“But Sages Say…” To Whom Did Unnamed Sages Respond in the Mishnah?December 10, 2020
One of the things that caught my eye in my counting up the frequency of the appearances of the sages in the Mishnah was the response of unnamed “Sages” to specific sages. I was very curious to get a better sense of who this unnamed group of sages were and how frequently they appeared in different generations. So I went through and tallied up the appearances of “Sages” responding to particular sages to see what we could learn both about this particular group, as well as to whom they responded (and whatever else we could learn about the Mishnah).
In my tally, of the 451 appearances in the Mishnah of “Sages”, 432 of them were responding to a specific sage (or, in some cases, two specific sages at once), so it was not typical for “Sages” to not appear in the Mishnah not responding to a specific sage (or sages) (only 4% of occurrences). Also, while most of the orders of the Mishnah had roughly 60-70 appearances of “Sages”, two stand out: Nashim (44) and Taharot (136), accounting for 9.8% and 30.2% of the appearances, respectively.
Top Four Garner Significant Attention
While the leader in garnering responses from “Sages” was clearly Rabbi Meir, with 125 of the responses (accounting for 27.8% of the responses to specific sages), there were also a few other sages who received a fair amount of responses: Rabbi Eliezer (65), Rabbi Akiva (50), and Rabbi Yehudah (49). These four rabbis account for the majority of the responses by “Sages” to specific rabbis in the Mishnah (64.1%). While Rabbi Meir led the way overall, Rabbi Eliezer received more responses in the orders of Zera’im and Mo’ed.
While there were 40 rabbis who received responses from “Sages”, 27 of them received fewer than five mentions. Here is a listing of the top ten most frequently responded-to sages of the Mishnah by “Sages”:
1 – Rabbi Meir – 125 (27.8%)
2 – Rabbi Eliezer – 65 (14.4%)
3 – Rabbi Akiva – 50 (11.1%)
4 – Rabbi Yehudah – 49 (10.9%)
5 – Rabbi Shimon – 23 (5.1%)
6 – Rabbi Yehoshua – 12 (2.7%)
7 – Rabbi – 10 (2.2%)
8 – Rabbi Yishma’el – 8 (1.8%)
T-9 – Rabban Gamali’el – 7 (1.6%)
T-9 – Rabbi Yosei – 7 (1.6%)
While it’s not surprising to see the generation of Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yosei in the top ten, as they are the most frequently-mentioned sages in the Mishnah overall, it is striking to see that despite the overwhelming frequency with which Rabbi Yehudah appears in the Mishnah, he is not in the top three here.
Moreover, Rabbi Meir noticeably has more than a quarter of the responses by “Sages” to him in the Mishnah, whereas he is the third-most frequently-mentioned sage in the Mishnah, resulting in 35.6% of his appearances in the Mishnah having a response to him by “Sages”. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer is the sixth most frequently-mentioned sage in the Mishnah, yet receives more than one-seventh of the responses by “Sages”, resulting in 19.3% of his appearances receiving a response by “Sages”.
Of course, something is to be said for Rabbi Akiva, as well, wherein 16.2% of his appearances receive a response from “Sages” (it’s, however, not as surprising that Rabbi Yehudah is in the top four, since he appears so much in the Mishnah, resulting in 7.6% of his appearances receiving a response from “Sages” to his statements).
The biggest surprise on this top ten is Rabbi, who doesn’t appear all that frequently in the Mishnah, yet 31.25% of his appearances in the Mishnah receive responses from “Sages”. (For the rest of the top ten, here are the percentages for how frequently they are responded to by “Sages”: Rabbi Shimon – 6.6%, Rabbi Yehoshua – 7.1%, Rabbi Yishma’el – 11.1%, Rabban Gamali’el – 7.6%, and Rabbi Yosei – 2.0%)
Similar to the methodological issues I pointed out with regards to my tallying-up of the sages in the Mishnah, this essay is not intended to be the definitive writing on this topic. I believe that these numbers should be taken as a first step in understanding the frequency of mentions of sages, as it was not a perfect system, which I mention for a few reasons. The first of these reasons is that I may have missed some documenting of occurrences of the sages the first time around, so it was an imperfect system to begin with, regarding the tallies. On top of that, in the course of my tallying up, I may have accidentally omitted a tally of a name here or there. Curiously, on my counting-up tallies for this writing, I came up with slightly different results: in my initial counting, Rabbi Yehudah had more responses by the Sages than did Rabbi Akiva, as well as numbers 8-11 on the list appeared differently (unfortunately, I do not have a record of that tallying, nor their numbers at the present moment, so I am preferring my recent count over my count from 2011). Finally, a third issue with this present set of data is that I did not delve into critical texts for the Mishnah, so there may be issues with some of the names counted (e.g. Rabbi Eliezer vs Rabbi Elazar). Again, this is not the final word on this data, rather, I see it as a first step towards understanding this data.
I’m not fully sure what to make of this data, although I do have a couple of tentative suggestions. The first of these is that this group is not given a particular name, as they are comprised of 2-3 or more different contemporaneous sages to the sage with whom they are disagreeing. So, since Rabbi Meir and, to some degree, Rabbi Eliezer disproportionately receive the bulk of responses from this unnamed group of Sages, it would stand to reason that it was commonly deployed amongst their colleagues. Since it was mainly used for Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah, along with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva (64.1% of all appearances of “Sages” (and, if we also include Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehoshua, then it would be 80% all appearances)), it seems it was mainly deployed in those generations, at least literarily in the Mishnah. This largely leaves out pre-destruction sages, as the Academies of Hillel and Shammai are mentioned many times in the Mishnah, yet Shammai’s Academy only receives one response in the entirety of the Mishnah by “Sages” (and Hillel’s Academy receives none).
Whatever the case may be, it is an intriguing literary convention in the Mishnah to use a generic term for one’s colleagues which gets deployed disproportionately against a handful of sages.