Initial Considerations on the מסובין Incidents in the Tosefta

There is a curious story in the Passover Haggadah that I wanted to explore:

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶׁהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי־בְרַק וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל־אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה, עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם רַבּוֹתֵינוּ הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית

The incident of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon, who were symposing in B’nei Brak: they were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt that whole night until their students came and said to them, “The time of reading the morning shema has arrived.”

While the story itself seems to merit no special attention, I am rather curious about these symposing (מסובין)[1] incidents[2] in rabbinic literature.

There is a lot to explore about symposing in rabbinic literature, but one has to start somewhere. For this first foray, I am cursorily venturing into the מסובין incidents in the Tosefta. There is more to symposing in the Tosefta than simply the handful of incidents that are mentioned in this body of literature, which I hope to explore in future posts. Moreover, I hope to deepen my study of these incidents, including further references to secondary literature, so this is to be considered an initial essay on this matter.

In the Tosefta, there are four incidents of מסובין, all of which refer to very specific incidents. They are presented here:

1: A Holiday in Rome (Yom Tov 2.12)[3]

מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין ברומי ונפלה מנורה בלילי יום טוב ועמד רבי עקיבה וזקפה

אמר ליה רבן גמליאל עקיבה מה לך [שאתה] מכניס ראשך בין המחלוקת

אמר לו [רבי למדתנו] אחרי רבים להטות אף על פי שאתה אוסר והן מתירין הלכה כדברי המרובין


The incident with Rabban Gamaliel and the elders when they were symposing in Rome: a menorah fell on a holiday night and Rabbi Akiva stood up and straightened it.

Rabban Gamaliel said to him, “Akiva, why are you entering your head into this dispute?”

He said to him, “My master, you have taught us ‘to lean after the majority’ (Ex. 23.2) – even though you forbid [doing this], they permit. The way is like the many.”


2: Dates in Jericho (Berakhot 4.15)[4]

מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין ביריחו הביאו לפניהם כותבות ואכלום ונתן רבן גמליאל רשות לברך

קפץ רבי עקיבה וברך ברכה אחת מעין שלש

אמר לו רבן גמליאל עקיבה מה לך אתה מכניס ראשך בין המחלוקת

אמר לו למדתנו רבינו אחרי רבים להטות אף על פי שאתה אומר כך וחביריך אומרים כך הלכה כדברי המרובין

The incident of Rabban Gamaliel and the elders when they were symposing in Jericho: They brought dates before them and Rabban Gamaliel gave them permission to bless.

Rabbi Akiva jumped and blessed a single blessing that summarized three.

Rabban Gamaliel said to him, “Akiva, why are you entering your head amidst this dispute?”

He said to him, “You have taught us, our master, ‘to lean after the majority’ (Ex. 23.2) – even though you have said such, but your colleagues said such [as I did]; and the halakhah goes according to the masses.”


3: All-Nighter Seder (Pisha 10.12)[5]

מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין בבית ביתוס בן זונין בלוד והיו עסוקין בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה עד קרות הגבר

הגביהו מלפניהם ונועדו והלכו להן לבית המדרש

The incident of Rabban Gamaliel and the elders when they were symposing in Boethus, son of Zonin’s house in Lod: They were engaged with the laws of the Paschal offering all night until the rooster’s crowing.

They lifted up from in front of them, they were informed, and they went to the expounding house.


4: Friday Afternoon Symposium (Berakhot 5.2)[6]

מעשה ברבן שמעון בן גמליאל ורבי יהודה ורבי יוסה שהיו מסובין בעכו וקדש עליהן היום

אמר לו רבן שמעון בן גמליאל לרבי יוסי ברבי רצונך נפסיק לשבת

אמר לו בכל יום אתה מחבב דברי בפני יהודה ועכשיו אתה מחבב דברי יהודה בפני הגם לכבוש את המלכה עמי בבית

אמר לו אם כן לא נפסיק שמא תקבע הלכה לדורות

אמרו לא זזו משם עד שקבעו הלכה כרבי יוסי

The incident with Rabban Shimon, son of Gamaliel, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Yose when they were symposing in Akko: The day became sanctified [as Shabbat was beginning].

Rabbi Shimon, son of Gamaliel, said to Rabbi Yose, “My master, if it is your will, should we interrupt for Shabbat?”

He said to him, “Every day, my words are fonder to you than Yehudah’s words, but now, you are fonder of Yehudah’s words than mine? ‘Will he even force the queen even in front of me in my own house?’ (Est. 7:8).”

He said to him, “If so, we should not interrupt, lest you establish the law for generations.”

They said, “They did not move from there until they established the law like Rabbi Yose.”


There is a lot to process about these texts, but the very first striking similarity is the opening formula, in which we are informed of the participants in these rabbinic symposia and that they all took place in very specific cities. Here is a chart:


Location House? What were they doing With whom Who Incident
ביריחו שהיו מסובין וזקנים ברבן גמליאל מעשה
ברומי שהיו מסובין וזקנים ברבן גמליאל מעשה
בלוד בבית ביתוס בן זונין שהיו מסובין וזקנים ברבן גמליאל מעשה
בעכו שהיו מסובין ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסה ברבן שמעון בן גמליאל מעשה


While it’s not immediately clear why the city needs to be specified of these rabbinic symposia, it does strike the audience as being unnecessarily specific. Could it be because it happened quite infrequently? Could it have been some sort of tour that the Nasi took in different towns throughout Israel?


It also seems very limited to the Nasi, as we see three of these incidents with Rabban Gamaliel, and one with his son. Moreover, “that many of these narratives are associated with the Patriarch may suggest that the convivium’s struggle of authority is very much tied to the unique figure of the Nasi, with the tension he represents between politics and scholarship and his clear embodiment of the Roman character.”[7] Is it because these rabbinic symposia were infrequent amongst those not associated with the nasi? Is it because they were actually quite frequent, yet rarely significant to halakhic discussions? There are many possibilities, but we have limited data as to why these instances are included in the Tosefta and not others.


In addition to considering who attended these symposia, it is also of interest to consider the temporal aspects, yielding another matrix, in which we consider “The 5 Ws” (minus the “Why?”):


Who? What? When? Where?
Rabban Gamaliel and the elders Symposing ? Jericho
Rabban Gamaliel and the elders Symposing Holiday night Rome
Rabban Gamaliel and the elders Symposing Night of Passover Seder[8] Lod (at the house of Boethus, son of Zonin)
Rabbi Shimon, son of Gamaliel, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Yehudah Symposing Friday afternoon Akko


The first two incidents are strikingly similar in featuring Rabbi Akiva performing an action against Rabban Gamaliel’s opinion in front of him, eliciting Rabban Gamaliel’s shock, with Rabbi Akiva getting the last word of following an overarching opinion of Rabban Gamaliel’s to follow the majority. In these two instances, strikingly, Rabbi Akiva decides to follow the majority, as Rabban Gamaliel’s opinion is a minority opinion in both of these cases.  Although it is unclear whether Rabbi Akiva said this blessing “for everybody or just for himself,”[9] it nevertheless rankled Rabban Gamaliel.

In the aforementioned two cases, Rabban Gamaliel’s opinion is presented, followed by these two instances which occurred at these symposia. Similarly, the two other cases are also introduced with a text. The Lod incident at Boethus, son of Zonin’s house follows a Toseftan statement of obligation of Jews to endeavor in the laws of Passover all night long (Pisha 10.11), with our incident illustrating that one can really be so deeply engaged in the various laws of it throughout the night that it takes one to daybreak.[10]

The incident concerning Rabban Shimon, son of Gamaliel, follows the opening text in the Tosefta, in which we see a duo of disagreements between Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Yehudah concerning stopping one’s meal on a Shabbat eve (Berakhot 5.1), with our incident showcasing a particular moment when those opinions came to a head.

Although it is possible that, since Rabbi Yehudah was there, “it must be that they began their meal on Friday morning and continued eating the whole day”,[11] in accordance with Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion, it may also be possible that they began their symposing in the afternoon, in accordance with Rabbi Yose’s opinion, since Rabban Shimon, son of Gamaliel, would typically choose Rabbi Yose’s opinions over Rabbi Yehudah’s opinions. What may be occurring with this incident is that Rabbi Yose believed “that the dining of the convivium should not be interrupted because of this special occasion, and that the eating could continue past the beginning of the Sabbath, and until nightfall. This halakhah appears, therefore, to be primarily interested in reconciling the ritual system of the convivium with that of a Jewish sacred day.”[12]

Here’s a fascinating description of the incident:

The account then brought by the Tosefta dramatizes the event discussed in the first halakhah by placing Judah and Yose at a dinner, which takes place on the eve of the Sabbath. The word “reclining” used here indicates that the event mentioned is a convivium-style banquet. Also present at this convivium, perhaps as the guest of honor, is Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel II, who represents a high level of political and religious rabbinic leadership. The fact that the banqueters in the convivium are engaged in eating when the Sabbath begins implies that Judah’s ruling from the preceding halakhah is not accepted, and that Simeon (and maybe other sages in this gathering) follows Yose’s opinion. However, it appears that Judah and Yose disagree about another issue, which sets the flow of the convivium over and against the marking of the Sabbath. This disagreement has to do with taking a break from dinner at the moment the Sabbath begins in order to recite the blessing on the sanctity of the day. Unlike R. Judah, R. Yose believes that dinner should not be interrupted at this point, and that the necessary blessings should be recited after the guests have finished eating, supposedly at nightfall. This is consistent with what we already know of Yose: he gives great importance to the rules of the convivium and wants to preserve its structure as much as possible. Simeon, who has apparently followed Yose’s ruling up until that point, now sides with Judah and asks Yose whether he wishes the group to stop eating for the purpose of blessing. The question is directed at Yose, probably because he is understood to be the host of this convivium and so the one who determines the procedures; nevertheless, this gesture of convivial respect reveals the fact that Simeon rejects his host’s halakhic view in favor of his rival’s.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that Yose flies into a rage. His objection is twofold: first, he evokes rabbinic hierarchy and alliance, attacking Simeon’s break with what has, so far, been a consistent Patriarchal sanctioning of Yose’s halakhic stands and standing. Nevertheless, this argument is obviously not enough and, presumably, would not have been sufficient to alter Simeon’s view had the debate taken place elsewhere. Yose, therefore, proceeds to his second argument. He evokes the convivium’s rules of hospitality and honor, blaming Simeon for disrespecting him in his own house. For this purpose, he turns to the most convivial of biblical books, Esther, in which he finds a proof-text for the proper etiquette of hospitality at a banquet, and the relevant language of sympotic accusation.[13]

As to how the blessings may have factored in:

According to Lieberman, Judah’s opinion is that eating should stop once the Sabbath begins in order to allow for the appropriate blessing of sanctification to be recited, and then resumed until the culminating blessing for the food. It should be noted that this disagreement about blessings is not explicit in the text; in fact, the placement of our story immediately after the first halakhah, which revolves around the issue of hunger, gives the impression, at first, that the convivium account continues this discussion. However, since Judah’s opinion in this account is not the one expressed in the preceding halakhah (there, he would have liked the eating to stop before the Sabbath rather than when the Sabbath begins), the object of this discussion is clearly different, as Lieberman suggests.[14]

The curious aspect of Rabbi Yose quoting from the book of Esther yields a “toseftan mise-en-abîme, where a banquet scene appears within a banquet scene, Yose in the role of host and king (whose halakhah is perhaps the assaulted queen) defeats Simeon in the role of Haman. In fact, Simeon seems so convinced or, alternatively, distressed by this accusation that he promises not only to embrace his host’s opinion but also to consciously perform what is required according to this opinion so as to make it an official legal precedent.”[15]

A fascinating difference between the symposing incidents concerning Rabban Gamaliel versus his son is that his son changes his mind, as opposed to the incidents involving Rabban Gamaliel, in which he holds to his opinion:

Simeon went so far as to alter his initial view and subject it to the rules of the convivium. The basis of his halakhic decision was not the religious reason of blessings and Sabbath observance but rather the etiquette of honor at the banquet. The boldness of this move is striking. While most of tBer 5 is interested in halakhically determining the structure of the convivium, our story demonstrates that the reverse can also apply – the convivium may at times determine the structure of halakhah. In this sense, Schwartz’s convincing claim that the rabbis tended to use the conventions of the symposium or convivium to subvert the Roman code of honor and replace it with the honor of the Torah and its sages could, however, be restricted to cases in which rabbis are at a banquet with others.[16]

While there is much more to consider regarding these rabbinic symposia, these four instances in the Tosefta bring some interesting ideas to the table, and it will be exciting to consider more.


[1] While הסיבה is understood as “reclining” by the amoraim [and beyond] (cf. “mesubin”, Balashon – Hebrew Language Detective (13 April 2008) []), it seems that מסובין in tannaitic literature points to being translated as “symposing” not just due to their close homophonous relationship, but also the primary chorographical aspect of symposia was the reclining.

[2] While I need to explore further the “מעשה ש… – The incident in which…” tannaitic formula, it seems that these tannaitic stories are pointing to a very particular incident rather than “It happened that” – a mere something happening. The rhetorical specificity is seeming to point the audience towards paying attention to this particular issue that occurred.

[3] Ed. Lieberman, Moed, 289.

[4] Ed. Lieberman, Zeraim, 21-22.

[5] Ed. Lieberman, Moed, 198.

[6] Ed. Lieberman, Zeraim, 25-26.

[7] Gil P. Klein, “Torah in Triclinia: The Rabbinic Banquet and the Significance of Architecture”, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 102, no. 3 (Summer 2012), 334, n. 25.

[8] While not specifically stated as having taken place on the first night of Passover, it would seem from a literary context that this incident occurred as such. However, taking the text out of its literary context would yield simply an all-night symposium of these sages discussing the laws of the Paschal offering at some random night, which is quite possible (and the incident was used to illustrate the lengths to which one can fully engage in these laws on the first night of Passover).

[9] Eliyahu Gurevich, Tosefta Berachot: Translated into English with a commentary (Las Vegas, NV: Tosefta Online, 2010), 191, n.6.

[10] While this text is strikingly similar to what appears in our Haggadah, what is noticeably different is that the Tosefta concerns itself with engaging with legal aspects, whereas the text in our Haggadah is concerned with story-telling and midrashic endeavors, perhaps making it more broadly accessible to the Jewish people (as pointed out to me by Rabbi Dov Linzer, 19 March 2018).

[11] Gurevich, Tosefta Berachot, 219.

[12] Klein, “Torah in Triclinia”, 337.

[13] Klein, “Torah in Triclinia”, 337-338.

[14] Klein, “Torah in Triclinia”, 338, n. 41.

[15] Klein, “Torah in Triclinia”, 339.

[16] Klein, “Torah in Triclinia”, 339.

Originally posted at Textual Insights

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top