
The mainstream practice of etiquette in the Land of Israel is well attested throughout
rabbinic literature both in earlier and latter Palestinian Midrashim. See Margaliyot, 'Book of
Differences', pg. 151 and note 7 below. Particularly interesting is the instance of Midrash
Shemuel (ed. Buber, Parasha 19, pg. 30) on the verse: "And the elders of the city came to meet
him trembling, and said: ‘Comest thou peaceably?" (I Sam. 16:4) which introduces its citation
of the incident recorded in the Palestinian Talmud with the words "A student greets his
master". This introductory phrase seems to express a need to settle the question of proper
greeting etiquette between student and teacher.
It could be supposed that bowing would have been the proper Babylonian etiquette.
However, as we see Rabbi Eliezer completely avoided Rabbi Yochanan. Furthermore, it
seems that even in the Palestinian "engagement" practice giving greeting may have entailed
some sort of bowing. See Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta, Hagigah, pg. 1292.
Firth, Raymond, "Verbal and bodily rituals of greeting and parting", pg.1 in The
interpretation of ritual: Essays in honor of A.I. Richards by Jean Sybille La Fountain
gives us a potentially critical insight into the social psychology of social "avoidance".
Accordingly, it would appear that in Jewish Babylonia social interaction between unequals at least in the public arena was deemed inappropriate and not merely the
exchange of greetings between student and teacher.
An early medieval composition from the Land of Israel known as "Differences
between the Easterners and Westerners" documents the continuation of this
Babylonian (as well as the Palestinian) social practice into the early Middle-Ages 7
[As regards] The people of the west (Babylonians) a student does extend greeting (‫ )שואל בשלום רבו‬to his teacher.
[As regards] The People of the Land of Israel a student says to his teacher "Peace be upon you my master" ( ‫שלום‬
‫( )עליך רבי‬hilluk 33, pg. 151).
This admittedly late but first-hand testimony of living Palestinian and Babylonian
tradition affirms the extent to which the respective etiquette of greeting was ingrained
in the cultural fiber of the two Jewish centers.
Babylonian Sources
The Babylonian social practice of avoidance from all appearances is in fact evidenced
in the primary Babylonian source of Jewish tradition, the Babylonian Talmud.
1) A teaching in the name of Rabbi Eliezer [ben Hyrkanos] states:
"One who greets (‫ נותן שלום‬his teacher or returns his greeting . . . causes the Shekhinah to depart from
the People of Israel" (bBerachoth 27b)
Rabbi Eliezer deems it disastrous for an inferior to greet a superior. It is remarkable
that this social infraction is given national and theological import so great as to cause
the departure of the Shekhinah, God's Presence from upon the People of Israel.
However, these consequences are better understood on the backdrop of the entirety
of Rabbi Eliezer's teaching which also lists: One who prays behind his teacher, one
who disputes his teacher's position as head of Yeshiva and one who says something
The Book of Differences is extremely important source for the study of the Legal
development of the Land of Israel. The Book belongs to a relatively new genre of Genizah
discoveries attesting to the continued legal activity of the Land of Israel in the late Byzantine
period long after the closing of the Talmud of the Land of Israel. The Book of Differences is
unique in that it bears first hand-testimony to living Palestinian and Babylonian tradition as
practiced by the respective communities in the post-Talmudic era. The Book was published
in a few editions. References here are made to the edition of Mordechai Margaliyot.
in the name of his teacher that he did not say.8 The behaviors that Rabbi Eliezer
describes are a formula for bringing about the collapse of the Torah Academy and (as
we will see below) may be symptomatic of an actual historical reality. 9
Although this teaching of the 1st-2nd century Eliezer ben Hyrkanus is recorded in the
Babylonian Talmud (and notably nowhere in the Talmud of the Land of Israel) and
reflects what we have come to know here as Babylonian practice, it is in fact
Palestinian in origin10. Furthermore, the Palestinian origination of this teaching seems
to suggest that the "avoidance" of superiors was also practiced at least in some locales
in the Land of Israel in an earlier period. The "engagement" etiquette characteristic
of the Land of Israel which appears over time to have become mainstream seems also
to stretch back to around this period and it is likely that at some point the two existed
side by side. The Tosefta recounts:
There was an incident in which Rabbi Yehoshua was walking in the street when he encountered Ben
Zoma. [Ben Zoma] came near him but did not extend him greeting (‫( )ולא נתן לו שלום‬Tosefta Hagigah
2:6 pg. 381)
This narrative of the Tosefta implies that the behavior of Ben Zoma of the 2nd century
in not greeting his teacher Rabbi Joshua ben Haninah was exceptional and out-ofplace. Similarly, (see below) the 2nd century Rabbi Yossi (ben Halafta) is recorded to
have returned the greeting of the Messiah.
This same teaching of Rabbi Eliezer is also recorded in the treatise known as
Masekheth Kalah but with a few notable differences:
"Rabbi Eliezer said: anyone who gives greeting (‫ )נותן שלום‬to his teacher is due death. Ben Azzai says:
Anyone who gives greeting to his teacher or returns his teacher's greeting and disputes his position as
the Head of Yeshiva is due death. One who says something in the name of a Sage that he did not hear
from him causes the Shekhinah to depart from Israel" (pg. 56)
The voice of the early 2nd century Ben Azzai is added to the quorum in the
pronouncement against greeting superiors. The Shekhinah's departure is replaced
with the more legalistic terminology "is due death" stressing the severity of the
See Gilat, "Rabbi Eliezer", pg. 263 who collects additional teachings of Rabbi Eliezer
concerning respect for teachers and the severe consequences for their lacking.
9 Rabbi Eliezer's teaching may point to an actual post-second Temple reality in which the
authority of the Academy and Torah scholars was being undermined due to the mayhem
caused by the Second Temple's destruction. See below 'Cultural Context'.
10 See Gilat, "Rabbi Eliezer", pg. 165 who is of the opinion that in early times the custom in
Palestine, as in Babylonia, was that a pupil did not greet his teacher.
infraction committed by greeting a teacher even more than the parallel passage in the
Babylonian Talmud. It articulates the consequences in terms sensible directly to the
individual rather than to one's national conscience. Unfortunately, the lack of
consensus on the dating and origin of this treatise makes it difficult to orient its
testimony historically.11
2) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended to the Heavens he found God tying crowns
to the letters.12 God said to him: Moses, is there no greeting in your city? [Moses] said before Him:
Does a slave greet his master? [God] said to him: You should have helped Me (Rashi: to say that Your
endeavor should be successful) immediately. [Moses] said to Him: "and the power of God shall grow
as you spoke"(Num. 14:17)" (bShab 89a(
When Moses ascends to the Heavens he finds God preparing for the giving of the
Torah to the Jewish People but Moses does not greet Him and God reproaches him
for this. In this theological Agaddah, God treats Moses as a colleague,13 perhaps an
equal, but Moses the humblest of all men reduces himself to the level of slave.
Moses' question: "Does a slave extend greeting first to his master?" preserves
straightforwardly a cultural context in which the inferior was not permitted to greet a
superior. Here too, as in Rabbi Eliezer's teaching the social practice which we have
come to know as "Babylonian" turns out to be Palestinian in origin. Rabbi Yehoshua
ben Levi the transmitter of the Aggadah (which is likewise conspicuously absent from
the Talmud of the Land of Israel) is a third century Palestinian Amora. However, the
teaching that he conveys does not appear to reflect the social etiquette of his time or
locale but that of an earlier period and/or locale in the Land of Israel. This is borne
out by the fact that in an account that records his own conduct he is said to extend
greeting to a superior :
R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb. He asked. . . R.
Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the
Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ . . . So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace
There is disagreement both about the antiquity of this treatise and its origin. See David Brodsky, A
Bride Without a Blessing: A Study in the Redaction and Content of Massekhet Kallah and its Gemara.
See Midrash Aggadah, Numbers, Parashath Shelah chapter 14 Ed. Buber for a parallel passage
which adds ["and Moses kept quiet"] suggesting that Moses did not ignore or was simply unaware of
God's presence but purposely abstained from greeting God.
See for example, Wayiqra Rabba 1:9 (Margalit, pg. 23) which suggests that God spoke to Moses
as an officer. See also ibid note 9
upon thee, Master and Teacher (‫)שלום עליך רבי ומורי‬.’ ‘Peace upon thee, O son of Levi, ( ‫שלום עליך בר‬
‫ ’)ליואי‬he replied. (bSanhed 98a) 14
In this account Rabbi Joshua ben Levi initiates a greeting even to someone as
esteemed as the Massiah.
Palestinian etiquette in Babylonian sources
While the Babylonian Talmud, as we have seen above incorporates materials
reflecting the social practice of avoidance it incorporates even more "Palestinian"
material which evidences the "Engagement" etiquette characteristic of the Land of
Israel.15 The Babylonian Sages, it may be surmised extracted only the operational
elements of the "Palestinian" materials which they found usable in their social context
while discarding the social aspects of the Mishnah that stood at odds with their own
accepted social norms.
1)If one was reading the Torah and the time for Shema arrived. If he had the Shema in mind he is
exempt from reading it. Between the Paragraphs one may greet another out of respect and respond;
and in the middle one may greet another for fear and respond. This is the view of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi
Judah etc. (Mishnah Berakhoth 2:1)
This prominent Mishnah disputes under which circumstances one may interrupt the
recitation of the Shema in order to greet or return the greeting of a superior. 16 The
Babylonian Sages must have found the etiquette aspects of this Mishnah to be
relevant only to the social reality of the Land of Israel.17
2)Mishnah: One who says behold I am a Nazir and his friend heard and said "and I [too]" and his
friend said "and I [too]". They are all Nezirim" Talmud: Reish Lakish was sitting before Rabbi Judah:
Another Aggadah of Moses' ascent and God's crowing appears in bMenahoth 29b. Consideration
must be given to the possibility, though difficult to prove that notwithstanding their Palestinian
attribution neither Rabbi Eliezer's or Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's teachings reflect Palestinian practices.
The Ascent/Crowning Aggadoth as well as Rabbi Eliezer's teaching appear only in the Babylonian
Talmud and are conspicuously absent from the Talmud of the Land of Israel. Ascent Aggadoth do
appear in a few instances in the Rabba and Tanhuma series although they do not significantly humanize
This question occupied the exegetes of the Babylonian Talmud in the Middle Ages some of which,
in the spirit of their times attempted to reconcile the seemingly contradictory materials as addressing
different cases as well as reinterpreting the materials in such a way as to harmonize them. (See below
'Rashi and Maimonides')
Gilat, "Rabbi Eliezer", pg. 165 opines that the Babylonian Jews tended to follow the custom of R.
In a number of instances some of the earlier Amoraim dispute the Mishnah even after its
canonization. See for example, bShabbath 64b, bKethuboth 8a, bGittin 6a, BHulin 25b, yMaasorth 1:3
4a. See Meiri in his introduction to Masekheth Avoth.
He asked saying: this is in the case of when they all attached to him tokh kede dibbur. How much is
toch kede dibbur? The amount of time of asking well-being. How much is the time of asking wellbeing? The amount of a student asking the well-being of his teacher (bNazir 20b).
The Babylonian Sages may have extracted the time parameters but discarded the
social aspects. Even though a student may not have greeted his teacher in Babylonia
the interval of time that constituted a continuum could still be derived.
4) Rabbi Yossi said: Once I was walking on my way and I entered one of the churvoth of Jerusalem
to pray. Came Elijah may he be remembered for good and watched over the entrance until after I
finished my prayer. After I finished my prayer he said to me: Shalom 'alecha Rabbi! I said to him:
shalom 'alekha rabbi umori . . . at that moment I learned three things (bBerachoth 3a)
This Palestinian material may have been cited simply for the purpose of extracting
the three lessons that Rabbi Yossi learned from Elijah. 18
Rabbi Isaac Alfasi
Rabbi Yitchak Alfasi (1013-1103) in his Halakhoth Rabbathi cites the entire passage
of Rabbi Eliezer
‫דאמר רבי יהושע בן לוי אסור לעבור כנגד המתפללין איני והא רבי אמי ורבי אסי חלפי רבי אמי ורבי‬
‫אסי חוץ לארבע אמות הוא דחלפי ורבי ירמיה היכי עביד הכי והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם אל‬
‫יתפלל אדם לא כנגד רבו ולא אחורי רבו ותניא רבי אליעזר אומר המתפלל אחורי רבו והנותן שלום‬
‫והמחזיר שלום לרבו גורם לשכינה שתסתלק מישראל שאני רבי ירמיה בר אבא דתלמיד חבר הוה‬
‫אמר ר׳ יהושע בן לוי אסור לעבור כנגד המתפללין איני? והא רב אמי ורב אסי עברי רב אמי ורב אסי‬
‫חוץ לארבע אמות הוא דעברי אמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם אל יתפלל תלמיד לא לפני רבו ולא אחורי‬
‫ אומר המתפלל כנגד רבו והמתפלל אחורי רבו והנותן‬19‫רבו ולא כנגד רבו תניא רבי אלעזר בן חסמא‬
.‫שלום לרבו והחולק על ישיבתו של רבו והאומר דבר שלא שמע מפי רבו גורם לשכינה שתסתלק מישראל‬
Rabbi Jonah Gerundi in his (or students') commentary on Halakhoth Rabbathi ad loc
interprets Rabbi Alfasi to understand Rabbi Eliezer's teaching literally and
historically. Rabbi Alfasi retains the Talmudic discussion surrounding the prohibition
to pass before one who is praying [with the qualification that it applies only within
four cubits of the one praying. By contrast, he suppresses the Talmud's qualification
that the prohibition of praying behind one's teacher does not apply to a student18
How the Babylonians dealt with the social behavior of Elijah who extends a greeting to Rabbi Yossi
who would appear to be an inferior is not entirely clear. It is possible that Elijah was perceived not as
a complete superior but as a colleague.
The editions of Halakhoth Rabbathi (as well as citations from this work by medieval scholars) reads
"Eliezer ben Hasma" a 2nd century Palestinian sage.
colleague.] However, unlike the foregoing Talmudic discussion it appears that he is
of the opinion that standing behind a person at a distance greater than four cubits does
not qualify as standing behind someone for the purpose of the laws of prayer. These
manipulations of the original Talmudic discourse appear to suggest that Rabbi Alfasi
is consciously articulating a new stand-alone and fully qualified halakhah.202122
2. Rashi
and Maimonides
The migration of the Jewish People throughout the Diaspora brought about continual
legal transplantation,23 at each station weakening the chain of interpretive tradition
from the original Palestinian and Babylonian sources.
Rabbi Eliezer's (and Ben Azzai's) teaching was no longer interpreted within the
broader context of tradition, but within the confines of the textual evidence of the
Babylonian Talmud. Under this new interpretive landscape, the preponderance of
materials in the Babylonian Talmud voicing "Palestinian" greeting etiquette (as
compared to the isolated teaching of Rabbi Eliezer voicing "Babylonian" etiquette)
turned Rabbi Eliezer's teaching from the predominant accepted praxis of the
As we will see below (Rashi and Maimonides), other Sages re-interpreted Rabbi Eliezer's passage.
The Tosafoth ad loc also consider a literal and historical reading of Rabbi Eliezer's passage.
Rabbi Alfasi (Yoma 53a) does incorporate into his Halakhoth Rabbathi the etiquette of departing
from a teacher.
It could potentially be argued that despite the evident manipulations, Rabbi Alfasi does not qualify
the meaning of the phrase "extend greeting" because his discussion focuses on praying behind people
and the incidentally included mention of "extending greeting" is simply out of focus. In Berakhoth 13b
the Babylonian Talmud cites the ruling of the Palestinian Amora Rabbi Abahu in the name of Rabbi
Yochanan to be in accordance with Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Alfasi likewise cites this ruling of Rabbi
Abahu in his Halakhoth Rabbathi ad loc. From all appearances, this would suggest contrary to Rabbi
Jonah Gerundi that Rabbi Alfasi subscribed to the "proximity" social practice of greeting. See Levy,
HALAKHOT RABBATI, (JTS 2002) pg. 50 who shows that Rabbi Yitchak Alfasi rules in accordance
with explicitly stated rulings in the Talmud. However, see ibid. note 7 and 8 where he discusses
contradictory rulings in Halakhoth Rabbahi. See also Langerman, Tzvi, "The legal methodology of
Hai Gaon", pg. 23 who is of the opinion that Rabbi Hai Gaon likewise considered explicitly mentioned
rulings in the Talmud whether anonymous or in the name of an Amora to be the final ruling.
Admittedly, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi's methodology of adjudication is not completely understood and at
times elusive.
The general phenomenon of Legal Transplants has particular relevance to Jewish Law because of
the constant migration of the Jewish People throughout history. Watson, Alan, Legal Transplants: An
Approach to Comparative Law, pg. 29. We refer specifically to his second definition: "Secondly, when
a people moves into a different territory where there is a comparable civilisation and takes its law with
Babylonian Sages into an intriguing quandary. Medieval interpreters such as Rashi
and Maimonides rendered (or re-interpreted) Rabbi Eliezer's teaching in confluence
with the "Palestinian" etiquette despite the noticeable departure this rendition would
impose on the wording of Rabbi Eliezer's teaching.
Rashi glosses "one who greets his teacher" as follows: "like any other person: [he
says] ‫ שלום עליך‬but does not say to him ‫"שלום עליך רבי‬. The infraction is not in greeting
the teacher, but in greeting the teacher without such recognition. A similar
interpretation, although with some subtle differences is given by Maimonides: "On
should not extend or return greetings (‫ )יתן שלום‬to his teacher in manner one extends
greeting to friends"24 The infraction for Maimonides, unlike Rashi is not about the
master's status as teacher but as a superior. 25
The inevitable consequences of this new interpretation is that it eliminated any
historical record in the Babylonian Talmud of the "Babylonian" social practice which
we have come to know from the Palestinian sources. Rabbenu Asher ben Yechial in
his discussion of Rabbi Eliezer's passage summarizes the views on the proper
etiquette of greeting:
Rashi interprets: like to other people and that he does not say 'peace be upon you my teacher'. However,
in the Talmud Yerushalmi it implies that a student does not give greeting to his teacher altogether. For
we learn in the Talmud Yerushalmi that it was their practice [as] that [of] Ze'ira [who] did not ask the
well-being of Rabba and that they fulfil "the lads saw me and hid". However, in our Gemara we say:
"toch kede dibbur (Nedarim 71a)" (Commentary to Berachoth 4:5)
The gist of this slightly terse passage appears to be that the Babylonian Talmud which
operates on the principle of ‘tokh kede dibbur’ ascribes to the “Engagement” etiquette
and that the social practice of avoidance which the Talmud of the Land of Israel
attributes to the Babylonian Jews essentially is not mentioned.
Cultural Context: The Land of Israel
In the discussion above we gleaned a handful of specifics about the "Baylonian" (and
earlier Palestinian) social practices between un-equals. Firstly, it was observed that it
Mishneh Torah, Madda', Hilkhoth Talmud Torah 5:5
Rashi's and Maimonides' interpretation of Rabbi Eliezer's passage was widely adopted by
the Rabbis in the Middle Ages down to the Shulkhan Arukh. Yoreh De'ah 242:15 : He may not
extend greeting or return greeting to his teacher as to the rest of the people but bows before
him etc". Ramah states that this is the practice but also cites the opinion of Rabbi Jonah
interpreting Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi.
was unacceptable for an inferior to greet a superior, be it a student greeting his teacher
or a slave greeting his master.
Secondly, it was discussed that inferiors were expected to avoid contact and social
situations with their superiors. The Amora Rabbi Eliezer, abiding by Babylonian
custom did more than just abstain from greeting his Palestinian teacher Rabbi
Yochanan, but actually hid so that Rabbi Yochanan would not see him. Interaction
between un-equals in the public arena or in public situations appears to have been
deemed socially unacceptable. The subordinate was not deemed worthy of
conversation or even of appearing in a social setting with the superior.
The practice of abstaining from greeting or interacting with social un-equals which
we have come to associate with Babylonian social practice points to a society in
which a vast social distance was upheld between its various strata. Such rigid social
structure does not appear to be compatible with the Roman social practice. Recall that
Moses asked God in the Heavenly Ascent scene: "Does a slave greet his master?" In
contrast, "In Rome Common practice known as Salutatio until the middle of the first
century CE required that the household slaves greet their owners at the beginning of
the day." (Slavery in the Roman World Sandra R. Joshel, pg. 186).
Thirdly, it was mentioned above that the "Engagement" etiquette which became
characteristic of the Land of Israel stretches back to the 2nd century. Rabbi Eliezer's
admonition against pupils greeting their teachers appears to target this "Engagement"
etiquette and could have been a reaction to contemporaneous social change.
What historical and cultural reality presiding in the Land of Israel could have
provided a suitable setting for the social practice of avoidance? Furthermore, what
historical event could have triggered a change in the social practices in the Land of
Israel? Yitzchak Gilat was of the opinion that Rabbi Eliezer who lived just a century
after the destruction of the Second Temple (70CE) preserves Second Temple
Halakhah and insisted on perpetuating it notwithstanding the social and economic
changes that resulted from its destruction.
The destruction of the Temple was catastrophic for the Jewish people. According to
Josephus Flavius, hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in and thousands more
were sold into slavery. The destruction of the Second Temple, a national and spiritual
devastation of immeasurable proportions is a prospective target in the search for an
event which would have caused changes in the social hierarchy. A passage recorded
in the Mishnah from the very same Rabbi Eliezer relates:
Rabbi Eliezer the Great said, "from the day of the destruction of the Temple the Sages began to become
schoolteachers and the schoolteachers began to become sextons and the sextons became amme hares.
And the amme hares became more and more worn down. (Mishnah Sota 9:15)
Rabbi Eliezer describes the social conditions in the Land of Israel after the destruction
of the Second Temple. The dwindling of the rabbinic institution and the decline of
Torah scholarship that ensued was likely to have reduced the social distance between
students and teachers. In this context Rabbi Eliezer's teaching admonishing of the
national consequences of students greeting teachers may point to the circumstances
after the destruction of the Temple.
The Roman social structure, it has been noted was somewhat loose and allowed for
social mobility.26 Roman social practices which allowed or required the inferior to
greet the superior was compatible with the new social reality that emerged after the
destruction of the Second Temple in which the gap between social strata appears to
have been reduced. However, whether it was the conditions of post-destruction
devastation or the influence of Roman society that played the predominant role in
shaping the social etiquette of the Land of Israel is difficult to show.
Cultural Context: Babylonia
The Jewish community in Babylonia dates back to the 6th century when
Nebuchadnezzar exiled Judah. After the rebuilding of the Temple in the time of Ezra
some Jews remained in Babylonia. The Jewish community appears to have thrived in
Babylonia because of the autonomy granted to them by the Parthians. In 226
Babylonia changed hands when the Sassanids conquered the Parthians.
The questions raised about the social reality in the Land of Israel should also be asked
regarding Babylonia. What social conditions in Babylonia could have been suitable
to the perpetuation of the avoidance practice?
The sources on the Sassanian daily life are scanty and do not shed much light directly
on our inquiry. However, the rigid social structure of the Sassanids is well attested in
the literature on this empire.27 In contrast to the relatively loose Roman social
structure which allowed for greater social mobility and possibly a smaller distance
See Peter Garnsey, Richard Salle, "The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture",
pg. 145 for further discussion
between strata, the rigidness of the Sassanian social structure is likely to have created
a significant social distance between un-equals. This social distance may have been
a compatible environment for the practice of avoidance that we have come to know
as Babylonian.