Bava Metzia

Bava Metzia 97a: Who Decides What Masechta to Learn

Bava Metzia 97a: Rava said: A melamed, a planter, a shochet, a doctor and a barber are all considered working for their customers, so that if the customer were to borrow an item from them while they worked for him, and it broke, he would be exempt under the rule of בעליו עמו. The students said to Rava: “You are then working for us!” Rava was upset and said to them, “Are you trying to make me lose money? On the contrary, you are working for me, because I could switch you from one masechta to another, but you cannot.”

בבא מציעא צז ע”א: אמר רבא: מקרי דרדקי, שתלא, טבחא, ואומנא, ספר מתא ־ כולהון בעידן עבידתייהו כשאילה בבעלים דמו. אמרו ליה רבנן לרבא: שאיל לן מרִ. אקפיד, אמר להו: לאפקועי ממונאי קא בעיתו? אדרבה, אתון שאילתון לי. דאילו אנא מצי אישתמוטי לכו ממסכתא למסכתא, אתון לא מציתו לאישתמוטי.

Because he had his own original approach to study, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman did not follow the standard practice of other yeshivos in choosing the tractates to be studied. He refused to confine himself to Nashim and Nezikin alone, and then, instead of only covering the first few chapters of the masechta, he would cover each masechta to the end. He regarded this approach as vital to the wellbeing of the students. He took into account that his yeshiva was a preparatory division for younger students, from which they would proceed to the senior yeshivos, where deep and intensive scholarship is devoted to the limited area of Nashim and Nezikin. Consequently he would say, “If not now, when? If you do not acquire a basic familiarity with at least a large portion of the Talmud, and if you will not cover each assigned tractate from beginning to end, then you are liable never to study these Gemaras at all.”

Accordingly, he instituted in the yeshivos where he taught that each semester a new masechta be started and covered to the end, the exception being Bava Basra, which was very large and thus required at least a full year – two semesters. Here, too, however, his approach was original. He would begin with the eighth chapter, Yesh Nochalin, rather than the first, Hashutfin. Only after he had reached the end of the tractate did he revert to the beginning and teach from Hashutfin until Yesh Nochalin. His assumption was that if he began with the first chapter, it was very doubtful whether his students would ever reach the end of the lengthy masechta. They would tire in the middle…

When he attempted to introduce this innovation into the Brisk Yeshiva, the talmidim protested that it was unheard of to reverse the order. They were unwilling to adopt a practice so different from that of all other yeshivos. Reb Elchonon immediately proposed that they and he submit their arguments to a Din Torah to be judged by Reb Chaim, the Rav of the town.

Reb Elchonon contended that a rosh yeshiva had the authority to select the masechta to be studied, as Rava states in Bava Metzia 97a. The talmidim argued that Tosafos on Bava Metzia 2a say, “Rebbi did not follow the order of the masechtas, but taught in accordance with the wishes of the talmidim” (and therefore, when a dispute appears in one masechta and then an anonymous mishnah taking one of the sides appears in a later masechta, this does not mean that Rebbi decided the dispute, because perhaps the later masechta was actually taught by Rebbi first).

“That is a good argument,” Reb Elchonon replied in the presence of Reb Chaim, “but in truth there is no contradiction. When are students subject to their teacher’s wishes? When it makes a difference to the teacher which masechta he teaches.” (Rashi explains that Rava’s motivation for changing masechtas was that he was worried about forgetting a particular masechta.) “To Rabbeinu Hakadosh, there was no difference. He knew everything and could always teach the masechta that appealed to his talmidim.

“To me, too, it makes no difference,” Reb Elchonon continued. “You, however, are not interested in any particular masechta, but merely in following a certain procedure – that we should start at the beginning. Your argument, then, has no basis. The chapters beginning with Yesh Nochalin deal with the laws of inheritance and are like a new masechta, having no connection with the beginning of Bava Basra, which is concerned with the laws of partners, neighbors and presumptions of ownership. All that is necessary is to enclose the word “Yesh” in a decorative box.”

Reb Chaim upheld Reb Elchonon’s view, and ruled accordingly. The talmidim had to accept the verdict and open their Gemaras to Yesh Nochalin.


Many years later, in 1937 in Baranovitch, a similar dispute arose: The yeshiva had just finished Beitzah and Reb Elchonon wanted to learn another Moed masechta, while the talmidim wanted to learn a yeshivishe masechta from Nashim or Nezikin. They cited the above Tosafos which says that Rebbi taught his talmidim whatever masechta they wanted to learn. Reb Elchonon replied, “Rebbi considered what was best for his students and acted as he did. We also know very well that it is better for you to learn Moed.”

The talmidim also argued that the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) says, “A man can only learn Torah in the subject that his heart desires.” Reb Elchonon responded, “Chazal did not intend that this should apply to young students who have never studied the masechta I wish to teach them. Hence they cannot know properly what to want and what not to.”

The case was submitted to the mashgiach, Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, who ruled in favor of the talmidim.

Source: Reb Elchonon (Artscroll), pp. 74-76

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