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Thought for the Day: Machlokes Means Building Consensus, Not Argument

The old joke is, "How does a talmud scholar scratch his left ear?"  It's a visual joke, so you now have to imagine extending one's right arm over his head and scratching the left ear with the right hand.  Ha ha ha.

The root cause of jokes like this is, of course, that anyone reading the gemara sees nothing but a mish mash of disconnected thoughts.  Classic example near the end of Bava Kama.  The topic is clarifying the intent of the Torah in requiring a thief to return the stolen property.  The mishna on 103a clearly states that the thief has fulfilled his obligation as along as his victim forgives the loss (not just the crime, but actually tells the thief that he needn't return the stolen goods nor their value).  The mishna on 108b, however, clearly says that the thief must get the stolen goods out of his pocket -- even if the victim has died and the thief is the sole heir, as discussed previously.  Both of those mishnayos are "stam" -- stated anonymously.  Pretty clear contradiction, but no suspects as to who holds these contrary opinions, nor why.

The gemara finally finds source that discusses the issue on 109a, the case of gezel ha'ger; as discussed here.  To refresh your memory, in that case the ger converts the theft to a loan, then the ger dies.  In that case R' Yosi haG'lili says the case may be put to rest; R' Akiva says it's not over till the thief gets the property (or its value) out of his hands.

R' Yochanon says, "Great!  The mishna on 103b is R' Yossi haG'lili, the mishna on 108b is R' Akiva."  R' Sheishes, however, says, "No way!  Both mishnayos are R' Yosi haG'lili."  Rava (not to be outdone, it seems) says, "Umm... no.  Both mishnayos are R' Akiva."  Wow... one case, six opinions!?

Yes and no.  We clearly have a difference of opinion between R' Yosi haG'lili and R' Akiva; as demonstrated by our gezel ha'ger case.  Chazal, however, all state things is the most succinct manner possible.  By delving into the matter, two factors not readily apparent have surfaced.  One, the two mishnayos have a subtle difference; on 103b the forgiveness is between victim and thief, whereas on 108b the forgiveness is only between the thief and himself.  Second, the case of gezel ha'ger added the strange twist of converting the theft to a loan.  Obviously that was not just done for dramatic effect, it was introduced to reveal a new factor that has halachik consequences.

The gemara then goes on (using a nice amount of prime real estate) to show just how far one can push the boundary of agreement and in how many directions.  When a real boundary is found, the reasons and arguments are explored and digested until all is understood.  At the end, one is left with several factors -- all important and true -- contributing to the final decision.  Not unlike (thank you, Rob) deciding what bracha to make on a chocolate covered raisin.  Both the chocolate and the raisin are important, but you can only make one bracha.  The machlokes is not "argument", but "clarifying and distinguishing the relevant factors".

So besides all the other benefits of learning gemara, one learns to look past the surface, understand different points of view, and build a conclusion on consensus.

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