Text Based Learning

Sayings & Sayers of the Sidrah: Shmuel
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Friday 25th April 2014

Chumash: ‘When you slaughter a peace offering to G-d, you shall slaughter it at your own free will’. (Vayikra 19:5)

Talmud: Shmuel posed the following question to Rav Huna: “From where do we know that an act performed accidentally in connection with sacrifices is invalid?” [Rav Huna replied]: “Because it is written…’You shall slaughter it at your will’, which means to slaughter it intentionally’”. (Chullin 13a)

Shmuel was the first sage to be totally separate from the era of the Mishnah, labelling him as the first distinct Amora (lit. ‘sayer’, referring to the generation of Rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah c.200 CE). His study partner and long-time friend Rav (who was the subject of the first biography in this series) straddled both the Mishnaic and post-Mishnaic eras.

Shmuel was a child prodigy. As well as excelling in the study of Jewish Law, he became proficient in astrology and medicine. His knowledge of medicine led him to make the prescient statement that most diseases were not due to the evil eye. This ran against the prevailing opinion of the time. Shmuel explained that the source of sickness could be found in the noxious influence of the air and the climate, as well as in unclean conditions. He even predicted psychosomatic disorders, suggesting that changes in regular modes of living could cause illness. Meanwhile, he also excelled in computational skills, notably in calculating the calendar via astrology.

Rav and Shmuel led the two main academies in Babylon. While Rav was considered the superior authority in ritual law, Shmuel authored the primary opinions on civil law. To this day, one of Shmuel’s teachings has shaped how Jews have integrated and interacted with their host societies: he ruled that the Law of the land should be followed as a religious imperative.

His approach to the importance of municipal law was mirrored by that of his moralistic vision.