How does one measure greatness in Torah learning? We can glean an important insight from the Talmudic discussion regarding the status of gittin in Bavel. As we have discussed in our prior posts the Mishna requires that those who bring a get from outside the land of Israel must say “before me it was written and before me it was signed”. This was needed as testimony that the get was written lishma something that could not be assured for foreign written gittin.
While this may have held true during the Mishnaic period by the time Mishna was edited and the Amoratic period began (around the year 220 CE) the centre of learning was quickly shifting from Israel to Bavel. Two of Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi’s top students, Rav and Shmuel set up the Torah centres of Sura and Nehardea and they can be credited for turning Bavel into the preeminent centre of Torah learning, a position it would hold for some 800 years. Rav and Shmuel themselves already debate whether there remained any need for one bringing a get from Bavel to assert a get be written lishma. Within a couple generations the debate seemed over; Rav Evyatar sent a message to Rav Chisda that “gittin that come from there [Bavel] to here [Israel] [the one bringing them] has no need to say before me it was written and before me it was signed” (Gitttin 6b) and no dissenting opinion is recorded.
Instead of debating the issue at hand Rav Yosef questions whether Rav Evyatar is expert enough that we can rely on his assertion. As proof of his “non-reliability” he notes that Rav Evyatar sent a note to Rav Yehuda in which he quoted a Biblical verse and that verse was written without sirtut. Sirtut is the requirement when writing a sefer Torah, mezuzah (and even a get) for the sofer to etch lines in the parchment making the writing of the text both easier and neater. How, Rav Yosef argues, can we rely on Rav Evyatar if he is ignorant of the need for sirtut?
Surely not coincidentally, the verse which Rav Evyatar neglected to apply sir tut to speaks of the relationship between Bavel and Israel. “Jews who come from there [Babylon] to here [Eretz Israel] fulfil in their own persons the words of the Scripture: ‘They have given a boy for a harlot and sold a girl for wine and have drunk’” (Yoel 4:3). As Rashi and the Tosafists explain Rav Evyatar was criticizing the practice of married men going to study Torah in the land of Israel leaving their wives behind in Bavel. In addition to neglecting their families - and their obligation to have and raise children - they often left their families at or near poverty. This often forced children to work to support the family and even to women to engage in prostitution. Not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from leads to terrible yet understandable and predictable results.
It is noteworthy that Rav Evyatar sent this note to Rav Yehuda as it was the latter who taught that “those who leave Bavel to travel to Israel violate a positive command” (Ketubot 110b). Whether such a message was written with or without sirtut seems almost superfluous. And presumably Rav Yosef even agrees with such. However, he questioned the scholarship of Rav Evyatar disqualifying him from being the one to initiate change in the laws of divorce.
Abaya addressing the issues of sirtut responds to Rav Yosef by asking “is whoever does not know this rule of Rav Isaac [about the need for sirtut] not a great scholar? I understand [how you can say one is not scholar] if its based on logical deduction, but this is tradition and he had not heard of the tradition (Gittin 6b)”.
What makes a great scholar is not the amount of knowledge they posses. No one can know everything. Rather it is the ability to make logical inferences, to analyze, infer and most importantly to think and apply that knowledge that is the mark of a great scholar. If such was true in the time of the Talmud how much more so is it true today. Unlike in the ancient world (which in this case includes most of the 20th century) almost the entire gamut of human knowledge is available with the click of the button. As access to knowledge increases the need to memorize that knowledge decreases.
We are the most knowledgeable generation in history - and that includes the unprecedented levels of widespread Torah knowledge - yet we lack much wisdom and much greatness. One can be a great Jewish rabbinic leader even when there are gaps in their knowledge. But one cannot be a great leader without wisdom. And sadly there is often little correlation between the two. “A Torah scholar who lacks wisdom an animal carcass is better than he" (Vayikra Raba, 1).”
Rav Evyatar may have never heard of the law of sirtut but such has little bearing on his status as a great authority in Jewish law in general. To back up this assertion the Talmud quotes a “meeting” between Rav Evyatar and Eliyahu who informs Rav Evyatar that G-d Himself was learning and asserting the correctness of the view of Rav Evayatar.
 In a similar vein the Gemara explains that constant flow of traffic between Bavel and Israel meant there was no longer a fear that signatures on a get could not be validated. This point had also been subject to an earlier dispute between Rav and Shmuel with the latter maintaining that the irregular traffic meant one bringing a get had to say “before me it was written and before me it was signed” preventing any claims of forged signatures.