Are you being a nudnik in a good way?

It is important to challenge and respect the experts.

Throughout the tractate of Rosh Hashanah, we learn about the various moments in a year when we measure something, and we call them “new years.” There is a new year for kings when we measure how long they’ve been in power. There is a new year for trees when we measure how old they are and when our obligation to tithe kicks in.

Amidst the weeds of a discussion about the length of a grain, we get this outburst from Rabbi Yirmeya, otherwise known as the Rabbi Jeremy of the Talmud (​Rosh Hashanah 23a​):

Rabbi Yirmeya said to Rabbi Zeira: And the rabbis are able to establish the difference between a third of its growth and less than a third of the growth? Do they really have the accuracy?

Rabbi Zeira said to him: Don’t I always tell you, do not take yourself out from the limits of the halakhah?! All of the measures of the sages are like this, accurate and precise.

Rabbi Yirmeya asks a pretty reasonable, albeit challenging, question: Do we really know we can do the thing we claim to do? Do we really have the capacity to tell the minute difference when a piece of grain or produce crosses the threshold of “one-third of its growth?”

I’m not a farmer, I can barely keep plants alive, so I cannot answer this question. But I have to imagine those who are deeply rooted in the work of growing plants are very connected to their growth and can tell the difference.

Rabbi Zeira’s response makes sense in that context. Experts probably have this ability.

However, I’m left with one particularly unsettled question: Why did Rabbi Zeira respond in this way?

Rabbi Zeira’s response reveals that this is not the first time they have had similar such discussions. In fact, Rabbi Zeira is Rabbi Yirmeya’s teacher! (​Read more on Rabbi Yirmeya here.​)

​In another discussion​ in Bava Batra, Rabbi Yirmeya asks a detailed but potentially outrageous question, and the sages get so fed up with his questions that they kick him out of the study hall! In both cases, he ultimately backtracks a bit and order is restored.

In the first case, in Rosh Hashanah, after some mathematical footwork regarding mikvaot, Rabbi Yirmeya says, “What I said before amounts to nothing,” retracting his claim that the rabbis perhaps weren’t capable of measuring the length of grain to such a fine degree.

In the second, later in ​Bava Batra 165a​, he begins answering questions with, “I am not worthy of this question sent to me, but this is how your student (Rabbi Yirmeya himself) leans…” With his contrition complete, they restore him to the study hall.

I think there are two important lessons and a reflection here.

We should challenge the claims of the people in power. In this case, it was the rabbis. So many times, we take for granted that the rabbis know what they are talking about, especially in these discussions about minutiae. But they, too, are human beings, and we should stop to ask ourselves, is this really possible?

We can do this in kind and understanding ways. We can and should push back on those who would be our teachers or authorities when it is appropriate. What if the rabbis were just blustering? What if they were claiming something that they couldn’t really do? We should know that.

Rabbi Yirmeya voices what so many of us think when we read the rabbis. Could they really do that?

We should trust experts. The flip side of challenging authority is also true. Authorities and experts come into their roles for good reason. Presuming that they cannot do their jobs is annoying, for lack of a better way of putting it.

This is particularly true when there are age and gender dynamics at play when authorities and experts are denigrated due to how they appear to others.

I don’t like how Rabbi Yirmeya was treated. As I reflect on my own tendencies, highlighted here by another Jeremy, if you will, I have often found myself in his shoes. We have no indication in this vignette that he’s done anything wrong, and yet, he’s immediately yelled at.

It is only with the broader context of other stories that we get a sense that he can be a thorn in people’s side by asking a lot of challenging questions. The fact that they more-or-less forced his contrition and humility to get back into the good graces of the sages leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

There is a delicate balance between the kinds of challenges we can offer that are productive and growth-oriented and the kinds of pushback that tear down and stop growth. We should be aware of how we present these, while also giving the benefit of the doubt when others present the same. Who knows what kinds of wisdom we could learn if we were open to an uncomfortable or off-the-wall challenge?

In the end, I generally enjoy this story, identifying most with my fellow Jeremy and his difficult questions. He can be a bit of a ​nudnik​, but I think his heart is in the right place.

We shouldn’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and to challenge authority. We also should recognize when we’ve crossed the line or our bias has limited our thinking.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.