When Is a Rabbi a Wise Man, and When Is He a Heap of Walnuts?

Nov. 17 2014
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

The Yiddish phrase talmid hokhem denotes someone learned in Talmud. But, despite a common misconception, it does not contain the word Talmud. Rather, it comes from the Hebrew talmid hakham, meaning “student of a sage.” To unpack the origins and history of this phrase is to learn something of the history of the rabbinate. Philologos writes;

The distinction in the Talmud between a rav or rabbi and a hakham is one of degrees of knowledge. Although every hakham is a rav, not every rav is a hakham. Thus, a passage in the tractate of Gittin says that the late second- and early third-century rabbi Isi ben Yehuda ranked the sages [hakhamim] as follows: “Rabbi Meir was a sage [hakham] and a Torah scribe. Rabbi Yehuda was a sage when he wished to be. Rabbi Tarfon was a heap of walnuts. Rabbi Yishma’el was a store stocked with everything. Rabbi Akiva was a secret treasure. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri was a peddler’s box. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was a spice box.” All these hakhamim, in other words, were more than ordinary rabbis, but not all were on the same level.

Read more at Forward

More about: Language, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbis, Talmud, Yiddish

The Possible Death of Mohammad Deif, and What It Means

On Saturday, Israeli jets destroyed a building in southern Gaza, killing a Hamas brigade commander named Rafa Salameh. Salameh is one of the most important figures in the Hamas hierarchy, but he was not the primary target. Rather it was Mohammad Deif, who is Yahya Sinwar’s number-two and is thought to be the architect and planner of numerous terrorist attacks, of Hamas’s tunnel network, and of the October 7 invasion itself. Deif has survived at least five Israeli attempts on his life, and the IDF has consequently been especially reluctant to confirm that he had been killed. Yet it seems that it is possible, and perhaps likely, that he was.

Kobi Michael notes that Deif’s demise would have major symbolic value and, moreover, deprive Hamas of important operational know-how. But he also has some words of caution:

The elimination of Deif becomes even more significant given the current reality of severe damage to Hamas’s military wing and its transition to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. However, it is important to remember that organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah are more than the sum of their components or commanders. Israel has previously eliminated the leaders of these organizations and other very senior military figures, and yet the organizations continued to grow, develop, and become more significant security threats to Israel, while establishing their status as political players in the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas.

As for the possibility that Deif’s death will harden Hamas’s position in the hostage negotiations, Tamir Hayman writes:

In my opinion, even if there is a bump in the road now, it is not a strategic one. The reasons that Hamas decided to compromise its demands in the [hostage] deal stem from the operational pressure it is under [and] the fear that the pressure exerted by the IDF will increase.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas